What does “engaging religion” mean for religion?

256px-US-DeptOfState-SealLast week, the US State Department made the much-anticipated announcement that it is establishing a new “Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives” whose mission, Secretary of State John Kerry said, is “to engage more closely with faith communities around the world, with the belief that we need to partner with them to solve global challenges.”[1] The announcement has caused considerable stir in forums on religion, foreign policy, politics and public life. The Religion Factor will publish a couple of reflections on this new office. In today’s post, Erin WIlson follows up her comments as part of The Immanent Frame’s discussion of this new office and considers how state-based efforts to engage religion might impact faith-based actors. 

For many scholars and diplomats interested in the role of religion in global politics, the acknowledgement by policymakers that religion is a significant force in contemporary world affairs is long overdue. In the early 1990s, Douglas Johnston, the founder and director of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, identified religion as “the missing dimension in statecraft”.[2] Nearly 20 years later, Thomas Farr, writing in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, lamented the fact that “Western diplomatic establishments have continued to avoid incorporating religious ideas and actors into the way they encounter the world.”[3]

As such, the establishment of a new office focused on religious engagement, particularly one that follows the lead set by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of engaging with grassroots faith-based communities and civil society organisations,[4] seems to address important blind spots in traditional approaches to religion and foreign policy. It will formally and officially institutionalize the State Department’s engagement with religion.

In many ways, this move is to be applauded. The effort to open up spaces for religious voices and perspectives in areas of pressing global concern addresses a significant gap and may in some ways be seen as an attempt to address the secularist bias in International Relations.[5] Yet the institutionalization of religious engagement in this way also raises the potential risk of formally institutionalizing deeply embedded assumptions and approaches to religion that may in the end undermine the work the new office is attempting to perform. Several scholars have already highlighted some possible dangers, as part of a discussion forum at The Immanent Frame. I don’t wish to repeat their excellent observations, but rather expand and add to the discussion.

I want to focus particularly on what the implications of such an office might be for faith-based actors and communities themselves. There are two immediate areas of concern that strike me from this perspective.

One of these concerns relates to the way in which the push for greater religious engagement has been justified. Amy Frykholm has noted that the impetus for the new office has partially come from Clinton’s desire to promote women’s empowerment:

One of the most effective means for achieving this “empowerment” [of women] is by working with faith-based organizations, whose leaders are very often women—a fact that belies the notion that engaging with religious communities simply means meeting with male clerics. The world’s health, education, and environmental organizations have what Seiple and Maryann Cusimano Love, professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America, both call “a female face of faith.” So the goal of greater religious engagement and the goal of greater engagement with women and girls can be met together. [6]

On the surface there may appear to be very little wrong with this – women’s empowerment can be achieved through greater religious engagement. Great. Two birds, one stone. Sign me up.

However, there’s more to it than this overview suggests. Linking religious engagement and women’s empowerment is deeply problematic for a number of reasons.  The most obvious concern is the fact that many of the world’s religions have, at best, ambiguous positions on the status, rights and roles of women, frequently positioning them as inferior to men. Only the most recent example of this comes from Pope Francis I. For all his progressive pronouncements on homosexual priests in the Catholic Church, the need for swift action in cases of sexual abuse and his emphasis on social justice and the rights of the poor, Pope Francis has entirely ruled out revisiting the issue of female ordination, using justifications that reflect a distinct double standard.[7]

Yet there are other deeper issues at play here as well, particularly with regard to the dominant assumptions about both religion and women that have for so long governed political logic in post-Enlightenment Western states. The relationship between religion and politics in the United States and the West more broadly has arguably been navigated through a series of deeply embedded assumptions about the nature of religion. Consciously or not, assumptions underpinning approaches to religion frequently rest on the view that religion is best understood as primarily institutional, individual, and irrational. Understanding religion in this way justified its exclusion from politics and foreign policy, contributing to religion’s neglect for many years. This definition also placed religion in a similar category as other “irrational,” habitually excluded dimensions and actors in society – tradition, emotion, the body and women, subordinated to modernity, rationality, the mind, and men.[8]

No doubt many will protest that these stark categorisations no longer apply, particularly regarding the exclusion of women. There is a popular and widespread view that we exist in a postfeminist era.[9] Mainstream media perpetuate the view that there is no need for feminism any longer because women’s equality has been achieved.[10] Yet this is manifestly not the case. To take the very simple example of pay, in the United States, women earn 23 cents less for every dollar earned by a man, for doing the exact same job.[11] In the EU, women earn on average 16% less than their male counterparts.[12] In Australia, women earn 17.6% less than men.[13] Yet, in some ways, it has become harder for women to highlight gender inequality and discrimination after gender mainstreaming and the institutionalization of gender concerns.[14] The assumption is that “we do gender” now, so there can no longer be any significant problem. The establishment of special offices for “women’s issues” has in some ways only helped to reinforce traditional binary distinctions between men and women, that women are different, “special”, but not necessarily equal to men.

The institutionalization of religious engagement may lead to similar problems. Establishing a separate office for religious engagement reinforces the notion that religion is different, “special”, as Benjamin L. Berger has commented. It suggests that, while important, religion needs to be separated from the other (secular/non-religious) work done by the State Department. The link with women’s empowerment may then only serve to continue the marginalization of both religion and women from the “real work” of the secular (male-dominated) state. Now that the US State Department “does” religion, it may in fact be harder to make space for religious issues on the agenda. Once religion is institutionalized, as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out, it must be defined. Once this has occurred, it becomes more difficult for those features of society that do not fit the mainstreamed definition of religion to have a voice in policy deliberations. A recent commentary from Austin Dacey makes this point more explicit:

Religious faith and adherence is often a source of conflict that contributes to global instability and undermines long-term U.S. interests. However, those same forces of faith contribute much good to civil society and when properly engaged can promote human progress and peaceful coexistence on a global scale.[15]

This suggests that there are only certain religious actors that will be engaged, and only in a very specific way, one that fits with long-term U.S. interests. Religious actors, particularly those that are not affiliated with a mainstream religion or those that are concerned about issues of equality and justice in representation, should thus be extremely cautious in their support for and cooperation with the new office, and any other efforts at religious engagement by other states.

A second, related reason why religious actors should be wary in their response to state-based efforts to “engage” religion concerns their relationship and position within their local communities. Some commentators have pointed out that the focus of US diplomatic efforts on select (usually male) spokespersons can provide these spokespersons with an opportunity to consolidate their own power and authority, that engagement with the US can provide legitimacy to leaders and regimes that are more interested in securing their own power base than promoting the rights and interests of the people in their communities.[16] Yet engagement with the US or any other state-based institution can also have the reverse effect on religious leaders and organisations that play an important role in holding the state accountable.

Part of the authority and influence for religious and faith-based communities in many parts of the world is their independence from the official avenues of power and policy-making connected with the state. This independence allows religious actors to provide an alternative voice of critique and insight with regard to the actions of the state, as well as other actors such as corporations and international financial institutions. In Western state contexts, such as the UK and Australia, faith-based actors working in the homeless and asylum sectors have been increasingly reluctant to partner with or accept funding from state agencies, since this restricts their capacity to critique the policies of the state.[17] The trust that many communities feel towards their religious leaders is engendered because they are distinct from the state. This is particularly true in non-Western contexts, where secularism’s association with corrupt authoritarian regimes has contributed to weakening and discrediting it as an effective political framework.[18] While engagement does not necessarily lead to co-optation, it will be a delicate line for religious and faith-based organizations to tread as to how far they can engage with the State Department, and other state-based agencies, without losing credibility in their local communities and their capacity for critique.

How significant these and other concerns that scholars, commentators and policy-makers have raised turn out to be will obviously depend a great deal on how the work of the new office is pursued. If nothing else, the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives ensures that faith-based issues are now well and truly embedded in the global political agenda.

Stay tuned for Brenda Bartelink’s discussion of the not-so-new religious engagement and the need for historical perspective and self-reflection in value debates in development and foreign policy.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen, The Netherlands


[1] PBS, 2013, “New State Department Office” 9 August 2013 http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2013/08/09/shaun-casey-new-state-department-faith-office/19629/ Accessed 12 August 2013; E. Tenety, “State department seeks to broaden religious reach” The Washington Post Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/2013/07/26/79eeada8-f643-11e2-9434-60440856fadf_story.html Accessed 31 July 2013

[2] D. Johnston and C. Sampson. Religion: The Missing Dimension in Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)

[3] T. Farr, “The Intellectual Sources of Diplomacy’s Religion Deficit” Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 1, no. 1, (2012), p273

[4] A. Frykholm, “Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department Pursued Greater Religious Engagement” Religion and Politics Available at http://religionandpolitics.org/2013/05/08/since-hillary-clintons-tenure-the-state-department-pursues-greater-religious-engagement/

[5] For more on this, see E.S. Hurd. 2008. The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[7] S. Walshe, 2013. “Thanks for nothing Pope Francis” The Guardian 31 July 2013. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/31/pope-francis-conservative-views-on-women

[8] For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see E.K. Wilson. 2012. After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

[9] E. Hall and M. Rodriguez, 2003. “The Myth of Postfeminism” Gender and Society, 17(6): 878-902

[10] Ibid

[11] S. Adams, 2013. “Are Women Catching Up in Pay?” Forbes Available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/04/09/are-women-catching-up-in-pay/

[12] European Commission. 2013. Tackling the gender pay gap in the European Union. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/gender_pay_gap/gpg_brochure_2013_final_en.pdf

[13] Workplace Gender Equality Agency. 2013. “Gender Pay Gap Statistics” Available at http://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/2013-02-Gender%20pay%20gap%20statistics.pdf  Accessed 12 August 2013

[14] A. McRobbie. 2007. “Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-Feminist Sexual Contract” Cultural Studies 21(4-5): 718-737; S. Pomeranz, R. Raby and A. Stefanik. 2013. “Girls Run the World? Caught between Sexism and Postfeminism in School” Gender and Society 27(2): 185-207

[15] A. Dacey, 2013. “Why is the State Department Opening an office of religious engagement?” 7 August 2013. Available at http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/7239/why_is_the_state_department_opening_an_office_of__religious_engagement_ Accessed 12 August 2013, my emphasis

[16] Ibid

[17] P. Cloke. 2010. “Theo-Ethics and Radical Faith-Based Praxis in the Postsecular City” in Molendijk, Arie L., Christoph Jedan and Justin Beaumont (eds). Exploring the Postsecular. Leiden: Brill, pp229; E. K. Wilson, 2011. “Much to be proud of, much to be done: faith-based organisations and the politics of asylum in Australia” Journal of Refugee Studies 24(3): 548-64

[18] This is a particularly strong phenomenon in the Middle East. See, for example, L. Mavelli, 2012. “Postsecular resistance, the body and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution” Review of International Studies 38(5), pp1070-1; L. Sadiki. 2009. Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, p208

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