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Why We #EngageAmerica and the World on Religion and Foreign Policy

The State Department has long recognized the importance of active engagement with nearly every sector of society in its foreign engagement and policymaking[...]

The below post was cross-posted on the U.S. Department of State blog. See the original post here.

Special Representative Shaun Casey, center, stands with the Greek Orthodox Christian Archbishop Chrysostomos, left, and Muslim Grand Mufti Talip Atalay, right, after their talks with the Christian and Muslim leaders in Cyprus on March 8, 2016.

The State Department has long recognized the importance of active engagement with nearly every sector of society in its foreign engagement and policymaking, particularly as global challenges increasingly impact communities at the local level. Given the fact that approximately 80 percent of people around the world identify with a religious tradition, it has become more and more apparent that diplomats must understand how religion is expressed in daily life in societies around the world. 

That is why over the past two years, the U.S. Department of State has increased its capacity to engage religious actors, leaders, and communities --recognizing that bringing religious groups into the conversation can, and does, improve U.S. foreign policy. The Department created the Office of Religion and Global Affairs to advise the Secretary on policy matters as they relate to religion and serves as the primary point of entry for those, both religious and secular, who would like to engage the State Department on matters of religion and global affairs.

Of course, our country has a long and proud tradition of a formal separation of religion and state. The State Department does not advocate on behalf of any particular set of religious beliefs -- or even for religious belief over non-belief. But at the same time we must always address religious dynamics and engage religious actors where they are relevant to U.S. foreign policy.

It’s clear that religion is relevant to global affairs in big, small, and even unexpected ways. For example, in the past week, representatives from religious advocacy groups, both from the United States and around the world, supported the historic signing of the Paris Agreement in New York on Earth Day. Over the past few years we have seen heads of religious traditions raise concerns about racial discrimination and xenophobia in the United States that reverberates in communities overseas, and discuss prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Religion experts have also debated the interplay between religion and extremism. And religious leaders are partnering with government officials and civil society representatives to expand their capacity to respond to and prepare for natural disasters. 

I am pleased that Secretary Kerry focused on the intersection of religion and foreign policy in his speech at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston on April 26, as a part of the State Department’s #EngageAmerica public outreach initiative.

In order to enrich the U.S. foreign policymaking process, it is critical that we draw on the knowledge and expertise of religious scholars, leaders, practitioners, activists, representatives from civil society, and the rank and file to understand the nuances and complexities of religion in context around the world. Religion remains deeply consequential, affecting the values, actions, and world views of people in every walk of life and on every continent. As Secretary Kerry said, we engage with religious actors because if we “ignore the global impact of religion, [we do so] at our peril.”

About the Author: Shaun Casey serves as the Special Representative for Secretary Kerry’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State