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Considering John Kerry’s New Faith-Based Office

When the State Department announced its new office for religious engagement last week, Secretary John Kerry promised that the “separation of church and state” would be preserved. But Salon writer Austin Dacey questioned that statement Sunday:

“Constitutional or not, official interfacing with ‘faith-based organizations’ will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as ‘religions’ and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.”

How much can the state interact with various faith groups without violating the Establishment Clause? Different commentators have contributed to this discussion over the past week. Some said the project will give state officials needed insight into other nations’ religious policies. While the U.S. has always enforced religious/political separation, other states have linked them indelibly. “The U.S. model works in the U.S. because it is a long-established part of the country’s culture, history, and constitution,” wrote Linda Woodhead at Religion Dispatches on Sunday. “Obviously, this is not the case in other countries. Here in the U.K., for example, religious freedom needs to be advanced by going with the grain of existing arrangements, rather than by attempting to start again.”

In their bookReligion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, authors Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson write that“Foreign policy practitioners in the United States … are often inadequately equipped to deal with situations involving other nation-states where their imperatives of religious doctrine blend intimately with those of politics and economics. At times, this has led to uninformed policy choices, particularly in our dealings with countries of the Middle East.” This view seems relevant when considering recent diplomatic difficulties with Egypt, as well as Syria.

Some authors spoke favorably of the attention this initiative will bring to humanitarian crises and religious persecution: “As important leaders of society, builders of social capital, and trusted community figureheads, outreach to religious actors and institutions needs to become a routinized part of U.S. diplomacy across all regional and functional domains,” wrote Peter Mandaville at the Brookings Institution. “Whether we are talking about stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing prosperity to Africa, or achieving democracy in the Arab world, a focus on religion and religious actors needs to be front and center in our diplomacy and development work.”

Is it indeed the State Department’s role to stabilize Afghanistan, bring prosperity to Africa, and “achieve democracy” in the Arab world? How can it achieve such a broad transformation through dialogue with religious leaders who – it must be acknowledged – often disagree, even to the point of violence? Such a political effort may necessitate the sort of government endorsement that Dacey cautioned against.

The U.S. has a long tradition of state/religion separation. We believe the government should not play favorites with various religions or denominations. There is danger that this initiative will encourage such favoritism, despite Kerry’s assertion that it will help religious people “unify for the greater good … without crossing any [Constitutional] lines whatsoever.” In actual practice, one fears that “crossing lines” may be an all-too-easy temptation.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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