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Senior Fellow Chris Seiple joins Georgetown University working group in advising State Department on Engaging Religious Actors

August 29, 2018


Randy Thompson

As the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo considers how to re-arrange his Department’s handling of religion, IPI-Religion Fellow Chris Seiple joined 11 other senior scholars and foreign policy practitioners in issuing a white paper with their recommendations on that process. The working group also included Katherine Marshall (Executive Director, Word Faiths Development Dialogue & Senior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs), Peter Mandaville (Professor of International Affairs, George Mason University and former Senior Advisor, Office of Religion and Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State), and Judd Birdsall (Managing Director, Cambridge Institute for Religion and International Studies, University of Cambridge & former Foreign Affairs Officer, Office of International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State). Prior to joining the Jackson School, Seiple formed part of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s religion and foreign policy working group, whose recommendations led to the creation of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs in 2013.

Full-text of the white paper:


Statement and Recommendations

July 2018

With more than 80 percent of people around the world claiming a religious identity and clear evidence that secularization failed to materialize globally, foreign policy professionals must be prepared to work in a world where religion impacts the lives of citizens on a daily basis, socially, economically, and politically. America’s global engagement involves state and society actors, taking place within the private sector, non-profit sector, and all agencies of government. If our efforts are to be successful, our diplomats must understand religious dynamics and know how to engage religious actors effectively in support of U.S. national interests around the world. Until recently, our foreign policy apparatus has focused on religion largely in the spaces of religious freedom advocacy and counterterrorism. To adequately support these and other priorities in which religious dynamics play a role, more work is needed to improve our diplomats’ ability to leverage key partnerships and inform policy.

The U.S. Government’s institutional capacity to engage the crucial nexus of religion and international affairs began with the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998. A bipartisan, multi-faith movement led to the almost unanimous passage of IRFA, which mandated both the incorporation of international religious freedom promotion in U.S. foreign policy and for the first time instituted training programs for American foreign service officers on “the nature, activities, and beliefs of different religions” in the world. This capacity grew further in 2013 when with support from civil society and a growing demand for deeper understanding and broader engagement of religion among policy professionals, the Department of State established the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA). RGA was the latest addition to the family of federal offices focused on faith-based initiatives, which began with President George W. Bush’s creation of the White House faith-based office in 2001. RGA was created to advise and train our diplomats on how best to understand religious dynamics and engage religious actors in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives. The office thus emerged from a critical understanding of the role of religion as a national strategic issue that requires understanding, education, and engagement.

Properly understood, RGA complements the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF), the State Department unit created by IRFA. The IRF office operates with a knowledge base and skill set tailored to its dual mission: (1) to understand the nature and significance of global violations of religious freedom, and (2) to advance religious freedom as an internationally recognized human right and as an American value whose promotion serves U.S. interests. The IRF office can most efficiently and effectively advance its agenda—one that many IRF advocates outside government feel has not been sufficiently prioritized by recent US administrations—when it is able to dedicate maximum bandwidth and resources to its specific mission. Hence the importance of having a separate capacity in RGA to engage religion in connection with the broader diplomatic agenda—including, for example, tools to engage religious actors on topics like reducing corruption, preventing election violence, or addressing the challenge of human trafficking. RGA’s work, in turn, helps to reinforce the IRF mission: with greater capacity to engage with religious actors in multiple fora, our diplomats enjoy more opportunities and more resources to advocate for religious freedom.

Of course, opportunities to advance U.S. foreign policy goals through religious engagement exist in places where religious freedom is not a salient issue and priority. But in the many countries where religious freedom promotion is a priority, the goals of religious engagement and religious freedom are complementary. The USG can advance religious freedom most effectively when it has cultivated broad and deep partnerships with a diverse range of religious actors on multiple issues. At the same time, it can promote religious engagement most effectively when it is robustly advocating for the rights of religious actors and freedoms.

Looking Forward: Recommendations

With a new leadership at the Department, there is great potential for strengthening this worthy mission. The crucial question centers on what structure and approach would best maximize the effectiveness of the distinct missions of RGA and IRF.*

To address this question, an Experts Working Group of 14 leading practitioners and academics – long involved in the spaces of religious education and religious engagement and religious freedom, including a number of former governmental officials – met for a discussion in late March. They considered how the two functions might best be positioned within the Department to maximize the benefits of their complementary but distinct roles and objectives. All agreed that there is a dire need for greater capacity in the Department of State to engage and understand religious actors and religious dynamics on a range of global issues. The consensus among this distinguished group is that we must engage religious actors because they are relevant across many domains, not just those with an explicitly religious dimension.

The key points of agreement and recommendation emerging from the Experts Working Group are as follows:

 Promoting religious freedom and engaging religious actors are separate but complementary functions. The role of RGA requires different capacities and relationships than those supported by IRF. Religious freedom promotion does not exhaust the scope of religion and diplomacy interests, and IRF cannot risk diluting its mission by becoming a catch-all for the world of issues the religious engagement space encompasses.

● RGA and IRF should be organizationally distinct, but closely aligned. The experts assembled do not support putting RGA under IRF or combining the offices, as two separate offices would contribute most to advancing U.S. foreign policy. Ideally, the new version of RGA would be led by a Senior Executive Service civil servant with regular and sustained collaboration with IRF. RGA would also continue to inform and support other relevant bureaus and offices, to include Counterterrorism, Conflict and Stabilization Operations, Population, Refugees & Migration, International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, as well as our regional offices and Embassies overseas. Such an approach would also recognize the fact that religious engagement is a relevant toolkit in many parts of the world where issues of religious freedom are not a focus of U.S. diplomatic engagement. (Namely, in countries with excellent religious freedom conditions where religious groups and faith-based organizations play roles in public life and in addressing societal needs.)

● Consider moving RGA under the Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights (colloquially referred to as “J”). The J Undersecretary includes the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (thereby facilitating ongoing collaboration with IRF). J also includes many bureaus and offices with whom RGA has worked, among them the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and the Bureau for Counterterrorism. Locating RGA this way would permit the office to integrate its distinctive toolkit and added value across a range of functional spaces where religious engagement is particularly relevant.

In August 2017, former Secretary of State Tillerson communicated to the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee his intention to move the Office of Religion & Global Affairs under the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. However, this proposal was not operationalized before Secretary Tillerson’s departure and the Department’s new leadership is taking a fresh look at the question.

If the Department’s new leadership embraces former Secretary Tillerson’s recommendation to move RGA under the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, it would be preferable for RGA to constitute an independent unit alongside (and coordinating closely with) IRF.

● Training and capacity-building for religion and foreign policy is a priority for the State Department. Broad-based and policy-oriented training in religion and diplomacy is an immediate need RGA can uniquely address working closely with the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). In addition to continuing the FSI course on religion and foreign policy, the Department would benefit from a more formalized inclusion of religious considerations in courses on regional studies, conflict mitigation, and public diplomacy. RGA has helped support this objective and should—working closely with the IRF office— continue developing and providing training for the Department and other federal agencies as mandated by the Frank Wolf Act of 2016.

● Explore options for deploying religious affairs officers to post. In much the same way that the Department sends dedicated Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officers abroad, it makes sense to consider deploying dedicated diplomats focused on religion to a select range of posts where religious engagement carries particular strategic value. Real engagement begins at our embassies abroad, and regional experts from RGA would leverage awareness and connections, as well as an awareness of cross-regional trends.

Serve as the State Department’s primary portal for interagency collaboration on religion. Given its affiliation with the network of faith-based offices across the U.S. government, RGA would naturally serve this role.The Department is in a unique position to help build shared capacities with the military, civil society, and our development organizations to engage constructively with religious communities and actors in advancing U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.

The time has come to expand the scope and add substance to the Department of State’s capacity to engage religious actors and understand the impact of religious ideas, practices, institutions, and identities on political, social, and economic life and decision- making. These new recommendations by the Experts Working Group on Engaging Religious Actors and Promoting Religious Freedom in U.S. Diplomacy are offered in the hope of contributing to and supporting the progress we have made on these issues to date.

The views expressed here are the personal perspectives of Expert Working Group members and do not reflect institutional positions on the part of the organizations with which they are affiliated.


Members of the Working Group

Judd Birdsall (Managing Director, Cambridge Institute for Religion and International Studies, University of Cambridge & former Foreign Affairs Officer, Office of International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State)

Mohamed El-Sanousi (Director, The Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers)

Susan Hayward (Senior Advisor, Religion & Inclusive Societies, United States Institute of Peace)

Douglas Johnston (President Emeritus International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Navy)

Peter Mandaville (Professor of International Affairs, George Mason University and former Senior Advisor, Office of Religion and Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State)

Katherine Marshall (Executive Director, Word Faiths Development Dialogue & Senior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs)

Quinn Mecham (Associate Professor of Political Science, Brigham Young University and former member, U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff)

James Patton (President & CEO, International Center for Religion & Diplomacy)

Zeenat Rahman (Director, Inclusive America Project, Aspen Institute & former Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, United States Agency for International Development)

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca (Professor, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University & former Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs)

Chris Seiple (President Emeritus, Institute for Global Engagement, advisor to the Templeton Religion Trust & Senior Fellow, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington)

Timothy Shah (Senior Advisor, Religion Freedom Institute & Director of International Research, Religious Freedom Research Project, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University)

Monica Duffy Toft (Director of the Center for Strategic Studies and Professor of International Politics, Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University)

Erin K. Wilson (Associate Professor of Politics and Religion and formerly Founding Director, Center for Religion, Conflict, and Globalization, University of Groningen)

Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.