Religious freedom re-emerges as timely topic
From fervent debates over U.S. state laws to shocking global reports about terrorists targeting the faithful, religious freedom once again is a topic of public discussion.
So, when the 2015 Religion Communicators Council convention met April 9-11 in the Washington area, the intersection of religion and government was part of the focus on local and global communications.
Communicators heard from two U.S. government officials who work each day where ministry and governance intersect — Melissa Rogers, who leads the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Shaun Casey, who leads the U.S. State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives.
The Rev. Ken Bedell, an RCC member and United Methodist from the West Ohio Conference, pointed to the hiring of Casey, a fellow United Methodist and professor from Wesley Theological Seminary, as a sign that the U.S. government is taking religion seriously as a part of its global engagement.
Bedell himself works for the U.S. Department of Education Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and is involved with the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which encourages both community service and a broader understanding of religion among students.
The faith-based offices of various federal government departments relate to the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, led by Rogers. She formerly served as executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
First Amendment rights
Undergirding any U.S. discussion on religion is the First Amendment, which requires that the government make no law that establishes religion or prohibits the free exercise of religious beliefs.
President Obama embraces “both the letter and the spirit of these constitutional commands,” Rogers told convention participants in her April 10 keynote address, and he believes in the right of every person to practice their faith — or observe no faith at all, free from persecution and fear.
The role of her office at the White House, she explained, is not to promote faith but to assist people in need by forming partnerships with faith-based groups and other service-oriented organizations. “In other words, our aim is to serve people who are struggling,” Rogers said.
Partnership between the government and faith groups takes many forms and involves numerous connections.
The Salvation Army and Texas Hunger Institute, for example, are among those who provide federally subsidized summer meals when schools are closed. Homeless U.S. veterans can be reached through groups like Catholic Charities, Gospel Rescue Mission and Jewish federations. The White House office works with United Way on human-trafficking issues, while partners on the Ebola crisis in West Africa included the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
Assessing religious dynamics
As the special representative to the U.S. Secretary of State for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Casey works directly with Secretary John Kerry and has a staff of more than 20 people who relate to the state department’s six regional bureaus. He joined the department in 2013.
“Our job is to bring a more sophisticated approach to engaging religion actors and assessing religious dynamics around the world,” he told RCC members in an April 11 keynote presentation.
His office has three basic missions: to advise the secretary of state when religion comes across his portfolio; to build the capacity of the State Department to understand religion and to go into the field and “model what religion engagement looks like.”
The fieldwork, Casey added, is “not as hard as it seems. The first piece is you’ve got to show up. The second thing you have to do is be an active listener.”
After that, the most important step is finding ways to facilitate an ongoing conversation. “True diplomacy requires you to keep building a dialogue, so when a crisis arises you’re not meeting people for the first time, but you’ve got a relationship to draw upon,” he said.
Casey’s office serves as a “communications portal” to those outside the State Department. “In my first three months, I had over 400 groups or individuals come to see me,” he recalled. “There was an astonishing demand on the part of both domestic groups and global groups to come and see what the state department was doing new in respect to religious engagement.”
He said that initial investment of time “is paying dividends now” as people return to offer information or policy advice.
And by being “radically inclusive” of all religions, Casey said, “I have met global faith groups I never knew existed.”
Most faith groups are familiar to the World Association for Christian Communication, whose officers met simultaneously with the convention.
The Toronto-based organization believes “that communication plays a vital role in building peace, in building security, and to give a sense of identity,” said Karin Achtelstetter in a presentation about faithful responses to local and global needs.
In her view, communication also is a function of transcendence. “There is a sacredness in creating meaning that we share in common,” she explained.
One of the association’s commitments is the Global Media Monitoring Project, which grew out of the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women as a way to measure gender equality in media coverage. The monitoring occurs every five years.
In 2010, Achtelstetter reported, only 25 percent of those interviewed or who were the subject of a news story were female. “Women’s points of view are rarely heard in the topics that dominate the news agenda, even in stories that affect women profoundly,” she noted.
Although the 2015 survey just took place March 25 and results have not been compiled, statistics from the monitoring in Canada that she participated in appeared to be “very depressing,” Achtelstetter said.