Uncertain future for The Office of Religion and Global Affairs
The Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA), housed within the State Department of the United States government, is facing potential budget cuts by the Trump administration. What is the role of this office? As the RGA website states, it:
advises the Secretary on policy matters as they relate to religion; supports our posts and bureaus in their efforts to assess religious dynamics and engage religious actors; and serves as a first point of entry for individuals, both religious and secular, who would like to engage the State Department in Washington on matters of religion and global affairs.
Specifically, key officers within the RGA are tasked with promoting religious freedom, monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, and liaising with Muslim communities. The scope of the Office's work has been enormous, positively impacting everything from the natural environment to community health.
What might cuts to the RGA mean for national and international efforts aimed at peace-keeping, tolerance, and religious freedom? In the face of such uncertainty, the D.C-based Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) and the Center on Faith & International Affairs recently released a brief detailing nine recommendations to the Trump administration pertaining to the aims of the RGA. As quoted from an article published in The Christian Post, the recommendations are as follows:
1. Trump should set "clear policy priority" for international religious freedom and commit the institutional and financial resources necessary to succeed.
2. Establish an inter-agency task force to create an international religious freedom policy strategy.
3. State Department should give greater authority and resources to the Office of International Religious Freedom.
4. Develop a mandatory international religious freedom training curriculum for "all American diplomats."
5. Mandate the allocation of embassy resources to engage religious actors and communities.
6. Re-energize attention to religious freedom within U.S. programs promoting democracy and human rights.
7. Make strategic communications and public diplomacy more attentive to religious freedom.
8. Engage multilateral institutions and international law related to religious freedom.
9. Work closely with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
During the briefing at Capitol Hill at which this report was unveiled, the Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, commented on the Western belief that religion ought to be confined to the "private sphere." Regarding the fourth recommendation in particular, The Christian Post quoted Bennett's explanation of why and how this belief can harm international efforts aimed at religious tolerance:
"Those of us who have gone through secular universities, or secular education system, for a very long period of time, we have seen ideas of religion, faith literacy, religious literacy pushed squarely to the private sphere," he said. "The absolute privatization of religion in Western democracies has had a number of impacts. One of the impacts is that when it comes to the formation of liberal beliefs ... there is a lack of knowledge about why the people of faith act the way they do."
Here Bennett is highlighting one of the primary benefits of religious literacy training, which is to expand one's understanding of how different people experience and make meaning in the world. Rather than limiting our conception of religious belief to that which occurs in the "private sphere," this type of training can encourage "Western" individuals to see how faith inflects social, political, and economic life in profound ways elsewhere in the world. In this way, it is invaluable in creating empathy and, ideally, in reducing conflict.
Read the full RGA article here.
Read The Christian Post article here.