SALT LAKE CITY — Katherine Marshall spent countless hours this year discussing what faith groups can contribute to the G20 agenda. As she read the "G20 Leaders' Declaration," published after this weekend's meetings in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she searched for the fruits of her labor.
"I did a word search for 'interfaith,' 'religious' and a few other things. I came up with zero results," said Marshall, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
The declaration promises future improvements in access to education, food security, gender equality and other areas. It doesn't mention how faith groups can help governments achieve these goals.
Marshall wasn't surprised about the results of her search. One of the things she's learned through her work with the G20 Interfaith Forum, an annual gathering of religious leaders, scholars and humanitarian organizations that aims to bring religious insights to the attention of G20 political leaders, is that becoming more visible in the G20 process is complicated.
Political leaders may acknowledge that religion inspires community service work and produces moral citizens, but they need a little more convincing to give faith groups a seat at the G20 Summit table.
"Being aware of and addressing the big issues in ways that … policymakers find useful can help get their attention," said Brian Grim, who participated in this year's forum, which took place in Argentina in September.
Moving forward, the G20 Interfaith Forum will continue to adjust how it coordinates and communicates with secular leaders, Marshall said.
"This is a continuing process," she said. "We're already working on Japan," where the G20 Summit will gather in 2019.
The G20 Summit is an annual gathering of leaders from the world's wealthiest countries. Participants take turns hosting the event, and hosts set the meeting agenda.
As a result of this structure, each year brings new challenges for the G20 Interfaith Forum, which has met for the last five years. Each host country has unique interests that must be addressed.
"This isn't a typical academic meeting," Marshall said.
Forum organizers want to ensure their conversations are relevant, so they base much of their schedule on the G20 Summit agenda. Argentina chose the future of work, the infrastructure of economic development and food sustainability as this year's key G20 themes, so the forum featured discussions on fair labor practices, economic inequalities and environmental concerns, as the Deseret News reported in September.
"It's no accident that the lists of topics and so forth were consistent," Marshall said.
After the forum concluded, organizers summarized the three days of discussions and promoted related policy recommendations. This document sought to make it easy for secular leaders to bring religious actors and interests into their policy plans.
For example, G20 Interfaith Forum leaders note that faith leaders can be valuable partners in efforts to address climate change. "The challenges we face are not merely technological, but ethical. Religious communities are vital to addressing these dimensions," they wrote.
The policy recommendations also included more general calls to improve religious literacy and protect religious freedom. The document, like the forum as a whole, urges secular leaders to welcome religious voices to their discussions.
"Achieving longer term G20 objectives … depends on heavy lifting coming from religious communities around the world," this year's list of recommendations explained.
As Marshall noted, the G20 Summit's summary declaration doesn't mention religion by name. Although the forum has formed valuable partnerships over the last five years, they aren't yet major players in the G20 process.
"Interfaith (activism) is not a central part of the G20 process," Marshall said.
In order to become a central part, the G20 Interfaith Forum could try to become an official engagement group, formalizing its relationship to the G20 Summit. Engagement groups provide their policy recommendations directly to political leaders, rather than relying on more informal networks to spread the word.
However, many obstacles stand in the way of this shift, including some resistance from forum participants, as the Deseret News reported in October. Some people worry that becoming a formal engagement group would mean giving up the freedom to discuss topics that aren't on political leaders' radars.
"We must … not link our work to the G20 so that we aren't limiting our capacity," said Alvaro Albacete, deputy general secretary of KAICIID, an international, multi-religious organization, during this year's forum.
In the short term, the G20 Interfaith Forum will have to rely on more subtle adjustments to increase its impact, organizers said.
For example, the forum could take cues not just from the G20 Summit's formal agenda, but also anticipate current events, said Grim, who is president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. Trade talk dominated this year's G20 Summit because of the ongoing clash between the U.S. and China, and it will likely also occupy leaders' attention next year in Japan, he said.31 comments on this story
"Other issues that are likely to come up are security and demographics. Japan, China and Korea all have below replacement level fertility rates," Grim said.
Although it may be a while before formal G20 Summit documents include a shout out to faith, each year brings new partnerships and "clarifying" discoveries, Marshall said.
"The fact that there isn't an explicit mention of religion (in the G20 Leaders' declaration) doesn't mean the Argentina government and other governments didn't hear or weren't interested in it," she said. "I think we've come a long way."