Religious scholar argues for better understanding of church and state
In “Religious Freedom in a Secular Age,” Michael Bird takes…
‘If you’d asked me in ’79, ‘What do embassies do?’ I had no clue,” Shaun Casey told an audience gathered at the Abilene Christian University Library to hear him talk about “Chasing the Devil at Foggy Bottom.”
The detailed book merges the style and substance of memoir, academic treatise and, at times, self-effacing story-telling. More than half of its nine chapters are written as case studies describing Casey’s work as the founding director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, an appointment he began under former Secretary of State John Kerry.
The office was shuttered under the Trump administration and has not been reestablished under the Biden White House. But the mission remains one the theologian and diplomat is committed to and a primary motivation for writing the book.
In it, Casey builds his thesis around three questions: Why is it important for American diplomacy to have a capacity to understand global religious dynamics? How does one do this sort of work? And how do you institutionalize and expand innovation in a change-resistant bureaucracy like the State Department?
He argues that to be effective, American diplomacy must “have the capacity to interpret religion” and that ignorance of religion can be costly. And he believes that through repeated policy failures, the cost in both dollars and lives has been enormous.
Casey built the office on a set of values both surprising and attractive to his team members: Find joy in your work. Treat others with dignity. Continue learning. Support a flexible workplace. Do collaborative, creative work. Drive out fear.
Accommodating personal and family obligations was not the department’s norm, Casey told his audience, but over four years working with 40 different people, “life happened.” And he sought to recognize that.
That human touch extended to the style of diplomacy Casey describes in chapters that detail work with the Vatican, the global refugee crisis, armed conflicts on several continents — including deep involvement in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy — and a chapter called “Responding to the Universe,” which he says could have been called “Surprises.” Its stories include 36 hours in Havana and in-depth conversations with religious leaders in Nigeria in an effort to fight corruption.
A diplomatic conversation with a Palestinian theologian took a productive turn because Casey knew the man had attended Hardin-Simmons University, a Baptist school located in Abilene, Texas. Casey told him he had attended Abilene Christian University.
“He told me that in 1958 the best soccer game in Abilene was on Saturday afternoons at Abilene Christian,” Casey writes. “It scrambled my brain to imagine a Palestinian Anglican playing soccer there back in the day.”
If the depth of knowledge in theology and public policy can be attributed to his intellect and education, Casey’s personal, pastoral touch finds root in his family background and early years spent in local ministry. Casey grew up in the bootheel of Missouri and in Paducah, Ky., attending the local Churches of Christ, which he describes as playing an “outsized role” in his childhood.
“I grew up in a family with parents who were first generation college grads — five kids, loud dinner table conversations,” Casey said, describing his family. “We read two newspapers every day — there was a premium for learning what was going on in the world.”
That hunger for learning led him to a Bible degree at ACU and eventually a doctorate in theology at Harvard University.
Along the way were years spent preaching at local congregations in Mississippi and Massachusetts and 13 years on the faculty of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
Related: A voice for global religious freedom
In a chapter titled “Male, Pale and Not Quite Yale,” a reference to the State Department demographics, Casey recounts his upbringing against a backdrop of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War, including a moving retelling of registering for the draft. Casey’s Southern, lower middle class roots and undergraduate degree from a small Christian college in West Texas were atypical in the sprawling bureaucracy of the State Department.
So who is the devil of Foggy Bottom? He explains that in the final chapter. For now, suffice it to say he draws on his Hebrew training to explain it.
Devil aside, he concludes that by nature he is both hopeful and realistic — realistic in his fear that the State Department “will go back to its ill-educated reticence” about religion but hopeful that “we made a compelling case in our short tenure” for greater recognition of the critical role of religion in global diplomacy.
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle contributing editor who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].
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