Global Dynamics of Faith: An Interview with Shaun Casey

Shaun Casey has served as Secretary John Kerry’s Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs since 2013. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the US Department of State advises Secretary Kerry on policy matters as they relate to religion, helps American embassies and consulates overseas assess regional religious dynamics, and serves as an entry point for individuals who want to contact the State Department in Washington on matters of religion and global affairs.

Casey has written on the ethics of the Iraq war as well as religion’s role in presidential politics. He is the author of The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960 (Oxford, 2009) and is at work now on two book projects – co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Political Theology and writing a book on ethics and international politics tentatively titled Niebuhr’s Children.

In fall 2015, Casey participated in a gathering at Yale that focused on the role of religion and its impact on civil society in Iraq and elsewhere.

He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School (M.Div. and Doctor of Theology) and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has a B.A. from Abilene Christian University.

Casey responded to questions submitted by Reflections.

REFLECTIONS: Is religion a part of the problem of world conflict, or a solution to conflict?

SHAUN CASEY: Religion is a complex societal force and a legitimate category of analysis in international relations. However, religion is multivalent, and therefore should not be dichotomized as either a source of conflict or a panacea in addressing global challenges. Assessing religious dynamics within a specific cultural context or within a particular issue must be done very diligently and with sophistication. Within our office, we have a staff of 30 people, possessing over 20 graduate degrees in religion or a cognate field. We recognize that there is considerable interplay between religion, politics, law, economics, and culture. Moreover, we are attuned to the complexities of “lived religion” – that religion is interrelated to and mutually influential on everyday life – and its impact within specific contexts.

We are also aware that religious communities can and do shape and drive social change. Many religious groups are at the forefront of initiatives that focus on encouraging sustainable development, promoting good governance, combating corruption, caring for the planet, supporting women’s empowerment, and advocating for social justice. It is important to emphasize and promote this type of constructive engagement, as appropriate.

REFLECTIONS: How does the US government approach the dynamic of religion in world affairs?

CASEY: The US government historically has examined religion through two lenses: the evaluation of international religious freedom, or religion as a potential catalyst for violent extremism. While these are both important analytical lenses, they do not begin to exhaust the range of diplomatic and political implications of understanding religion. Our office was created to explore the vast territory between these two conceptualizations of religion in the realm of foreign policy. In practical terms, it means identifying areas where US policy goals intersect with issues of importance to religious communities, such as climate change, disaster preparedness, the refugee crisis, and peace and security. It also means exploring the ways in which we can expand training and tools for diplomats that will allow for a more sophisticated analysis of religious dynamics, which will in turn inform and guide foreign policy decisions.

REFLECTIONS: How does the US decide whose side to be on in a religious conflict? What are the criteria?

CASEY: Religion is often one variable in conflict situations, and it is an oversimplification to depict it in starkly binary terms. If religion is indeed a factor at play in conflict, it is different in each situation and influenced by ideologies, attitudes and perceptions, religious and secular leaders, individuals and communities, economic and political situations, and culture and tradition. One aspect of our work is to try to understand the nuances within a particular situation and identify the religious resources for ending and mitigating religious conflict.

REFLECTIONS: How would you characterize our relations with the Muslim-majority world?

CASEY: From the beginning, the Obama administration has deepened and expanded US engagement with a diverse array of Muslim communities, both here and overseas, on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect. In our engagements, we have demonstrated American values of justice, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings, and consistently sought to counter negative stereotypes of Islam. In his Cairo speech in 2009, President Obama emphasized that Islam has always been a part of America’s story, which he reiterated most recently during his remarks at the Islamic Society in Baltimore. He explicitly stated that religious bigotry runs counter to fundamental American principles, and that “an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths.”

I believe that we have a much more sophisticated understanding of religious dynamics amongst Muslims – and their complexity. Within our office, I am privileged to work alongside Shaarik Zafar, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and Arsalan Suleman, the Acting US Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Special Representative Zafar is charged with overseeing the State Department’s engagement with Muslim communities on issues that they care about – not simply security or terrorism. This includes bilateral diplomacy with countries with majority or significant Muslim populations. This also includes engaging civil society, religious leaders, and most importantly, young people, to build opportunities in entrepreneurship, environmental protection, and technology, to name a few – all areas that are relevant to Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike. One of Special Representative Zafar’s priorities is storytelling and supporting the creative economy. He’s working with technology and entertainment industry leaders to help Muslim civil society leaders use digital platforms to share their stories and counter hateful and intolerant voices.

Acting US Special Envoy Suleman works with OIC-member countries and relevant civil society representatives on key foreign policy issues and to establish partnerships in areas such as human rights, health, education, and science and technology. He has encouraged OIC member states to play an increased role in improving health outcomes within their borders – through polio eradication, support of immunizations, promotion of maternal and child health, and adequate preparedness in response to health emergencies like Ebola.

REFLECTIONS: How can pluralistic values overcome tribalist loyalties and fundamentalisms?

CASEY: It is important to resist the temptation to use a homogenizing lens to understand religion. I do not accept the premise that individuals who adhere to tribal loyalties or fundamentalist religious understanding – however defined – are inherently antagonists to pluralistic values. In today’s world, it is critical to observe how lived religion manifests itself within diverse cultural contexts.

We are not calling for any religious community to give up its particularity in the name of pluralism. Furthermore, we hold in high regard opportunities for religious leaders to come together to discuss common challenges. As an example, I would point to the recent conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, that brought together government officials, religious leaders, and prominent Islamic scholars to discuss religious teachings and interpretations, and to advise governments to live up to the highest standards of human rights shared across cultures and religions. The resulting “Marrakesh Declaration” called upon representatives of various religious traditions to confront religious discrimination and protect the rights of religious minorities around the world.