July 19 2024

Secretary of State John Kerry on the "Pervasive Impact" of Religious Identities in World Events

Secretary of State John Kerry speaking at the podium during a speech to the Baker Institue of Public Policy at Rice University

US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at Rice University's Baker Institue for Public Policy last Tuesday, April 26, 2016. In a wideranging speech, covering issues that include the normalization of relations with Cuba, the targeting of religious minorities by ISIL, the spread of anti-Semitism across Europe, and the threat of climate change, Kerry spoke about the fragile relationship between religious movements and political and economic realities. An excerpt from his remarks appears below, and the full transcript and video of the speech is available via the State Department's website.

As the child of a Foreign Service officer, a Navy veteran, a senator for almost 30 years, and now as Secretary of State, I have seen firsthand the pervasive impact that religious belief – and actions motivated by religious identity – have on world events. It’s why I have often said that, if I had a chance to go back to college all over again, one of the subjects I would absolutely like to study is comparative religion.

Consider that four out of five people on Earth align themselves with one religious tradition or another, and that over the centuries, religious teachings, movements, and conflicts have done as much as any secular ideology or economic force to determine the political context and geographical boundaries that define the international arena.

Religion today remains deeply consequential, affecting the values, the actions, the choices, the worldview of people in every walk of life on every continent and, obviously, also here at home. It is a part of what drives some to initiate war, others to pursue peace; some to organize for change, others to cling desperately to old ways, resist modernity; some to reach eagerly across the borders of nation and creed, and others to build higher and higher walls separating one group from the next.

But religion is not only pervasive; it is also complex, especially when viewed from the ground up. Most religions are internally diverse, reflecting multiple schools of thought, regional variations, and complicated histories. And the actions of religious communities, like all communities, are embedded in the political, economic, and cultural environment in which they are carried out. That is why religion as it is actually lived does not always look the way that we expect or have the impact that we anticipate. It is also why our engagement with religious actors has to extend beyond designated leaders to the rank and file.

Now, historically the State Department has tended to downplay the role of religion or pay attention only when religion is deemed a problem, a threat, a challenge. The department has not traditionally had the resources or made the necessary commitment to systematically analyze the importance that religion holds for the success or failure of our foreign policy. One of my predecessors, Madeleine Albright, pointed out that when she entered the office as secretary of state, she had advisors on political, military, economic, developmental issues, but none on the key topic of religion. Now that has changed, and the purpose of my remarks tonight is to explain what we now do differently and why those differences matter.

First of all, since becoming Secretary, I have made a regular and intentional effort to benefit from the wisdom and to exchange ideas with representatives of the major religious traditions. To that end, I have met with Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders, representatives of Jewish communities in Europe and the United States, American Hindus, Orthodox Christians, and many more.

But for obvious reasons of time, the personal efforts of any Secretary of State can never be nearly enough. And that is why in 2013, when I became Secretary, in my first year – first months – I established an Office of Religion and Global Affairs headed by Shaun Casey, who is here with us tonight, one of our country’s leading thinkers on religion in public life.

I asked Shaun to take on sort of three missions in this effort: to advise me on how religion impacts U.S. foreign policy priorities, to support the entire State Department in better understanding religion and engaging religious communities, and to establish wider and deeper ties with key stakeholders across the globe.

In fulfilling those mandates, Shaun has pulled together a team of experts who have met with thousands of religious officials from five continents. And by the way, Shaun not only is here tonight, but he’s here with his chief of staff, Liora Danan, who is a Rice grad, folks, so there you go. (Applause.) I don’t know where she is. Stand up. Are you here somewhere? Where are you? Bashful – she’s over here. Okay. Embarrassed her.

Shaun’s office also includes a special envoy on anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, and a special representative to Muslim communities, Shaarik Zafar, and he grew up, by the way, right here in Houston. And he has built – they have built, frankly, together – valuable connections to Muslim men and women in every corner of the globe.

And we’ve also greatly expanded our Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by Ambassador David Saperstein, a brilliant person who champions the principle of religious liberty everywhere, including places where people are in danger each day simply because of what they believe or who they are.

In addition, we reach out to multilateral institutions. Our acting envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Arsalan Suleman, is engaged in comprehensive dialogue with members of that body on issues that include political crises, economic development, refugee relief, human rights, and religious pluralism.

And finally, we are striving to enhance our training with the goal of having people in every single one of our more than 240 embassies and consulates who can engage knowledgeably with religious actors in the country where they are posted.

Image credit: Secretary Kerry Delivers a Speech About the Intersection of Religion and Foreign Policy at Rice University's Baker Institute in Houston via State Department's Flickr. Public Domain.