Religion has played an increasing role in U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy over the last 15 years, but its status at the State Department may be threatened by proposed budget cuts and vacancies within the Office of Religion and Global Affairs.
President Donald Trump's budget proposal, released March 16, would decrease the State Department's budget by 28 percent through a variety of policy and personnel changes, including a reduction of payments to the United Nations and increased resource-sharing in peacekeeping and other diplomatic efforts.
This budget "recognizes the need … to pursue greater efficiencies through reorganization and consolidation in order to enable effective diplomacy and development," the proposal reads.
As part of these reorganization plans, administration officials considered eliminating positions related to reducing anti-Semitism and boosting Muslim outreach, sparking an outcry from members of Congress and other civic leaders. These faith-based posts weren't specifically mentioned in the budget proposal, but some observers say they're still worried about the future of religion and foreign policy under Trump's leadership.
"Eliminating the department's capacity to engage religious actors in pursuit of U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives would do American diplomacy a great disservice. The office's budget is mere pocket change in the grander scheme of national security funding, and its many contributions … far outweigh its costs," Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, reported.
The Trump administration should recognize the value of religious voices in foreign-policy debates by protecting funding for religion-related positions and filling vacancies at the State Department, said a former department official under a Democratic administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in an effort to keep partisanship out of religious outreach.
"The strength of the U.S. and its influence in the world is not just economic and military might. It's also our values related to human rights and protecting religious freedom," the official said.
Goals of the RGA office
President George Bush's creation of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2001 set in motion a multi-year effort to increase religious literacy at the State Department, Brookings reported. State Department employees, including diplomats, were encouraged to see faith communities as potential allies around the world.
In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry took religious engagement a step further, establishing the Office of Religion and Global Affairs and putting Shaun Casey, a scholar of Christian ethics, at the helm.
Casey was "charged with growing our ability to reach out to more communities and to create greater understanding among people and countries," Kerry explained in an article for America magazine in September 2015.
Casey's team, also known as RGA, included three other religion-related officer positions, which had already been part of the State Department: the special envoy for monitoring and combatting anti-Semitism, the special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the special representative to Muslim communities.
"The logic behind this move appeared to be that since these pre-existing roles all had a connection to organizations or communities perceived as 'religious' in some sense, combining them in a single unit would create beneficial synergies across their work," Brookings reported.
These three leaders — whose positions were thought to be at-risk during the Trump administration's budget planning — have some freedom deciding which projects and issues to pursue. Their job duties include monitoring problems affecting Jews or Muslims around the world and working with other government officials, including the secretary of state, to solve them.
Overall, the RGA office works to build bridges between a variety of people: from diplomats to religious leaders, from the secretary of state to minority faith groups and from U.S. congregations to the government.
"The Office of Religion and Global Affairs is adding value on some of the most difficult international challenges that our country faces," Kerry wrote in 2015, citing climate change as an example.
His assessment is shared by a variety of religion experts, who are amazed by the amount of people impacted by this office in its first four years of existence.
"RGA has developed policy approaches and initiatives that have made concrete and recognized contributions across a wide range of issues including combatting corruption, protecting the natural environment, advancing global trade and enhancing public health," Brookings reported.
Many State Department officials who served during President Barack Obama's eight years in office left their posts after the election. Casey, for example, departed in early January.
These changes have led to vacancies at key positions throughout the department, including in all four of the RGA posts described above, according to the State Department's website.
Vacancies are common during the transition of power, especially when the new president is from a different political party than the old one. And Trump is not the first president to leave a key religion-related office empty. It took Obama 27 months to name an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, according to World magazine.
However, the current wait for new leaders and ongoing budget talks are creating unrest and lowering morale at the State Department, according to the former official.
Congressional leaders have also taken note of the Trump administration's religion-related inaction. On March 10, 167 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the White House detailing the importance of the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.
"We view U.S. leadership on combatting anti-Semitism and promoting human rights as pivotal components of American diplomacy and foreign policy. The Office of the Special Envoy enables the U.S. to show the world its commitment to these ideals, particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is dangerously on the rise," they said.
Although the jury is still out on the Trump administration's approach to religious outreach in the foreign policy arena, people are understandably nervous about losing the momentum established over the last few years, the former official said.
"Most of the world's population is religious … and to not recognize that when you're looking at issues around the world is not realistic," the official said. "It's very useful to use religion to look at problems and understand the positive roles (religious) actors and institutions can play in advancing U.S. foreign policy."