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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Shaun Casey discusses the role of religion in global affairs with Fletcher religion initiative

Shaun Casey speaks at The Fletcher School on April 4.

The Fletcher School’s Initiative on Religion, Law and Diplomacy organized a book talk with Shaun Casey, former U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs, on his new book, “Chasing the Devil at Foggy Bottom: The Future of Religion in American Diplomacy” (2023), on April 4. The talk was moderated by Fletcher Military Fellow Chris Melvin.  

Casey first discussed the interests and circumstances that guided him to the State Department, citing his time as a paper boy at age 11 and his experience growing up in a family of teachers as the foundation of his outlook. 

“From an early age, I realized the United States was just simply one country in this very, very complex planet we were living on,” he said. “I finished my doctorate at Harvard Divinity School, and I took a job teaching religion and politics in Washington City [Utah]. I literally got the perfect academic position to be observing what was going on and then I met John Kerry fairly early in my career there.” 

He and Kerry shared ideas about American diplomacy, especially on many missed opportunities that Casey faulted to a “willful ignorance” of religious dynamics. This later inspired his book in which he references Iraq, describing it during the event as a “casebook study of how not to do religious dynamics.” 

“It wasn’t that they just had [the State Department] tiptoe by religion and they missed it. It’s because they said, ‘We don’t do religion,’” Casey said. 

He went on to talk about this as a global trend, discussing his perspective regarding the misconceptions in U.S. foreign policy that have resulted in a skewed outlook toward religion and its role in global affairs.

“I think the American government has often looked at religious leaders as props, that if the Imam or Archbishop can be seen as endorsing American policy, you would use them for that,” he said. “But to the extent we thought they had good ideas about foreign policy, even in their own arena, that just has not been part of the culture at the State Department. I think it’s driven in many parts by American exceptionalism.”  

According to Casey, the U.S. government realized that it had no real understanding of the role of religion in international affairs in the aftermath of 9/11. 

“Suddenly, there were hundreds of self-appointed Islamic experts born in America, with some insights, who had read a couple of books,” he said. “Some of the initiatives that came up in response to that were bad, some of them were awful, some of them were okay. But it took until the second Obama administration for this office, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, to get started.” 

Casey argued that this matter needs to be examined with nuance, as the Biden administration has not reopened the office after it was shut down in 2017 under the Trump administration. 

He also underscored the importance of education in changing attitudes on religion in politics. 

“You need to be conversant across a number of academic disciplines to be able to carry a conversation and to be able to look with educated eyes at what’s going on in different parts of the world,” Casey said. “I had to build my own program. It wasn’t because Harvard had a clear path. ... Now there are a lot of students who’ve done versions of what I did back in the last millennium, but again, the institutions haven’t always been helpful.” 

Ciara Moezidis, co-chair of the Initiative on RLD, shed light on the process of planning this talk. 

“RLD is really trying to bring religion into the conversation at The Fletcher School. A lot of the time, religion is dismissed, but it really should not be,” Moezidis wrote in an email to the Daily.

She added that after taking a class with Casey at Harvard Divinity School and reading his book, she felt that Fletcher students would really benefit from his insights.

Moezidis hoped that hearing Casey’s insights would prompt students to evaluate their own perceptions and biases in the workplace. 

“Nothing is black and white and being religiously and culturally literate in diplomacy and other international affairs spaces is quite important if we want to do our jobs in an intentional and nuanced way,” she wrote. 

For Moezidis, understanding the dynamic nature and cultural roots of religion is necessary, as it remains prevalent in international relations.

“Instead of dismissing religious actors and only seeing religion as important for international religious freedom work, Dr. Casey’s office operated to move away from these practices,” she wrote. “Engaging religious actors and groups is important in building a more holistic approach to this work.”