On August 18th, 2013, Shaun Casey, professor of Christian Ethics working for the State Department, announced a new office that will “…focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen US development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values.”
The originally proposition was to open “The Office of non-governmental engagement and partnerships” – a department intended to focus on a variety of cultural groups, worldviews, and beliefs. Originally it was suggested that a focus on just religious groups was too narrow. However, under the direction of religious moralists such as Shawn Casey, the project became focused specifically on interactions with religious groups.
In his recent article from Religious Dispatches, “State Department to open an office of Religious Engagement,” writer Austin Dacey, cites the rationale for opening the department:
“Understanding religion is imperative to understanding local civil society. Gallop polls show us that four out of five people on the planet believe in something greater than themselves, often viewing all sectors of life through the prism of faith. Religious faith and adherence is often a source of conflict and contributes to global instability and undermines long term US interests. However those same forces of faith contribute much good to civil society, and when properly engaged can promote human progress and peaceful co-existence on a global scale.”
More and more when religious beliefs are brought into the public limelight, the people chosen to represent such beliefs tend to be the charismatic leaders of mega-churches, popular-level authors, and hosts of media organizations such as Oprah.
Such people rarely deal with the deeper, core doctrines of the system they represent, but often focus on obtainment of the superficial “good feelings” that such religions pay lip-service to. And no wonder. While the public may be willing to tolerate a “love everybody indiscriminately” message, they are increasingly dubious of the underlying doctrines that drive religious behavior. To put a diplomatic face on religion that sells the lie that religions are basically about nothing but tolerance and good will is fair neither to the public nor the religions being misrepresented.
The cold, hard truth is that large portions of the religious community do take hardline moral stances on unpopular positions such as banning gay marriage and abortion. Moreover, there is a very good reason that members of the same religion may have deep disagreements over core values, that being that individuals within that religion have the freedom to think and make value choices for themselves. Were this not true, religions truly would be the brain-washing institutions that many see them to be.
A truly democratic institution would give such belief systems the right to state their case and vote their conscience like every other citizen. A truly diplomatic approach to these religious groups would represent their rationale for such beliefs rather than glossing over them for a less substantial and more publically appealing message. However, as Austin Dacey rightly points out:
“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 spokesmen for these communities …Often it’s precisely the dissidents, the doubters, the non-traditional believers who are the most in-need of recognition, and who often offer the most-needed perspectives on peace, the rule of law, and minority rights within their societies.
“When the US government bestows high-level diplomatic attention, instead, on select –typically male, adult, and non-democratically appointed spokespersons – it aids them in consolidating their own power and authority within their communities.”
While it is a controversial phrase, the so-called “separation of church and state” is intended for the protection of both institutions from one another. When the state and the church have mixed historically, it has resulted in an officiating of religious belief that is then mandated for every participant within that community. The religion and the government become one and the same, and those who differ from the official stance in their beliefs are something worse than overlooked: they are outlawed.
Bestowing a diplomatic status on religious institutions places them in a category separate from the citizenry. No longer can religious people claim to be thoughtful individuals who act and vote from their consciences; they are now a separate culture that must be studied and negotiated with.
This is a troubling acknowledgement of what religious institutions have been claiming for decades; that secularism is the new state religion. Secular values, thoughts, and beliefs drive government actions and law-making and such beliefs are implicitly or explicitly forced upon people who reject these values. Now that non-superficial religion no longer drives social values, it has become a troublesome minority group. Through diplomatic means, the government seems to wish to negotiate their way free of moral entanglements that religions entail.