PROVO — Shaun Casey spent his first day at the State Department in 2013 overwhelmed by his job and amused by his temporary office space. He had a wastebasket, a phone, a malfunctioning computer and little to no idea about how the next three to four years would unfold.
Casey had just been sworn in as the U.S. special representative for religion and Global Affairs. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry entrusted him with revolutionizing the way American foreign service officers approached religion in the field, but he wasn't sure where to start.
"I was thinking, 'OK. There are 7.6 billion people in the world and probably 76 billion different forms of religiosity. I'm just myself,'" Casey remembered.
He set about hiring smart and passionate people, eventually managing a team of 30 as head of the State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs. They thought of themselves as perpetual students and tried to collaborate with anyone who came through their door.
In spite of this friendly approach, Casey's efforts to improve religious understanding at the State Department were generally tolerated rather than embraced. He came to accept that he wasn't going to win a professional popularity contest, which is why he was tickled by the size of the crowd during his Feb. 1 presentation at Brigham Young University.
"I'm blown away that we have a full house to talk about interfaith harmony," he told the crowd of students and campus leaders.
Casey, who grew up in the Churches of Christ but is now United Methodist, first learned to love religious outreach as an academic. He received a Master of Divinity and Doctorate of Theology from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Master of Public Administration from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He was teaching at Wesley Theological Seminary when he first met Kerry in 2005, and the two kept in touch on matters of religion and foreign policy over the next eight years.
Casey left the State Department after President Donald Trump's election and now serves as director of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. During his talk at BYU, he outlined the philosophy that drove his government service, as well as his office's role in the global refugee crisis and Israel-Palestine peace negotiations.
Casey also expressed frustration about the Trump administration's decision to fold his former office into another part of the State Department, but said he believes religious outreach will emerge as a foreign-policy priority again soon.
"I'm completely confident that we proved the concept," he said.
Casey met with the Deseret News before his public lecture, exploring key takeaways from his three and a half years at the State Department and reflecting on why international leaders are just now beginning to take faith seriously.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: What fell under your purview at the State Department?
Shaun Casey: Our office had a three-fold mission: We advised the secretary (of state) on religion. We tried to expand the capacity of the State Department to engage religious actors and assess religious dynamics. And we were the port of entry for any external actor, community organization or scholar who wanted to learn more about what we did. There was no such thing as a regular day.
I built a staff of 30 brilliant people. We didn’t promote a particular theological line or a particular religious community. We met with everybody who wanted to meet with us.
It was busy. I travelled a lot. We interacted with the whole of the State Department. I tried to help other bureaus and offices be more successful.
At the end of the day, I think we modeled a more sophisticated approach to religion than anything the State Department had done in the past.
DN: How did you find and choose your office's projects and programs?
SC: People often came to us with really cool ideas and helped us see the religion angle.
One day a young woman stuck her head in my office and said, "Are you Dr. Casey?" And I said yes, so she asked me what I thought about AMR.
I told her I couldn't answer that question until she told me what AMR is. It stands for anti-microbial resistance. I was confused about how religion cut across that so I asked her to help me connect the dots.
There's a rise in resistance to antibiotics in the developing world, which is becoming a global health threat. We ended up doing this amazing initiative with the Vatican to address it.
The people I hired, particularly the six regional advisers, met with leaders at regional bureaus to identify other projects.
For example, in 2015, Nigeria had elected a new president who identified fighting public corruption as one of his top 3 strategic goals. My Africa adviser said, "Shaun, let’s see if we can do an interfaith initiative among Nigerian religious leaders to combat public corruption."
We ended up doing a two-day seminar — one day with Christian leaders, another day with Muslim leaders — and between the 40 or so religious leaders, there were probably one million congregants affected by the program.
I could never have predicted the diversity of issues we worked on at the outset. We really worked hard to be open, to be entrepreneurial and to be nimble, and I think, on the whole, we pulled it off.
DN: Those programs seemed to involve careful planning and execution. Were there also times when you had a huge project arrive unexpectedly?
SC: When I came to the State Department in 2013, the refugee crisis didn't exist. We were very responsive and tried to shine a light on best practices, particularly in the refugee resettlement process.
The State Department had nine implementing partner agencies that helped refugees transition to the U.S. Six of them were religiously affiliated.
Working with them, we discovered there was a new form of interreligious cooperation happening at the grassroots level. Christian groups, Jewish groups and Muslim groups were coming together to support the resettlement of an incredibly diverse population of refugees.
We helped our European bureau take lessons from the U.S. and apply them to their situation. We got smart on refugees almost overnight.
DN: Your job also included boosting religious literacy within the State Department. Were your coworkers receptive to that?
SC: It was a very mixed bag.
The State Department is very traditional in its training of foreign service officers. I spent a lot of time trying to persuade leaders that professors on my staff could come in and teach religion. That was a struggle.
At the embassy level, it was easier because we could go in and model how to engage. In a sense, we gave them permission to use a skill that most of them already had but were afraid to use.
Foreign service officers are multilingual. They understand politics, history and economics. But when it came to religion, they would often get paralyzed.
My argument was that they were already good learners. I said, "Come follow me and my staff for a week and you'll see how we do it."
DN: Why do people struggle to recognize religion's role in foreign affairs?
SC: Religion is a multivalent force. There are people out there who say religion screws up everything. And other people say religion cures everything. Neither one of those claims is true.
People have done unspeakable things in the name of religion, and people have done amazing things.
Our office had no bias either way. We just said that if you want to understand your neck of the woods, you'll want to pay attention to religion.
The argument we often made is that we can point to great failures of American diplomacy and foreign policy where our willful ignorance of lived religion cost us. Exhibit A is Iraq.
We spent trillions of dollars and we’re still in debt trillions of dollars because of Iraq. It was our willful ignorance of the dynamics of (Muslim sects) that fed our hubris about being welcomed as liberators.
And so our reconstruction efforts led to an insurgency. Thousands of American soldiers died. Tens of thousands were maimed and disabled. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died because of our hubris and willful ignorance.
Very few people told me, "This is a dumb idea, Shaun. Why are you here?” The smarter ones said, "OK, we see the problem. But what's the alternative?"
Our job was to come up with an alternative way to engage religion that at least marginally helped us better our diplomacy.
DN: You've been critical of the Trump administration's approach to religious outreach. What do you expect moving forward?
SC: All I know is it's a mess and it's going to get worse. I'm not hopeful.
Just look at where we are on Israel. We've made blunders there and we may be witnessing the death of the two-state solution because of willful ineptitude of this administration on religion in that region.
DN: How did your office's approach to religion differ from the way other countries approach it?Comment on this story
SC: A number of countries are now looking at doing something analogous to what our office did, which is gratifying. It's too early to say if that's going to lead to real changes, but there are somewhere between 12 and 20 countries dabbling in it.
People realize that some religious communities are incredibly powerful in shaping national and international life. To ignore that is to be less effective in diplomatic engagement.
DN: Why did it take until 2013 for the State Department to hire someone to do the work that you did?
SC: It may have taken that long to be able to do it in a way that didn't tip the scale in favor of certain faith groups.