Is the Government’s New ‘Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives’ a Constitutional Concern? August 8, 2013

Is the Government’s New ‘Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives’ a Constitutional Concern?

Nearly a year ago, a “Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group” made a recommendation (PDF) to Secretary of State John Kerry to establish some sort of “institutionalized mechanism” with which to advise the State Department on religious engagement:

Yesterday, Kerry formally announced that he was taking that advice and creating the State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives:

… 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.

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.

Well, we’ll see about that… I agree with Kerry that religion is a key factor in worldwide politics and we have no choice but to understand faith and engage with faith leaders around the world. Whether we like it or not, they have power and can be a force for change. Based on what Kerry said, there’s no reason to think this office is there to promote religion (more on that in a moment).

Melissa Rogers, the director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was present for the announcement. She’s met with representatives from the secular community before so she’s no doubt aware of our concerns. What did she have to say about this new office?

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 [Dr. Shaun Casey’s] leadership, this new office will help the Department to accomplish these goals.

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.

Sounds okay, right? Everything is on the up and up?

Well… maybe. There’s are important outstanding questions here:

Can we really engage in conversation about religion that doesn’t involve funding religious groups along the way?

Who represents various religions and their numerous sects? Is this just going to be a giant Boy’s Club?

Do atheists get any role in these conversations?

Dr. Austin Dacey notes these concerns in an essay for Religion Dispatches:

Constitutional or not, official interfacing with “faith-based organizations” will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as “religions” and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.

Often it is precisely the dissidents, the doubters, and non-traditional believers who are most in need of recognition, and who often offer the most-needed perspectives on the prospects for peace, the rule of law, and minority rights in their societies. When the U.S. government bestows high-level diplomatic attention instead on select (typically male, adult, and non-democratically appointed) spokespersons, it aids them in consolidating their own power and authority within their communities.

Jacques Berlinerblau, author of How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, is also concerned but believes that representatives from this office could truly make a difference if they went around the world and promoted the sort of church/state separation setup we have in the United States:

The best thing this office could do is present the United States as what it is, which is a pluralistic, [multireligious] society in which toleration, freedom of conscience and religious liberty are placed at a premium,” he said. “As an office, if it models that, if it goes into Tunisia, Morocco, China, and says ‘Well, this is how we do it, would you like some advice? This is how we think about issues involving heresy, this is how we think about issues involving inter-religious strife, or the use of ceremonies in public places and symbols,’ it could be very, very effective. Not to inculcate people, but to lead via consensus and via example, and to just say, ‘Well, this is the model.’ If I were to set up the office, I would place an absolute emphasis on it looking like America religiously.

Much like the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, it’s just another area of government we’ll have to keep an eye on to make sure there are no abuses of power. (I’m especially worried about what may happen to these offices under a future Republican administration…) There’s a nice roundup of what several scholars have to say about the new office here.

As we know, there have never been any secular Americans on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Despite the good intentions, there’s plenty of reason to be suspicious about how these offices will operate and what their treatment of the non-religious perspective will be.

(via Religion Clause)

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