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US Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives Interview with Chris Seiple

  • Chris Seiple
  • September 4, 2013

Originally posted on the Venn Institute website, during the below interview, Chris Seiple shares his thoughts regarding the new State Department Office dedicated to outreach to the Global Faith Community and Religious Leaders. Dr. Seiple explains his take on what the new office of Faith Based and Community Intitiaties actually means for the future of international religious freedom (IRF) in U.S. foreign policy.

Venn: Secretary Kerry just announced the creation of the new Office of Faith based and Community Initiatives. What is the purpose of this new office?

Seiple: As I understand it, the office will serve as a focal point for the U.S. State Department’s engagement of religious communities worldwide — in consultation and cooperation with other relevant State Department offices, e.g., the Office of International Religious Freedom — as a part of the White House’s interagency presence through its Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and in support of the new U.S. strategy regarding religious leader and faith community engagement.

Venn: How is the Office of Faith based and Community Initiatives different from the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department and will these two offices likely be in competing roles?

Seiple:Theoretically, the two offices should complement each other. According to the announcements made by the State Department, the new office will work in support of the new interagency strategy and its three focus areas: development/humanitarian assistance; pluralism/human rights; and, conflict prevention/mitigation. The religious freedom office will continue to promote religious freedom, cooperating at various points of overlap with the new office (most likely in the context of pluralism/human rights).

The bottom line is that religious freedom and religious engagement are two different things. The former is the freedom of conscience to choose, change, or share beliefs, religious or otherwise, and bring those beliefs into the public square. Religious engagement is allowing for religion, at the least, as an analytic factor in realpolitik; therefore, engaging the world as it is, understanding the positive and negative possibilities of religious communities in any sphere of influence or sector, while intentionally engaging religious communities to advance common values, as appropriate.

(FYI: Along with others, notably Dr. Doug Johnston, I have been calling for such a broad and integrated approach for a long time — e.g., here in 2004, and here in 2008 — and it is exciting to see new foreign policy mechanisms take structure, and strategy. I recently testified before Congress about this need.)

Venn: You are a member of the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group which recommended that this Office of Faith based and Community Initiatives be created. What is the role of this working group and how were members selected to join?

Seiple: In May of 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created a “Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society,” as she wanted to hear American civil society speak into how the U.S. conducts its foreign policy. By law, she had to create a Federal Advisory Committee (FAC) in order to formally receive recommendations from civil society. This Federal Advisory Committee was to last for two years and consisted of six working groups: Women’s Empowerment, Human Rights, Labor, Governance, Religion & Foreign Policy (RFP), and Philanthropy (the RFP group was established in October 2011, and the Philanthropy group in 2012). Each working group had governmental co-chairs and civil society senior advisors, both of whom were seated on the FAC with voice and vote. In May of 2013, the FAC was continued for another two years under the ongoing leadership of Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, the Secretary of State’s Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies.

Along with Dr. William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace, I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a member of the Federal Advisory Committee, and Senior Advisor to the Religion & Foreign Policy working group since its beginning. The governmental co-chairs invited members to the State Department’s working group. Last year our working group made several recommendations — not least new thinking about “Track 1.5 Diplomacy” at the U.N. — with our work culminating in a White Paper; with several more suggestions and recommendations for the U.S. State Department to consider, among which was the creation of this new office.

Venn: A group of 52 organizations and individuals sent the President and Secretary of State a multi-faith NGO letter recently in support of the creation of this new office. What does the support of the working group and this informal group of NGOs indicate to you regarding the need for greater inclusion of religious freedom in US foreign policy?

Seiple: This letter resulted from participants of the “International Religious Freedom Round Table,” a non-partisan group of IRF NGOs that meets every two months on Capitol Hill to share ideas and practices about how best to protect and promote freedom of conscience or belief worldwide. (Full disclosure, I co-founded and co-chair this group.) We met just yesterday (22 August 2013) to discuss, among other things, how we, as a community, might find common cause with the new office at the State Department. The recommendations of the RFP working group and the IRF NGO Roundtable letter to Secretary Kerry indicate that there is almost universal support for the U.S. government to engage the world as it is; i.e., to address and engage the best of faith and the worst of religion in a practical manner across all sectors of society, and state.

Venn: Some organizations and individuals have been critical of this new office saying that it might be unconstitutional and is tantamount to government support for religion or will favor certain faiths. How do you respond to these critics?

Seiple: Clearly there will be legal guidelines about how U.S. government officials should engage, so I am not particularly worried. That said, too many wail at the alleged wall of “church-state separation,” ironically threatening the constitution that they say they are trying to protect. The constitution does not provide for a public square without religion, but one informed by the values of all faiths (and none). Our founders allowed for the reality that the majority of people believe in something greater than themselves, and that such values will positively inform public policy. Our founding fathers also recognized that when such beliefs are repressed and not included in the public square, the possibility of instability increases. (Please see my discussion of Roger Williams, and here for a discussion of religion and security.) According to the legal guidelines, U.S. government officials need to engage the world as it is.

Venn: The creation of the new Office of Faith based and Community Initiatives provides more opportunity for NGOs and faith groups to engage the US government in the protection and promotion of religious freedom. What do you recommend that NGOs and faith groups do to best utilize and work with this new office?

Seiple:My hope is that religious communities/faith-based groups — through the RFP working group, the IRF NGO Roundtable, or otherwise — and the U.S. State Department will seek each other out, making routine their regular interaction through an agreed upon platform. One way or another, I think there is the potential for religious communities/faith-based groups to provide, as appropriate, and agreed, a “reach-back” and “reach-forward” capacity. According to the platform developed, the issue and/or the country, religious communities/faith-based organizations could opt-in to particular partnerships with the State Department, “reaching back” to domestic faith communities (to include diaspora) and the academy for advice, contacts, and scholarly research (perhaps through ad hoc research task forces); while, “reaching forward” to faith communities in overseas contexts for additional insight and partnerships that would not otherwise take place.

For example, could a research task force be established — with governmental and non-governmental leaders, from the U.S. and overseas — that provided a recommended “tool kit” and “roadmap” for engaging religious communities in a certain country, with one of the goals being to build religious freedom better in that complex context? Could there be an ongoing discussion and/or task force that considered how best to include/integrate religious engagement/religious freedom in the MDGs beyond 2015? These are the kinds of questions that I think we all need to be asking.

Venn: How does IGE promote religious freedom and how can individuals learn more about your work?

Seiple: Thank you for asking. Our relational diplomacy takes a “Track 1.5” approach, bringing the top-down of governments (policy/track 1) together with the bottom-up of grassroots (people/track 2) to help enable sustainable change. We work transparently, building sufficient consensus for practical roadmap agreements that build religious freedom through local partnerships. If you would like to learn more, you can read about IGE’s “4 3’s“, or about our theory of change.

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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