University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Gerard F. Powers

Later this month, the U.S. State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group will submit its recommendations to Secretary Hillary Clinton after a year of work. With subgroups on development, religious freedom and democracy, and conflict mitigation and prevention, the Working Group facilitated engagement with religious leaders, civil society groups, and experts on religion. One impetus for the Working Group was a 2010 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which called for strengthening U.S. foreign policymaking by strengthening the capacity to engage religion.

The Working Group is long overdue. Religion is a key factor, for good and ill, in the national security “headliners” from Iraq and Iran to Pakistan and Israel-Palestine, but also in other conflicts festering beneath the radar, such as those in Congo, Sudan, and Colombia. U.S. policy on these and other areas has suffered from a lack of literacy about religion and a failure to effectively engage religious actors. The notable exception is religious freedom, after 1998 legislation established a new State Department office and an independent commission on the issue.

Religion is a key factor, for good and ill, in the national security “headliners” from Iraq and Iran to Pakistan and Israel-Palestine, but also in other conflicts.

Why the lack of serious attention to religion? Religion seems especially complicated and sensitive; engaging religion could violate separation of church and state; and religion is a diversion from the main task of engaging governments. Reinforcing these concerns is a secularist worldview that considers religion mostly as anachronistic and a source of conflict, a volatile force that has no place in the public square or in foreign affairs.


U.S. policy has, by necessity, paid far more attention to religion since 9/11. But it has focused too narrowly on the negative role of religion and too exclusively on extremist movements within Islam. While the U.S. government has long funded faith-based agencies, such as Catholic Relief Services, because of their expertise in development, often missing is an appreciation of the positive role of religion in promoting human rights, justice, and peace.

Since 9/11, U.S. policy has paid far more attention to religion. But it has focused too narrowly on religion’s negative role.

Several steps could be taken to improve U.S. engagement with religion.

First is to begin to change the culture, particularly within the State Department. The leadership must be clear that an effective foreign policy requires a sophisticated understanding of and constructive engagement with religion. While the 1st Amendment might restrict certain kinds of engagement, it must not be an excuse for no or inadequate engagement with religion.

Second, changing the culture requires expanding existing efforts to improve religious literacy. The Foreign Service Institute’s optional four-day course on religion and foreign policy should be expanded and made mandatory for all new foreign policy officers and ambassadors. Religion could also be integrated into other on-going programs, particularly those with an area focus.

Third, religious engagement must be institutionalized in new ways. The following options should be considered:

1) Create an Office for Faith-Based Initiatives. This office could facilitate the State Department’s religious engagement, though it would lack the capacity to offer substantive expertise across a wide range of issues.

2) Expand the mandates of the Commission and Office of International Religious Freedom to include conflict and peacebuilding. This option would build on existing competencies and relationships and provide needed substantive expertise, but would further institutionalize the stove-piping that helps keep religion on the margins.

3) Re-designate the Undersecretary for Political Affairs as the Undersecretary for Political and Religious Affairs. Douglas Johnston argues that this option would best ensure that religious engagement is integrated into the policymaking process across the State Department. It would require a change in culture and would be the most costly option at a time when resources are scarce.

Policymakers must resist the temptation to try to control or manipulate religion. Religion should not be seen as a tool to achieve short-term U.S. policy objectives. That is precisely the kind of interference that the 1st Amendment rightly seeks to avoid, and it would be counterproductive in the long run. U.S. interests will benefit from better understanding and engaging religion; religion should not be expected to serve U.S. interests.

Changing the culture, improving religious literacy, and institutionalizing religious engagement would help the United States avoid actions that inadvertently feed religious extremism and engage religious actors, who are so often an unheralded force for justice and peace.

Gerard F. Powers is professor of the practice of Catholic peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.