Remarks at the Launch of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives

John Kerry
   Secretary of State
Shaun Casey
   Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs 
Melissa Rogers, Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
Washington, DC
August 7, 2013

The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. Good morning, everybody. Please be seated. Thank you very, very much. Sorry to be a moment late. I apologize. Really delighted to be here this morning for this singular, historic initiative. And it’s a great pleasure for me to be able to take part in this.

I’m convinced that all of you will agree that one of the toughest challenges that we face in terms of global diplomacy and relationships around the world between peoples nowadays, from sectarian strife to the challenges of many intractable, frozen conflicts, to the challenges of simply understanding people – one people to another – or even monumental challenges like the sectarian strife that we see tearing countries and regions apart, as well as the enormous challenges of things like global climate change, which really is a challenge to our responsibilities as the guardians – safe guarders of God’s creation.

As Secretary of State, and before that as a senator for 29 years, I have met with faith-based leaders all across the world, had the privilege, obviously, of running for President of the United States, met with many members of our faith-based community here in our country, and I have met with people of all religions and of all life philosophies and belief systems. And that experience has only reaffirmed my belief that there is much more that unites us, and should unite us, than divides us.

Gandhi called the world’s religions beautiful flowers from the same garden, and I had the privilege of giving an address at Yale University a number of years ago to a gathering of evangelicals from around America and imams, muftis, ayatollahs, clerics from the Muslim world – an improbable gathering you might think at first blush. And for three days people worked and struggled with the effort to find the common ground. And there is common ground between the Abrahamic faiths, and, in fact, between the Abrahamic faiths and all religions and philosophies, whether you’re talking about Hindu or Confucianism or any other of the many of the world’s different approaches to our existence here on the planet and to our relationship with a supreme being.

All of these faiths are virtuous and they are in fact, most of them, tied together by the golden rule, as well as fundamental concerns about the human condition, about poverty, about relationships between people, our responsibilities each to each other. And they all come from the same human heart.

As leaders and citizens, particularly people in public life, everybody talks about how we draw strength from the example of our faith communities – but not enough people actually translate those words into actions or policies or life philosophies. And so I think whether it’s our teachers, our activists, our religious leaders who work to heal, we learn a great deal, which stands in stark contrast to violent extremists who seek to destroy and never talk about building a school or a community, or providing health care or succor to anybody.

So we need to recognize that in a world where people of all faiths are migrating and mingling like never before, where we are this global community, which we always talk about, we ignore the global impact of religion, in my judgment, at our peril. And I have talked at length with people like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or even King Abdullah, Prince Ghazi of Jordan, and others who are engaged in interfaith efforts, all of whom recognize that their religion, Islam, has to a large measure been hijacked by people who have no real depth with respect to what the faith in fact preaches, but who interpret it in ways that lead people to conflict and even to violence.

So it’s not really enough just to talk about a better dialogue. I think we have to stand up and deliver one. And that’s why I am very proud today to announce the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives here at the State Department. Its mission is as clear as it is compelling: It 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, and there is an enormous partnership, I believe, there for the asking.

Many of you know that we already have a number of leaders here at the State Department that work on issues related to religion, including our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. And I want to say that I have great respect for and enormous gratitude for their efforts, and these leaders are important and will remain equally as important. But I believe that their work will be enhanced by this effort. And the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives will grow our ability to be able to reach out to more communities and to create greater understanding between peoples and countries.

The office grows out of the recommendations of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, and I want to thank its members, many of whom are here today, for their leadership. It also grows out of the U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement, which underscores the Obama Administration’s commitment to working with communities of faith to advance our shared goals. And you will hear in a moment from our representative from the White House with respect to that.

Engagement – the engagement that I’m talking about is a two-way street. Our job at the State Department is not just to proclaim or to stand up and pontificate about the things that we want. We have to listen to people about the things that they want. And everybody here today has played a valuable role in promoting the development of countries or preventing conflict, advancing human dignity all across the globe. So we launch this office with a clear intent to keep our door open and to work as cooperatively as possible with all of you.

I am genuinely excited about the possibilities of this. Around the world, from Egypt to Ethiopia, from Peru to Pakistan, religious leaders every day are taking on some of the toughest challenges that we face. They’re healing communities. They’re providing counsel to families. They’re working in partnership with governments for the enduring health of our planet and its people.

So I say to my fellow State Department employees, all of them, wherever you are, I want to reinforce a simple message: I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work. Build strong relationships with them and listen to their insights and understand the important contributions that they can make individually and that we can make together. You will have the support of this Department in doing so, and you will have great leadership from my friend, Dr. Shaun Casey, who is going to lead the charge to integrate our engagement with faith communities with our diplomacy and with our development work.

I met Shaun back in 2005. Mike McCurry, who I see sitting back here, introduced us at a dinner. And we became friends in that process and pilgrims on a similar mission, if you will – a professor of theology who has always been interested in politics, and a politician who has always had a lifelong interest in religion. In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today. We’ve had many discussions together about these. And over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Shaun as a deeply thoughtful person who cares about the place of faith in our public life.

And I want to emphasize this to everybody because I know the question will be out there: Is this sort of a departure from the norm? No. We approach this with the full recognition and understanding of – Thomas Jefferson’s understanding and admonition about the wall of separation between church and state. But what we are doing is guided by the conviction that we have to find ways to translate our faiths into efforts that unify for the greater good. That can be done without crossing any lines whatsoever.

One of my favorite passages from the Scripture sums up what Shaun and I think this effort is really all about. It’s a familiar Gospel of Mark in which Jesus says to his disciples, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.”

I believe that public leadership is now and always has been and should be a form of service. It requires a bona fide effort to give to others and to do for others. And it is the kind of commitment that Shaun has exemplified throughout his life, which has been selfless and devoted and heartfelt.

So each of us, I believe, needs to do our best to answer this call of service and to help each other to hear it in a common spirit of obedience, humility, and love. I’m enormously grateful that Shaun has answered that call, that he has been willing to come here to the Department to help us integrate these policies, and really to magnify, augment, grow our capacity to meet the challenges of this planet.

No one would sit here today, or anywhere else, and suggest that we’re doing such a good job everywhere that we don’t need to bring more people to the table. It is clear, with the numbers of failed states and failing states and growing youthful populations around the world who feel disenfranchised and disconnected and unable to find jobs or get the education they need, we have work to do together and we need everybody at the table. And that’s what this is about.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Shaun Casey. (Applause.)

MR. CASEY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your kind remarks. I’m humbled that you’ve asked me to help launch this initiative, and I’m thankful to you for the opportunity to contribute to your work as Secretary of State.

I see so many of my friends in this audience. I’m not going to begin to call names or we’d be here a very, very long time, but I’m deeply touched that you’re here. I am blessed by the fruit of the long and deep conversations I’ve had and the relationships, so thank you and bless you for coming.

I also want to recognize my wife Ann, my daughter Sarah. I want to thank them for their love, their patience, their toleration that they have modeled toward me over the years. (Applause.) Yeah, please. (Applause.) But I’m deeply touched that you’re all here.

Mr. Secretary, several years ago, you and I started a conversation about the rich, diverse, and complicated public implications of religious belief and practice. At that time, some were claiming that religion poisons everything, while others were saying that religion would save and solve everything. You knew, however, that the reality was somewhere in between.

I remember thinking at the time how unusual it was for a public figure to see the potential in and the power of religious groups tackling extreme poverty, convincing people to combat global climate change, fighting for global human rights, mitigating conflict and building peace, even at a time when others focused on those religious folk who committed acts of violent extremism, perversely claiming justice in the name of their own faith. From that day forward, I admired your willingness to defy the conventional wisdom that dictated religion was a purely private, personal choice, and thus communities bounded by faith must be entirely left outside of discussions of policy. That is why, today, engaging these communities in the context of policy has always struck me as being a matter of very great and deep importance. Let me briefly describe why we are expanding religious engagement and how we will go about doing that engagement.

The answer to the “why” question is straightforward: As religious leaders and faith communities shape their environments, they also have an influence and shape our own foreign policy concerns here in the United States. It’s essential for the United States to understand them and to bring them into our diplomacy and development efforts.

The Obama Administration has emphasized from the outset the need to build strong relationships with religious actors and to collaborate with them on a variety of fronts, from conflict prevention and mitigation, to promoting human rights, to fostering development. The presence of my good friend Melissa Rogers here from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is evidence of the commitment from the Obama Administration from the outset in this arena.

How then will we proceed to do this form of engagement? First of all, we will ensure that our engagement efforts will be consistent with the United States Constitution and other laws, both in terms of the spirit and letter of the law.

Second, we will collaborate with the immense talent already working in the State Department in terms of various aspects of religion. Secretary Kerry alluded to the working group that helped lay the ground for the creation of this new office, but let me mention some of the people who are already working very hard in this space: Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Rashad Hussain, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, and Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith, not to mention the many leaders of our regional and function bureaus and our officers serving at posts around the world.

I’m deeply impressed by the depth of talent and commitment already in this building on this range of religious engagement issues. The point is that our collaboration with my office is not to design and create a new silo that addresses religion in an isolated manner. Rather we are seeking to multiply the engagement with religion that already exists across the bureaus and offices of this great organization.

And thirdly, we seek to be fair; we seek to be accessible and transparent in our engagement. This means, among other things, that we have much to learn from our partners across the globe. Our engagement has to be a two-way or sometimes multi-way dialogue that builds trust so that we can build – make progress towards our mutual goals.

I’m reminded today of Reinhold Niebuhr, a man who walked these halls some 60 years ago, trying to dispense his advice to anybody who would listen to him as he ranged through the hallways here, especially about how the United States in that era should navigate the complex waters of foreign policy in the aftermath of World War II and during the birth pangs of what we now know as the Cold War.

I think we find ourselves today in a similarly complex “in between” time, as was the case in the late 1940s. Niebuhr feared at that age that America might be distracted by several things in its foreign policy that might have led the country astray. Among those was perhaps an inordinate pride in our own power and our own virtue, and also the absence of a clear path about how to negotiate a post-World War II map as well as the emerging Communist bloc.

Now in contrast, he was preaching a message of chastened wisdom in which the United States Government engaged in the slow, and at times difficult, process of diplomacy, willing to courageously pursue justice and peace while exercising American leadership in a very muddled and confused world.

I’d like to think that Niebuhr would approve of our efforts today in expanding religious engagement as we, too, navigate through very perilous times. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

And now I want to introduce my friend, Melissa Rogers, from the – Director of the White House Faith-Based Office of Neighborhood Partnerships. Melissa. Thank you. (Applause.)

MS. ROGERS: Thank you so much, Shaun. Good morning. I’m honored to be here today. Let me thank Secretary Kerry for his leadership and my friend Shaun Casey for the leadership he will provide in the days and years ahead. Secretary Kerry has chosen the right person for this important task.

I also want to thank everyone, including the many who are in this room, who have labored for years to bring this day about. This is your day too, and it’s a cause for celebration for all of us. Let me say a word of thanks for your vision and for your work.

For millions of people, here in the United States and in countries around the world, faith is a fundamental part of their identity. It shapes who they are and how they understand the world around them. It provides a sense of community and a network of support.

We have seen the power of religion throughout human history. In our own country, for example, we’ve seen religious leaders join with others in championing causes like abolition, civil rights, and the eradication of poverty. In so doing, these advocates have often led our nation to heed the better angels of its nature. Similarly, around the world, on issues ranging from health to education to conflict prevention, religious and other civil society leaders are tackling some of our most pressing challenges. They help create more peaceful and secure communities. Of course, as we know all too well, there are also times when religion is abused to promote violence and destabilize communities.

The potential for religious communities to spark both positive and negative movement makes it essential for the United States to understand these communities and to engage with them. As the State Department does its work around the world, it must have a firm grasp of these dynamics and it must know how to address them in ways that are informed and intelligent. Under Shaun’s leadership, this new office will help the Department to accomplish these goals.

The office will also help spearhead a new Administration strategy that encourages engagement with religious and other community actors to advance three critical objectives: First, promoting sustainable development and a more effective humanitarian response. Civil society organizations and leaders, including religious ones, are addressing key issues such as poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS prevention, and child survival. By working in partnership with religious and other community leaders, and with other governmental agencies, of course, like USAID, we hope to better protect the most vulnerable among us. And by ensuring that development and humanitarian assistance programs are mindful of the very important religious aspects in the context where these programs are administered, we hope to overcome some of the misunderstandings surrounding our assistance.

The second objective is advancing pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom. Our engagement with religious and other civil society leaders should strive to promote pluralism and respect for the human rights of all people, including members of minority or marginalized groups. Now, we understand that sometimes civil society leaders and institutions may disagree with our positions on certain issues, but we’re committed to having the conversation. Increasing our engagement with a diverse spectrum of religious as well as secular communities will help us to underscore the universality of these critical rights. And here, the new office, of course, will work closely with the Office of International Religious Freedom, among many other State Department offices.

The third objective is preventing, mitigating, and resolving violent conflict to enhance local and regional stability and security. While it is critical to understand the ways in which religion can be manipulated to exacerbate conflict, religion is not an inherent source of conflict or violent extremism. Strategic engagement with religious leaders can help us to break cycles of violent conflict.

Now, as Shaun and Secretary Kerry have said, a guiding principle for all of this work will be that our actions must be consistent with the United States Constitution. Employees of our government can and should engage faith-based leaders and communities on US policy priorities just as they do other civil society leaders and communities. At the same time, our precious religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment mean that we must observe some special rules when we engage religious actors and matters, such as ensuring governmental neutrality toward faith. All diplomatic and consular posts will receive guidance and continuing assistance on these important issues.

From the start, the Obama Administration has emphasized building strong relationships with religious and other civil society leaders and working with them on a variety of issues. It’s already been mentioned that the State Department has conducted a dialogue with civil society, a project that includes the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. This group has helped lead us to this day and will continue to be a valuable resource. And in addition to our own White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, many federal agencies have Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships that regularly work with community organizations – both religious and secular – to serve people in need. And by the way, I’d like to thank Joshua DuBois and Mara Vanderslice Kelly, who have provided terrific leadership on these issues for many years.

Thus, we are building on a strong foundation as we seek to institutionalize our outreach across departments and agencies to make engaging religious and other civil society leaders a routine part of the way we do business. And under Shaun’s leadership, I have no doubt that this new office is going to play a key role in advancing that agenda. But of course, to do this work effectively, we will need your help.

We are so grateful for this new opportunity that this office and these strategies provide to partner with you in new ways, and we look forward to working with you to advancing the common good in the days ahead.

Thank you so much. (Applause.)

PRN: 2013/0972