Religion and Diplomacy Conference

Shaun Casey
Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs 
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough
Washington, DC
September 26, 2016


[Slate reading "United States Department of State | Secretary's Office of Religion and Global Affairs | #RaDCon | Religion and Diplomacy Conference | U.S. Department of State | Washington, D.C. | September 26-27, 2016"]


AUDIENCE: Good morning.

SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE CASEY: My name is Shaun Casey, and I'm the Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs here at the State Department, and I want to welcome you to our conference on religion and diplomacy.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to join us today. We have been hard at work in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs these past few weeks, putting together what we hope will be a rich experience for all of you. I could just sit here for several minutes picking out all my friends and acquaintances. I hope we have time to touch base and catch up over the course of the day.

But it's an honor to be with you. I think this is testimony to the depth of interest and concern in our issue area. So welcome, thank you for your support, and thank you for your partnership.

We have two days of interactive programming planned in which we're going to showcase many lines of effort in our office. We're also going to highlight several arenas of ongoing work. We're going to spend some time looking over the horizon to division areas of future work at the intersection of religion and global affairs.

Here at the outset, I want to take a moment and set the stage for what we're going to be covering over the course of these two days. As you can see from the list of participants in the various sessions, it's fair to say that there has been a shift in the United States government in how it approaches religion and global affairs. The White House understands the importance of this work. We're going to hear from Denis McDonough and Melissa Rogers later. The Secretary of State certainly gets the importance of this work.

But most importantly, staff here in Washington across the U.S. government understand the importance of religion and global affairs, as they're engaging more on the subject, they're connecting more to expertise, and the demand for greater understanding of religion and diplomacy has never been higher in Washington, D.C.

Last spring, Secretary Kerry gave a speech on religion and policy. And he said, "The more we understand religion and better we are able as a result to engage religious actors, the more effective our diplomacy will be in advancing the interests and values of our people.

He went on to note in that speech that religion is pervasive. It motivates billions of people around the planet to do an amazing array of things. He added that it's consequential, influencing people to the deepest level of their being on scores of issues, and it's complex in that most religious traditions are internally diverse, they produce multiple schools of thought, they vary by geographical region, and they all have complicated histories.

He also observed that historically, the Department of State has tended to downplay the role of religion, or it pays attention only when religion is deemed to be a problem, a threat, or a challenge. We have not traditionally had the resources or made the necessary commitment to systematically analyze the importance that understanding religion holds for the success or failure of our foreign policy.

Secretary Kerry launched our office three years ago to begin to rewrite this history. Our purpose over these two days is to demonstrate how far we've come, and how some of those attitudes that he identified have evolved and changed.

As you glance at the schedule, I want to highlight several things for you. First of all, there's simply the question, why have this conference, and why now? As many of you know, for many years in academic circles there's been a robust debate about whether or not the United States government should devote more resources to understanding the diplomatic implications of religious belief and practice.

I want to make clear, we are not here today to debate that question, should the government do it or should it not. It's our belief that Secretary Kerry has told us the answer to that question is, yes, we should be. We should be doing this work if he's giving us the institutional resources to begin doing that work.

So the question we're pursuing is not why, or if, but how the State Department should be engaging religious actors in assessing religious dynamics. The bulk of the conference is dedicated to showing how we're doing this work. I think this represents a new stage in the wider academic and public debate, and we're indebted to Secretary Kerry for his vision and his support in launching our office.

Second, it's our belief that to do this work correctly, it has to be done collaboratively. There are over 80 people presenting, leading, and participating in the various sections over these two days. If you scan that list, there are people who come from inside the U.S. government, there are people who come from academia, people from think tanks, others from nonprofit and non-governmental organizations, religious groups, and organizations. This reflects a fundamental commitment in our office to working inclusively as we know how. In three short years, we have engaged literally thousands of actors all across the globe. It's our hope that you will get a good sense of the extent of that collaboration here.

Many of you, as I look out across this audience, have worked with us in various arenas in various ways. And we're thankful for your interest. We're think for the wisdom and the brainpower you bring to the State Department to make our work more effective.

Now, I should be quick to add that we have not answered every conceptual or pragmatic question that might be raised in this space of religion and diplomacy. We do, however, believe that we made a good start, and we're deeply indebted to many of you in this room who come from outside the U.S. government. In our ongoing dialogue with you and others, we believe that we can tackle the thorniest questions that await us in this space at the intersection of religion and global affairs.

Again, I want to thank all of you who partnered with us and have found ways to engage us these last three years. We hope that these relationships develop. We hope they deepen. We hope they evolve, and at the end, produce a more robust and effective U.S. foreign policy.

Third, we hope that you will note the wide variety of issues we are addressing, the diversity of specific geographical locations around the world where we engage and the variety of methods that we employ. Religion is exceedingly complex. It is subject to multiple interpretations, and often fraught with risk. Brian Hehir famously said a few years ago that "U.S. policymakers need to learn as much as possible about religion, and incorporate that knowledge into their strategies." But then he said this work is akin to brain surgery-- a necessary task, but fatal if not done well.

Our staff reflects this, as we have over 20 graduate degrees in religion or a cognate field, and we have a vast reservoir of global experience in interpreting religion in local and regional contexts. As we have hundreds of partners who help sharpen our thinking and understanding, we believe we have the necessary resources to continue.

Finally, I see a lot of friends, partners, and supporters in the audience today. It's gratifying to me to see all of you here. I often joke that as a graduate professor all those years, I never built anything larger or more permanent than a 12-person graduate seminar that lasted 13 weeks. I have a better story to tell now after these three years.

If you're here, it probably means you've come to know the work of our staff, this remarkable band of 30 who I've come to love and respect and admire. Our success is a combination of talent and partnership, so let me express both my thanks to our hardworking staff. I'm going to call some people out later in the day and thank them for their amazing work. But they put in a lot of extra hours to pull this conference together, and I also thank you, our guests, for your support and collaboration.

I hope you will take a very good and deep and long look at the breakout sessions. We have put together 12 of those, where we planned a lot of interactive work. I ask that you do show up to the ones you're pre-registered at. Space is at a premium today. Some of our stations are oversubscribed. We ask that you go to the ones you've pre-registered for, and we ask frankly that you stay in those spaces for the hour.


There's not a lot of space to move around in the Marshall Center. And you'll find, as you back and forth here, it's going to be cozy, to put it mildly. So we ask that you come to the sessions you pre-registered for, and that you stay in them for the duration.

We are extremely fortunate to have White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough with us this morning to deliver our keynote address. I met Dennis a little over a decade ago under circumstances that reveal something of his character. So I'm going to tell a quick story.

This was in the early days of the Iraq War, and I took a group of seminary students to the Hill to discuss the ethics of the war with a House staffer I had recently met, Tommy Ross, who then worked for Congressman David Price. When we arrived at the room after we'd gone through security in the Capitol, there was Tommy standing outside the room with another person, someone I didn't know. But there was this tall, wiry, intense-looking guy standing next to him.

So Tommy introduced me to Denis and he said, when I told Denis who I was meeting with today and what the topic was, he asked me if I could join the conversation. I hope you don't mind his joining us.

Now, I remember thinking to myself I'd never had that experience with a Senate staffer who showed up for a meeting they hadn't been formally invited to. And I thought, this is going to be interesting. For Denis to join a class of grad students for a discussion on the ethics of the Iraq War in those early days made a huge impression on me. Suffice it to say, we had a lively hour. And that's when I saw a man of passion, a man seeking justice, a keen mind, and dare I say it, an Irish attraction to argumentation.


So I will say that Denis understands the power of religious actors to shape world affairs. We in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs here at the State Department owe our existence in no small part to his pioneering work at the White House, and I'm grateful for his foresight in helping to launch our office.

Denis is currently serving as President Barack Obama's Chief of Staff, a position he assumed in 2013. Prior to assuming his role, he served as Deputy National Security Advisor from October 2010 to January 2013. He also served as Chief of Staff to the National Security Staff, and as the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.

Prior to arriving at the White House, he served as Senior Advisor on Foreign Policy Issues on the Presidential Transition Team, and on President Obama's 2008 campaign. Prior to that, he was a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Denis also worked in Congress, including as a foreign policy adviser to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.

Please join me in welcoming White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.


CHIEF OF STAFF DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, good morning, everybody. And thanks, Shaun, for that very kind introduction. Jim, it's nice to see you. I'm particularly glad to be in the William J. Burns Conference Hall. I didn't know that until I just walked past the sign. What a terrific patriot and national treasure Bill is.

I want to thank Shaun for your leadership in elevating engagement with religious leaders and communities as a priority of our foreign policy. I read last night, actually, that Secretary Kerry called you a pilgrim. That seems right for me, for you have not just the zeal of your faith but you retain that tirelessness of a hungry seeker. And that's something that is obviously vital to this important work and embodied in this event today. It needs your tirelessness and the tireless of your staff and your team.

I'm also relieved that you didn't tell a different story, which is I'm kind of sheepish here at an event about religion and foreign policy a week after the President told the world in the Vanity Fair that he's disappointed that he swears as much as he swears, but he's only grateful that he doesn't swear as much as his Chief of Staff.


So I'm a little-- shall we say, sheepish today.

So I want to just say thanks, too, to the Office of Religion and Global Affairs for hosting not only an important program, but letting me be part of it. We're pleased that Secretary Kerry established the office in 2013, creating new capacity at the State Department to engage on these issues. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to say a few words about why the President believes this work is so important.

So let me just begin by repeating one of Secretary Kerry's mantras, which is simply that religion matters. Religion matters. On a personal level, like so many of you, I feel this every day. For me, it's my Catholic faith that's always provided me guidance, comfort, challenge, and community.

My mom made sure of that. When my parents moved from Boston to Stillwater, Minnesota, she had two criteria for selecting our new home-- one, that it had to be near a school, and two, it had to be near the church. Some of my fondest memories are of my childhood at that home parish. Alongside my parents and 10 siblings, we would participate in festivals, play games, attend meetings, go to classes.

Today, I carry those memories with me wherever I go. And I'm forever grateful to the teachers who shaped me there at St. John's University and at Georgetown.

Now, I share my experience with religion not because it's unique-- in fact, I share it precisely because it's not unique. Today, it's estimated that more than eight in 10 people in the world affiliate themselves with some religion. Religious beliefs provide a source of identity and a sense of community. They play a fundamental role in inculcating moral codes and in molding worldviews.

As such, religious beliefs are a powerful force in our thinking and in our work. The President's view is that each person is made in the image of God, therefore possessing inherent dignity-- a thought and a belief that informs his decision-making and which is itself informed by his faith.

But religious beliefs are a powerful global force too, not just a domestic force. And inasmuch as our job in foreign policy is to understand the world so as to advance our interests that much more ably, we need to understand faith and how faith drives decision-making by governments and by individuals. That is another way that, as Secretary Kerry would say, religion matters.

Just as religion in and of itself can powerfully impact our lives, so too, of course, can religious leaders. And I know that we have many of them with us today. As some of the most trusted members of society, your influence reverberates through almost every aspect of our lives, from politics and entertainment to business and the economy. That means you're especially well placed to serve as agents of leadership and influence, and hopefully, a positive political and social change.

President Obama is particularly appreciative of this from his early days as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, supported in part by a group of Catholic parishes and by the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. He was impressed by the extraordinary feats that could be accomplished by partnering together. Of course, as he also said, it didn't hurt that they fed him when he was broke. But ultimately, an experience of working hand-in-hand with a religious community to bring about change so moved the President that it helped transform him to a man of faith, and fortified his commitment to living a life of public service.

Beyond his own personal experience, history is replete with examples of religious leaders serving as agents of change. Catholic priests and nuns in Latin America stood up to tyranny and promoted democracy. Religious leaders from an array of traditions advanced reconciliation in South Africa. And as we were reminded again this weekend on the Mall, American faith leaders-- Christians, Jews, Muslims-- championed civil rights and changed this country. And recently, Muslim leaders have come together in Morocco to protect religious minorities, including Christians and Jews throughout the region.

It's partly because of this amazing tradition that the President refuses to dignify terrorists like ISIL, whose hateful actions and teachings have nothing to do with a peaceful religion, and in fact, are a perversion of it. So for all these reasons, the President directed that we do more as governmental officials to understand the impact of religion on society and to engage with faith-based communities.

Plainly, working together with a religious community simply makes sense. It's one of the reasons the President established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009, an office now led by Melissa Rogers. And it's one of the reasons we launched our strategy with Secretary Kerry on religious leader engagement, which the dedicated staff of the National Security Council, and Melissa, have worked so diligently with others, like Shaun, to advance.

So let's consider how this strategy is being implemented across our government, and how it's helping achieve some of our top foreign policy goals, including promoting sustainable development, more effective humanitarian assistance, advancing pluralism and human rights, and religious freedom and ending conflict.

Just to be clear, though-- and I'm sure many of you have heard this before from us-- in no way is the United States government proselytizing or endorsing any particular religion. Our strategy is one of inclusion and outreach consistent with our Constitution. And I know you'll hear more from Melissa on that later today.

But let me begin with the effort to promote pluralism and religious freedom around the globe, since I believe the President has done so much to lead by example in this. As you know, the President visited a mosque in Baltimore this past February. All of you remember that at the time, there was a lot of hateful and inexcusable rhetoric about Muslim Americans and their place in our country-- rhetoric which continues to this day.

The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino had occurred only recently, and some people took the actions of a few as representative of a whole religion, even leading to threats of violence against the Muslim American community. The President strongly believes that in the face of such bigotry, we have a duty to stand up for our fellow Americans and for the persecuted around the world. So he visited with the Islamic Society of Baltimore and said unequivocally that, and I quote, "You're right where you belong. You're part of America, too. You're not Muslim or American. You're Muslim and American."

The President wanted to make as clear as possible to the entire country and to the world that Muslim Americans make valuable contributions to our nation every day as police officers, firefighters, small business owners, corporate executives, government officials, soldiers-- the list goes on. It's only by reaffirming the important role that Muslim Americans and all religious minorities play in our society that we live up to our highest ideals. Indeed, our commitment to protect religious minorities at home helps us to be more credible defenders of religious minorities abroad. And of course, the reverse is also true.

I can't stress enough how much the President appreciated the commitment of so many public servants advancing our values in this space. But both before and after the President's visit to Baltimore, staff at the White House and at the State Department have done an excellent job, meeting with a wide variety of governmental officials, civil society representatives, religious organizations-- all of this to highlight our efforts to combat bigotry and discrimination toward Muslim communities.

Indeed, Secretary Kerry hosted a memorable reception to celebrate Eid this past July. And there, he lifted up the remarkable feats of Muslim citizen diplomats, showcasing how much they do to shatter stereotypes and bridge cultural divide. We also deeply appreciate the dedication of those in this room to these principles of pluralism and freedom, and look forward to continuing to work together to advance them.

So standing side by side with people of all faiths-- and people of no faith-- to promote religious freedom for all, and shining a spotlight on those who would deny it, is a powerful tool in our diplomatic arsenal. To provide you with just one more example, take the National Prayer Breakfast in 2014. There, President spoke movingly of the plight of Pastor Saeed Abedini, who had been imprisoned in Iran, and Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been jailed in North Korea.

In both cases, the Iranians and the North Koreans persecuted these men simply because they wished to freely practice their Christian faith. And in both cases, the President forcefully avowed that this was completely unacceptable and called for their release. Today, thanks to the administration's commitment to standing up for those rights of all prisoners of conscience no matter their faiths or beliefs, Pastor Abedini and Kenneth Bay are both free.

The United States has shown deep concern for religious minorities, including Christians in the Middle East, and the President took decisive action to rescue the Yazidis from Sinjar Mountain. I'm grateful for the work of David Sacristan, who's here somewhere, and all the work that he does on these issues, and also for the work of Acting Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Arsalan Suleman, and Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, and Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Shaarik Zafar.

But now I'd like to say a few words about how our faith-based communities work is advancing sustainable development and more effective humanitarian assistance. One pressing issue which has been at the forefront of all of our minds, including the President's, is the plight of refugees. Today we're in the midst of the largest displacement crisis on record, a crisis in which 65 million people have been torn from their homes and forced to flee by the merciless forces of war, prosecution, instability, and climate change-- 65 million people. That's not only astonishing and heartbreaking, it's unacceptable.

The President is determined to push back on the voices that would claim that it's not our problem, or that we should foreswear our historic leadership on refugees. That's why he pledged that we'd welcome 85,000, including 10,000 Syrians, to our shores in 2016, two goals which we met early this year-- I should say, before the end of this fiscal year.

And that's why he has set a new goal of welcoming 110,000 refugees to our shores in 2017. And no matter how loud the cries from xenophobic voices, the President will not back down on this commitment. To do this good work and defend the idea of America as a place of refuge, we are blessed to have this steadfast support of faith-based resettlement groups and other humanitarian organizations, including many represented here today. In fact, you are at the forefront of our nation's efforts to help refugees start life anew.

From helping them participate fully in civic life to empowering them with the tools they need to succeed as workers and entrepreneurs, you're leading the way in building welcoming communities in which refugees can and do prosper, as they have now for centuries in this country.

And the refugee crisis ties into another great crisis challenge we face, one which religious communities and leaders are also committed to solving. And that is climate change. Climate science tells that we should expect a drought such as the one that induced the conflict in Syria, and water shortages and extreme weather to fuel conflict and uproot people to not only be more regular, but more intense. And that's just one of the myriad problems, not to mention existential threats stemming from climate change.

The President believes that climate is therefore the greatest threat facing our planet. And so, over the course of his administration, he's worked to build a global coalition, culminating in the signing of the most ambitious climate agreement in history this past December in Paris. The entire planet was blessed that Pope Francis put his profound moral authority behind these efforts with his groundbreaking encyclical on the environment. And in the runup to the Pope's visit, we were able to work with diverse faith-based and community groups to form new partnerships aimed at helping us promote climate preparedness at home.

Together with the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, we have worked with many of you to bolster the President's climate agenda. In the leadup to the Paris conference, the office held an important symposium on religion and climate change, a symposium which, as Shaun has written, "brought to the forefront the foundational, moral, and spiritual dimensions of this issue."

Thanks to these efforts, we now have an even greater array of voices supporting our work to preserve the planet for our children and for future generations. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs is not the only agency to reach out to religious communities to tackle some of the biggest development and humanitarian challenges of our time.

The extraordinary leadership is complemented by the extraordinary efforts at USAID's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, led by Mark Brinkmoeller. And like their colleagues at State, their work runs the gamut from public health to peace-building to child survival. On top of taking on some of the biggest challenges, USAID and faith-based organizations have proven ready and willing to take on some of the scariest challenges.

All of you remember that, in the fall of 2014, the world was consumed by fear about Ebola. Horror stories were constantly in the news that disease was spreading. Projections showed up that 1.4 million people could be infected by early 2015. In the face of this terrifying threat, faith-based organizations quietly and courageously entered the front lines to combat the virus.

With support from USAID, they and other USAID-funded organizations traveled to Syria Leone, Guinea, and operated Ebola treatment units in hard-hit neighborhoods. They delivered interim care kits that helped caregivers protect themselves and stabilize ill family members awaiting professional care. After the Ebola outbreak abated, they stayed on improving health facilities, empowering local health workers to take charge of infection prevention and control, and raising awareness in local communities about healthy habits that limit the spread of disease.

Finally, let me briefly discuss our engagement with religious leaders to promote peace and end conflict. Here, too, we have seen remarkable results. Actually, one of the most historic changes in our foreign policy was mediated by a religious leader. I'm speaking, of course, of the work by Pope Francis, through letters to President Obama and Raul Castro, who through a meeting with negotiators encouraged a thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years.

But that is the only the best-known example of our work with religious leaders. Throughout the world, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs and USAID are promoting efforts to promote peace. In Nigeria, the office has worked with prominent Muslim and Christian leaders to develop a shared agenda to combat systematic injustice and corruption to achieve social justice.

In Belgium and France, it has harnessed the power of citizen diplomacy, leading a delegation of civil rights and civil society leaders to conduct an amazing set of workshops on community organizing, media engagement, and coalition-building in order to empower European Muslim youth facing deep-seeded prejudice, as well as aggressive efforts at recruitment. And in Sudan, USAID launched an initiative with Catholic Relief Services to support the South Sudan Council of Churches to address the deep and painful rifts within and between the nation's diverse communities.

As you know, these issues aren't going anywhere anytime soon. There is undoubtedly more work to do, and improvement can always be made. The talent gathered in this room has taken on big challenges before, and today we're asking you to do so again. As this administration comes to an end, we will be relying on all of you to find the answers to these big questions, and to carry on this vital work.

Indeed, we hope that the seeds we have planted will continue to flower, that the good work that has been done to understand religion and to partner with faith communities to promote the common good will continue far beyond the time President Obama leaves office. And we have every confidence that your sessions over the course of the next couple days will be critical in helping us take that next step forward.

Lastly, as the strength strength of commitment and capability in this room attests, the diversity and depth of faith in this country is an enduring and unique aspect of our national strength. So even as we engage religious leaders and religious communities worldwide, we cannot take for granted the religious pluralism here at home that has marked America since its birth. We all must redouble our efforts to protect that pluralism and diversity, including maintaining America's leadership role in refugee policy.

So on behalf of the President, I thank you all for your work, for your dedication, and for your service. I thank you for, again, having me. If you run into him, make sure you let him know that I gave a whole speech and I didn't swear once.


And my best wishes for our conference today, and for the considerable work that lies ahead. Thanks very much, Shaun.