Will Kerry Bring Faith to Foreign Policy?

US Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of a bilateral meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on February 14, 2013 at t
US Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of a bilateral meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on February 14, 2013 at the State Department in Washington, DC. Kerry Thursday praised the 'successful' intervention by France to root out Islamic rebels in northern Mali, and urged Malian leaders to hold elections. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry is now the face of America to the world -- a pervasively religious world. With more than 80 percent of the global population affiliated with a religion, Kerry's ability to engage religious issues and actors will be vital to the success of his diplomacy.

From northern Mali to southern Thailand, the power of religion to motivate and mobilize violence is known painfully well. Less well known but more significant are the extraordinary positive contributions of religious communities to mitigating violent conflict and to promoting health, education, development, and other social goods. Nearly every major international issue has some religious dimension.

If American diplomats are to empower the constructive rather than destructive potential of faith, they must "get religion" -- regardless of whether they are personally religious.

John Kerry gets it. During his 2004 presidential campaign Kerry was criticized for his reluctance to discuss matters of faith, but he has become more comfortable and conversant with faith in recent years -- even as he maintains his distinctly liberal expression of Catholicism. He has spoken openly about his faith at such venues as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the "A Common Word" dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

In a lecture last March at Gordon College, an evangelical school in Massachusetts, Kerry noted that his many years of service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee helped him realize the profound importance of religion in international relations -- and in his own work. He told Gordon students, "I consider public leadership to be a form of Christian service and an expression of my faith."

During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Kerry spent several minutes answering a question about religious freedom. At one point he even joked that his State Department handlers would probably want him to stop talking about this sensitive subject but he kept going, launching into a discussion of the importance of continued dialogue with Muslim communities.

Kerry's friendliness to faith is a strategic diplomatic asset. According to Gallup, strong majorities in most countries say religion is important in their lives. In Mali, today's religio-political hotspot, the figure stands at 94.5 percent. It's also important in the lives of a great many of the presidents, foreign ministers, and other officials whom Kerry will engage with during his service as America's top diplomat.

Within his own agency, Kerry's appreciation for faith at both a personal and policy level positions him to further develop institutional capacity for religious engagement. To do so, he can begin by building on the work of his predecessor.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton energetically promoted religious engagement, particularly with Muslims, faith-based civil society organizations, and on issues of religious freedom. Members of her Policy Planning Staff created a Forum on Religion & Global Affairs and an Interfaith Working Group. In 2010, in collaboration with the White House, the State Department compiled the Religious Engagement Report, an unprecedented internal survey that revealed a growing attention to religious concerns and communities at U.S. embassies around the globe.

To further formalize her engagement with religious civil society, Clinton launched a Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society in 2011 that included a Working Group on Religion and Foreign Policy. After a year of consultation, this working group of outside experts submitted a white paper to Clinton, which she received with enthusiasm but had little time to implement.

Kerry and his aides can now use the white paper as a green light and a blueprint for broadening and deepening religious engagement over the next four years.

The paper provides a succinct, compelling rationale for "comprehensively engaging the role of religion and religious communities worldwide." It goes on to highlight the State Department's current capacities as well as the barriers to a more comprehensive engagement.

To overcome those barriers, the paper offers four excellent recommendations: 1) create an interagency coordinating mechanism (preferably at the NSC) for religious engagement; 2) provide more tools and training on religion for American diplomats; 3) establish a permanent office or other institutional mechanism for religious engagement coordination at the State Department; and 4) renew the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group.

These recommendations are all worth pursuing, and the third is perhaps most important to consolidating the progress that was made under Clinton. As the white paper observes, "at present, there is no office, taskforce or other structure within the Department that possesses the resources or the mandate necessary to effectively coordinate religious engagement across the State Department."

Without permanent structures, recent progress remains tenuous. Religious engagement efforts could continue to ebb and flow as a highly transient diplomatic corps responds to the exigencies of the day. Many officials involved in religious engagement projects under Clinton have already moved on to other assignments or left the Department.

Eleven federal agencies have institutionalized their religious engagement by creating permanent faith-based centers linked to the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The State Department needs such a center. In the immortal words of Jean Monnet, a chief architect of the European Union: "Nothing is possible without men, but nothing lasts without institutions."

The white paper presents Kerry with several exciting possibilities for lasting institutional reform. Will he take advantage of Clinton-era momentum to more fully equip the State Department to advance American interests in a faith-filled world? That would be a momentous step forward. Let's hope Kerry takes that step of faith.

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom as well as the Policy Planning Staff and was founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs. He is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs.