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From Paradox to Possibility: Practicing the Golden Rule in a Global World

  • Chris Seiple
  • July 31, 2014

Some thoughts on how to effect change in complex contexts. The article is a strategic snapshot of the lessons we have learned over the past 14 years at IGE (with more to learn). We think this theory of change and supporting strategy of transformation is broadly applicable to most issues/contexts…if only because our global challenges require partnerships that must have the Golden Rule capacity to work with someone who does not look, act, vote or pray like we do.

Our century so far suffers from the “Golden Paradox.” Precisely when the world needs the “Golden Rule” the most, it is less available. Every major faith tradition has a “Golden Rule,” yet social and legal restrictions on the freedom of conscience to practice one’s faith have been steadily rising, globally,1 preventing the practice of the Golden Rule. In a global world — where our common challenges transcend borders and can only be solved in concert — the Golden Rule is not only the right thing to do, it is in our common interest.

To better understand this paradox, I share three basic observations about our global context, before describing a theory of change and strategy of transformation organic to it. While this theory and supporting strategy can be applied to any issue or country, I will illustrate them through the lessons that my organization, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), has learned over the past 14 years in its efforts to build sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.

Global Context
The headlines these days are overwhelming, promising to get worse. We are now witnessing the return and rise of neo-fascists in Europe, neo-Al-Qaeda in the Middle East/North Africa, and neo-nationalists in Eastern Europe and in Eastern Asia. There is a common root to this global complexity: an inability to live with our deepest differences. As soon as we lose the capacity to respect the inherent dignity of someone else’s freedom to disagree, stereotypes set in. And stereotypes are the first step toward de-humanization, and eventually violence.

If these are the stakes, it is imperative to have an understanding of the nature of our global environment if we are to try and influence it. In other words, any theory of change and strategy of transformation must be consistent with the nature of the environment if it is to have an impact (for good or ill). To my experience, and at the risk of oversimplification, there are three words that define this century’s global age: identity, resiliency, and partnership. Understanding each — and their interaction — is the foundation for a “Golden Rule” global society that enables sustainable, positive change from the bottom-up; a change that is protected and promoted from the top-down by governments worldwide.

Globalization is many things, and there are many theories about it. It is my observation, however, that there is a primary result: a siege of identity. Technology, travel, and trade all expose individuals to information and ideas that constantly challenge how identity is self-conceived, and received, by others. In reaction, most people are left with two (sub-)conscious choices: to be defined by what they are for — or to be defined by what they are against. The former takes careful and ongoing reflection about who one is — in the context of his/her spiritual, global, and national citizenships — as well as the discipline to steward these citizenships in a “Golden Rule” manner. Such a process takes great maturity.

Being defined against someone, however, does not. It is just too easy to manipulate identity, playing on the stereotypes of different identity groups. If identity is to be defined by what it is for — both individually, and as a community of different identities — then society must own a “Golden Rule” that is also protected and promoted by the state as a function of what it means to be a good citizen.

I attended the 2014 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos and two related words defined every discussion: risk and resiliency. There is so much risk in the world today — from sudden geo-political shocks to long-term environmental stresses — that the only way to mitigate and manage risk, the experts said, was to build resiliency. There were two different approaches to resiliency (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive). The first method suggested that businesses and institutions create “Chief Resiliency Officers” who would be responsible for implementing new ideas and training about how people and platforms could be resilient to future shocks/stresses.

The second suggestion sought to create a “culture of resiliency” rooted in a clear organizational and individual identity and direction — a much more simple, yet much more difficult task. Put differently: if you know who you are — if you know your values and their application (the Golden Rule), individually and corporately as a community — then you will know where you are going. Only a mature understanding of identity yields the resiliency to survive and thrive amidst the continuous change and risk of the 21st century.

Today’s global challenges have two common characteristics: 1) they cannot be significantly addressed, let alone solved, by any single state (governmental) or non-state (non-governmental, including NGOs and business) actor; and, 2) it is therefore not a question of if but when you partner with a government or an NGO — partners that invariably will not act, look, or pray like you do. Which is also to say that in the process of partnership, whether consciously or sub-consciously, the individuals and institutions of state and non-state actors will demonstrate a “philosophy of partnership” in how they build (or as the case may be, fail to build) mutual respect and mutual reliance among different partners of different backgrounds and beliefs.

In fact, one way or another, a “philosophy of partnership” will convey how the “other” is conceived and received, and therefore will also form and inform how that partnership serves those most impacted by the particular global challenge at hand. Done right, the partnership accelerates practical action and the sustainable success of the partnership’s goals, precisely because the partnership embodies that which it seeks to imbue: a Golden Rule model of mutual respect and reliance among people of different beliefs and identities. A partnership that respects identity is a resilient partnership that serves the common good.

Naming these three characteristics is only a beginning. But they do form a basis for building an intentional theory of change and strategy of transformation that is organic to the environment in which it seeks influence and impact.

A Theory of Change
As IGE approaches its 15th year, we try to embody that which we seek to imbue, working with like-minded partners who have invited us into their particular context. If our purpose is to help sustain environments in which people have the freedom of conscience to (not) believe as they like, then we, by definition, cannot be in the business of telling people how to change or what to become. Through local partnership, however, we are in the business of building the capacity to change — equipping and therefore enabling individuals and institutions, state and non-state, to change in a manner consistent with the Golden Rule already present in their context.

Through our partnerships in Central, South, and East Asia, we have developed a simple theory of change that we think is applicable to most issues and contexts. It involves four steps:

Space: Develop a shared, safe space — through local partners that have invited us into their context — for people who would not otherwise meet. Such a space involves careful preparation and an assessment of self, the situation, and the potential stakeholders. It sometimes begins with a safe space for conveners; before they, in turn, convene a safe space for key stakeholders related to the issue. Of note, this process takes considerable time, and not all parties will participate or buy-in. The space becomes increasingly “safe” through mutual consultation about each issue and step. Metrics include reduced stereotypes, relationships begun, and sufficient consensus about a concrete way forward.

Scholarship: Research the relevant issues, providing a global, comparative context that allows individual to consider the issues in a politically-safe manner by referencing examples outside their context and culture.

Standard of Training/Education: Provide training and education in the space, through the scholarship, such that leaders from across vocations and locations are equipped to make decisions for themselves within their context (instead of people from outside their context presumptively telling them what to do). Education changes mindsets, which results in changed behavior.

Structure of Change: Encourage graduates of our training and education programs to return to their professions across countries and regions — and especially to their respective capitals — inspired by and linked to like-minded peers, equipped to advocate for change within their contexts. Over time, this network provides an appropriate framework for discussing and implementing changes to the relevant policies, laws, and constitution regarding citizenship and governance. Change is only sustainable when it is both socially-owned from the bottom-up (civil society), and legally-protected from the top-down (government).

In other words, the process is the product. It builds relationships and therefore trust that transcends. And it takes time. With talk comes trust, and with trust comes the opportunity for tangible change, backed by scholarship and informed, networked leaders from the relevant sectors of both society and the state.

Yet, a theory of change necessarily remains general. It must be complimented by the equally intentional “how” of strategy. The methodology must not betray the message.

A Strategy of Transformation
Strategy is strategy: it is the balancing of means with ends, resources with goals. At IGE, for example, the preferred future that our theory of change seeks is a world in which all people, of any faith or none, have full freedom of conscience and can participate as equal citizens in public life, bringing their beliefs to the discussion of public policy. We seek, in other words, a sustainable environment of religious freedom worldwide. These Golden Rule aspirations are easy to affirm in the abstract but very difficult to advance in practice when dealing with sensitive — even dangerous — issues at the intersection of religion and politics.

Moreover, a shrewd strategy must neither underestimate the positive transformational potential of faith nor naively assume that religion necessarily makes people “good.” In fact, such a strategy begins by acknowledging that religion has been a part of the problem. But, such a strategy also understands that the best of faith — of Golden Rule beliefs brought to the sometimes sensitive discussions of governance and citizenship — can defeat the worst of religion.

Through study and experience, IGE has developed a strategy of transformation to guide its work in engaging and equipping individuals and institutions to change, if they wish, toward an environment where religious freedom contributes to the civility of society and the stability of the state. This strategy consists of the following key elements:

Relational Diplomacy: The power of trusted relationships is foundational, and transcendent. Through relationships, we are invited into contexts, treating each and all with dignity, seeking a language and logic through which we might serve locally, practically. Without deepening and expanding relationships there is only transaction, with no opportunity for transformation.

Track 1.5: Through relationships, we engage states (governments) from the top-down (Track 1), and non-state actors (e.g., faith communities, NGOs, business) from the bottom-up (Track 2), creating a safe and shared “Track 1.5” space to talk about the most sensitive issues in a manner that builds mutual respect and mutual reliance. Grassroots efforts without good governance, and vice-versa, are unsustainable.

Two Vectors of Enlightened Self-Interest: We engage along two basic vectors, harnessing self-interest, which sometimes is the initial basis for a relationship:

  • The Religion & the Rule of Law vector focuses on the legal framework necessary for individuals and institutions — again, of any faith or no faith at all — to contribute to the well-being and flourishing of society, and the security of all people.
  • The Religion, Security, & Citizenship vector emphasizes an understanding of how religious freedom is counterterrorism, of how the best of faith defeats the worst of religion when individuals feel encouraged and empowered to steward their spiritual, global, and national citizenships by serving others (see Seiple and Hoover 2013).

Two Themes: Within our efforts to highlight and empower the positive potential contributions of faith to society and state, we also make a special effort to address areas where religion is typically understood as “part of the problem.” Accordingly, peace-building/reconciliation and gender integration cut across all of our programming; not as “special categories,” which tend toward self-segregation, but as something natural and needed, now.2

Signed agreements: IGE’s strategy is to “enter through the front door,” seeking transparency and accountability at all stages of our engagement. We have found that this approach reduces suspicions that are often at or near the surface of any discussion regarding religion and public life. While these documents are technically nothing more than paper (i.e., they are not legally binding), they provide a roadmap ahead of concrete steps; each of which, once completed, are a photo opportunity to demonstrate to the world that change is taking place and should be both encouraged and applauded.

Formal education programs: Programs that award a formal certificate or academic credit are especially important in the case of a politically sensitive subject like religion. International academic validation helps improve the professional standing of program participants, and consequently helps to normalize and expand the space for ongoing discussion and scholarship. A program certificate that “proves” participants have been equipped with demonstrable Golden Rule skills for the 21st century (e.g., cross-cultural engagement, negotiation, rule of law, etc.) provides credibility at home and abroad amidst an ever-expanding network of trusted relationships at the governmental and grassroots levels.

Application — Examples from Abroad

Religion and the Rule of Law
In the spring of 2004, I invited a former senior official from Vietnam to our home in Fauquier County, Virginia. Not invited was a “handler,” whom the Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. sent anyway. Over drinks and the barbecue, we discussed how our two countries might work together on the sensitive issue of religious freedom. I explained how IGE’s approach prioritizes relationships because we seek to understand before we engage. It turned out that this “handler” was himself a senior official who was serving his third tour in the U.S. At the end of the day, he told me, “Do you know that IGE is the first American group not to hand me a list and tell me what to do?”

I apologized for how he had been personally treated, while carefully noting that such treatment in no way excused how the Vietnamese government had treated ethno-religious minorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands of Vietnam in February of 2001 and April of 2004. By the end of the day, my new friend leaned over, smiling, and told me: “You know, not all Communists are atheists; some of us worship our ancestors.” It was the start of a relationship.

Ten years later, IGE has signed five Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with the Vietnamese which govern our work with them. To date, we have worked with the Vietnamese to conduct 27 conferences and seminars in 33 out of Vietnam’s 63 provinces, training over 3,000 people in religious freedom. Among those trained have been scholars of religion, lawyers, faith leaders, and government officials from the Committee for Religious Affairs, as well as from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Public Security. In particular, from December 2012 to July 2014, IGE and its co-partners — Vietnam National University’s University of Social Sciences and Humanities-Hanoi (USSH), and Brigham Young University (BYU) — conducted three, ten-day “Religion & the Rule of Law” certificate programs in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang. These three programs trained 200+ people of various vocations from 16 provinces.

An illustrative summary of the impact of these programs can be found in an almost identical exchange that I observed in Hanoi in 2012 and in Ho Chi Minh City in 2013. On both occasions, during a Q&A session following a lecture, an older man had made note that these ideas were not what Vietnam needed. And both times, women literally stood up and said: “Haven’t you done the reading? This is exactly what Vietnam needs as we transition.” That such a conversation could take place, so directly, and comfortably in front of a Westerner, demonstrates how far this “safe space” has come. There is work to be done, and not all agree; but there is sufficient consensus about these certificate skills as a means to deepen the transition.

Toward this end, in June of 2013 at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC, IGE, USSH, and BYU signed an MOU to do additional research and programs together. These programs will compare the religion and rule of law systems in Vietnam and the U.S., while advising the Vietnamese government on policy making about religion. Moreover, this year, for the first time, due to IGE’s transparent trust and track record, the Vietnamese have asked IGE to conduct provincial seminars on citizenship that include local faith leaders, and as many civil society leaders as possible (see Galli 2007; Seiple 2008; and Thames, Seiple and Rowe 2009, chapter 8).

Religion, Security & Citizenship
The Religion, Security and Citizenship vector grew out of a relationship developed between IGE and the Institute for Ethnic Minority Groups (IEMG) at China’s State Council regarding extremism in Central Asia. Our partnership initially focused on Muslims in Western China, a program that witnessed three provincial conferences in Western China, before culminating in a national conference and publication that compared and contrasted provincial policies toward Muslim ethnic minorities (Daugherty 2011). Due to the trust and track record established through this partnership, IEMG asked IGE in 2008 to organize a similar process regarding Tibet. Six years later, Beijing officials and Tibetans have met several times to discuss such issues as multi-lingual education and the environment.Along with IEMG, Machik (a Tibetan NGO), and the Oslo Coalition, IGE is co-convener of the ongoing Tibet Governance and Practice (TGAP) Forum; upcoming meetings will focus on social governance and innovation. IGE has signed three MOUs with IEMG that govern our work together.

Similarly, in Laos, IGE and the government have a signed agreement through which we have held 52 events since 2009 (in 15 of Laos’ 18 provinces). Together we have trained over 3,000 government officials, faith leaders, and civil society members in religious freedom. The trust is so great that IGE is now developing with the Mennonite Central Committee a curriculum that trains government and faith leaders together, such that they might deploy together to prevent or de-conflict local incidences where religion might be a part of the problem. As one faith leader involved in this process remarked, this training enables “citizens who understand how to be good neighbors.”

As one final illustration of IGE’s Religion, Security, and Citizenship efforts, IGE gathered experts from Central, South, and Southeast Asia — most of whom had participated in at least one previous IGE event in Asia and thus appreciated IGE’s relational, Track 1.5 approach — in Nepal in February 2014 (with IEMG in attendance as well as a representative of the Swiss government). The consensus result was that IGE should develop an “Ambassadors of Peace” Certificate Curriculum with core values and a code of conduct (that would be printed on the back of the certificate). IGE will soon re-assemble these folks in Singapore to review drafts of the curriculum, core values, and code of conduct.

In each of the above contexts, there once was no safe space to discuss such sensitive issues. There now is. And with it, there is also an emerging scholarship to support regular meetings, as well as the training and education now being conducted. Additionally, there is a way forward to deepen and expand the education and training needed to build up a network of like-minded leaders — across vocations, and across countries and regions, and among regions — that are now ready to implement change in their own context, their own way.

Application — Examples from Home
The United States is a religious country; however, it has been difficult to discuss religion as an analytic factor in realpolitik, let alone as a positive force for peace, in U.S. governmental and foreign policy circles. Yet, here too the need to work within the Golden Rule trends described above has been increasingly acknowledged. For example, in 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initiated a “Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society,” and instituted a federal advisory committee through which she could legally receive recommendations from civil society. The effort was unprecedented in U.S. diplomatic history: a mechanism was established from the top-down by the U.S. government (track 1) through which American civil society leaders from the bottom-up (track 2) could speak into U.S. foreign policy on multiple issues.

The federal advisory committee had five working groups: governance, human rights, empowering women, labor, and religion and foreign policy. Along with Dr. William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace, I was invited to be the senior advisor to the religion and foreign policy working group of nearly 100 scholars of religion and faith leaders from across America. Meeting throughout 2012, the group came to consensus, producing a White Paper that helped catalyze the creation of the interagency religious engagement strategy for the United States,3 and the 2013 establishment of an office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives at the U.S. State Department (see Seiple 2012). Re-convened in 2014, by the new office it had recommended, the group will again make recommendations to the U.S. Secretary of State in 2015.

I have also had the privilege of co-founding (2010) and co-chairing the “International Religious Freedom (IRF) Roundtable.” The IRF Roundtable is an informal group of individuals from NGOs who meet every two months on Capitol Hill to discuss religious freedom issues on a non-attribution basis. The purpose of the Roundtable is to encourage religious freedom as an integrated element of U.S. foreign policy and national security. In other words, the Roundtable is simply a safe space where participants gather, speak freely in sharing ideas and information, and propose joint advocacy actions to address specific IRF issues and problems. All initiatives are participant-led — that is, participants self-select into coalitions of the willing on a case-by-case basis.

What is unique about this bottom-up, civil society effort, however, is that it invites the top-down of government to its meetings. During the second half of each IRF Roundtable meeting, representatives from the U.S. legislative and executive branches also attend, as they provide updates to the gathered NGOs, before the NGOs then reciprocate with their various initiatives and ideas (all in a Golden Rule manner, I might add).

This model might have global application as well. For example, at the invitation of the government of Kazakhstan, the Roundtable sent a delegation of NGOs to Astana and Almaty in December 2013 to discuss religious freedom with government and grassroots leaders alike. And at the request of the Kazakh government, the delegation submitted a trip report with recommendations. There is potentially a very powerful model here for expanding and diversifying global alliances on religious freedom in a Track 1.5 manner.

Four years ago, neither the U.S. State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group nor the NGO IRF Roundtable would have been thought possible. Yet today they are an institutionalized safe space, well-established and more relevant than ever, providing a place where Americans can steward their citizenship in a thoughtful manner as they consider how they come alongside others worldwide who share the same Golden Rule values and interests.

In November of 2013, I asked IGE’s Board of Directors to imagine the following: “a world of interlocking networks organized around mutual respect — but rooted in particular regional and national institutions — that provided the necessary space, scholarship, and standards of education and training necessary to grow a global-regional-national-provincial structure of advocacy capable of building religious freedom by harnessing the self-interest of the relevant stakeholders.”

The U.S. State Department working group on religion and foreign policy as well as the NGO Roundtable might be harbingers of such a future. The Canadian government, for example, has recently created an ambassador for religious freedom, and Europeans hosted their first NGO Roundtable on Religious Freedom on June 28, 2014 in Brussels.

What else might we envision, as we consider how best to enable the Golden Rule from the bottom-up of society and from the top-down of the state?

What if there was a global “Council of Elders” regarding religious freedom, providing visibility and advice to global and particular contexts and situations?

What if the deans of various international relations schools and seminaries/theological schools of various faith traditions gathered to discuss the pedagogy and content of how religion and realpolitik intersect, pursuant peace-building and gender integration?

What if there were regional “Centers of Excellence” that provided specific education and training certificates on religion and the rule of law, as well as religion, security, and citizenship?

What if governments provided a space that invited religious communities into discussion with them? And what if members of society, by country, self-organized into their own Roundtables, inviting their government into a discussion of what freedom of conscience or belief means in their own context? What if the society and state of a country could eventually make routine a conversation about what the Golden Rule looks like in their country and cultural context, building a common spiritual architecture of mutual respect and mutual reliance?

And, what if such conversations led to national think-and-do-tanks that might provide experts and scholarship to the regional centers of excellence, while working locally with the relevant groups to build their own spiritual architecture, socializing the ideas from the bottom-up, while developing new scholarship and scholars to support a legally-protected religious freedom from the top-down?

If there are to be answers to such questions, they will be rooted in education and training that is multi-disciplinary for a multi-vocational audience, as leaders learn from each other in the same room. For example, in July 2013, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (where the United States trains its diplomats) held a day-long seminar on countering violent extremism. Over 100 people attended. Not only were several government agencies represented, but 40 percent of the audience was from faith communities and NGOs. It was a true demonstration of the Golden Rule as Americans from quite different backgrounds and beliefs came together to discuss how best to address the challenge.

Ours is a global world in which we have to engage our neighbors different from us: not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we need those neighbors to help solve the global challenges that impact us all. We have no choice but to learn from and work together. As we have found overseas and at home, it is this model of learning together — through the Golden Rule and therefore in mutual respect for each other’s identity — that often reduces stereotypes while creating relationships that can serve as the basis for future innovative partnerships that are resilient. It takes time, but it is the fastest way to mitigate and manage the enormous risks worldwide to humanity’s most basic freedom — the freedom of conscience — and therefore preserve our capacity to address the rest of our global challenges.

Note: This is an Author’s Original Manuscript submitted for consideration in a forthcoming issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs.


Daugherty, Jared, ed. 2011. Muslims in a Harmonious Society. Washington, DC (English edition) and Beijing (Chinese edition): Institute for Global Engagement and Institute for Ethnic Minority Groups.

Galli, Mark. 2007. “Good Morning, Vietnam!” Christianity Today, May 4, 2007, (accessed June 2, 2014).

Seiple, Chris. 2008. “The Road to Reconciliation,” Institute for Global Engagement website, November 5, 2008, (accessed June 2, 2014).

Seiple, Chris. 2012. “Religion & Foreign Policy Working Group Submits Recommendations to U.S. Department of State.” Institute for Global Engagement website, (accessed June 2, 2014).

Seiple, Chris and Dennis R. Hoover. 2013. “Religious Freedom and Global Security.” In The Future of Religious Liberty: Global Challenges, edited by Allen D. Hertzke, 315-330. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thames, H. Knox, Chris Seiple, and Amy Rowe. 2009. International Religious Freedom Advocacy. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

1 See the Pew Research Center’s series of global studies on government restrictions on religion and social hostilities on religion:

2Please see IGE’s Center for Women, Faith & Leadership as one example:

3For further discussion, please see: For a one-page description of the strategy, please see:

About Chris Seiple

Chris Seiple is Principal Advisor for Templeton Religion Trust’s Covenantal Pluralism Initiative, and President Emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement. He is widely known and sought after for his decades of experience and expertise regarding issues at the intersection of geopolitics, US foreign policy, Asia, conflict resolution, human rights, and religion. He earned his Ph.D. in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. His books include The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement (Routledge 2023), co-edited with Dennis R. Hoover.

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