WHAT happens when a relatively unknown professor at Harvard Divinity School is invited by a US Secretary of State to establish and direct a well-resourced government Office of Religion and Global Affairs located in Washington, DC (in the oddly named Foggy Bottom district)?
This extraordinary book gives a unique, first-hand answer. It was Senator John Kerry who approached the theologian Shaun Casey to do so. For four years (2013-17), Casey ran this office until, predictably, President Trump closed it down, and, now, President Biden has dithered about restoring it. Somewhat akin to the £8.3-million funding by the British Government through research councils of the Religion and Society Research Programme in 2007 — but much better funded than that, and located directly within government — both projects responded to a plea for better, research-led, advice, addressing widespread concern about a global rise in religious activism and conflict. A decline in religious literacy among politicians and civil servants had left them unable to understand this rise (most notably the British Embassy staff in Iran in 1979), as Casey explains:
“American embassies usually lack interpretative capacity on religions. The average Foreign Service officer I met in an embassy was multilingual, had lived in multiple countries, understood multiple cultures, was inquisitive, was well educated. . . But often when it came to religion, these officers were reticent, even fearful of the subject, and certainly not professionally rewarded for acquiring expert knowledge on the subject.”
Casey saw his task as threefold: to advise the Secretary of State and his staff; to equip embassy staff better; and to explore wider forms of collaboration and connection. From his own account, it does appear that he did this shrewdly and diplomatically across an enormous number of countries, religions, and cultures (perhaps too many). He rejected some of the monocausal policies in place at the time — for example, the simplistic proposal for US government officials to write an eirenic imam-training-manual, to reduce Islamic extremist violence — arguing that only a highly nuanced account of local religious practice and beliefs, arising from the people involved and not imposed by the US, would be effective.
Early in this book, Casey gives a long account of his own background. He was born in a small rural town in Missouri, raised in the “sectarian” Churches of Christ, and then educated at Abilene Christian University in Texas, before going to Harvard and encountering critical scholarship. Yet he is very conscious that little of this prepared him for the new political part that he had to play.
In the chapters that follow, he sets out how he investigated, with the help of many other experts, religious conflict around the globe — for instance, in Cuba, Nigeria, Latin America, the Middle East, Ukraine, China, and Russia. His energy is impressive, and his observations are generally wise (albeit sometimes garrulous).
Yet, did it work? He, rightly, expresses exasperation when asked by critics how many lives he saved. Who, even in war zones, can really answer that, least of all his “devilish” critics? Yet, advice, even expert advice, is advice, and, if those in power ignore or reject that advice, then it remains advice, not action. In a much more minor way, I discovered this for myself when invited to establish and chair an Archbishop of Canterbury’s Medical Ethics Advisory Committee at Lambeth Palace for 13 years, before it, too, was disbanded 15 years ago. As theologians, one of our roles is to advise for a while, when given an opportunity, to the best of our abilities.
That is exactly what Shaun Casey did and, seemingly, did well.
Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.
Chasing the Devil at Foggy Bottom: The future of religion in American diplomacy
Shaun A. Casey
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