Why Religion Matters: Fighting Intolerance with Broad Coalitions

By Erika Asgeirsson

This week I attended #RadCon, a Religion and Diplomacy Conference hosted by the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. The conference strategized on how to engage religious communities in matters relating to U.S. foreign policy.

Religion is crucial in understanding how individuals, communities, and countries interact with the world around them, and so collaboration between government and religious leaders isn’t just smart, it’s necessary. In his keynote address Denis McDonough, White House Chief of Staff, emphasized that our ability to advance our interests abroad will only be effective if we understand how faith drives the decisions of others, governments and individuals alike.

The First Amendment does not bar consideration of religion, nor does it require removing religion from the public square. To effectively work with religious communities, it’s important to understand that religion is not monolithic, even within the same faith. The way individuals and communities experience religion is different from the religious text they are founded on, different from year to year, and different from community to community. The process of engaging with religious actors is dynamic and requires attention to local contexts.

The State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs was founded in 2013 to navigate these waters. The office serves three broad roles: advising the Secretary on policy matters relating to religion; supporting posts and bureaus in assessing religious dynamics and engaging religious actors; and as the first point of entry for those seeking to engage the State Department on matters of religion and global affairs.

The conference highlighted many examples of important collaboration between government and religious and secular civil society actors. Religious communities have enthusiastically answered the moral imperative to support those desperately fleeing persecution around the world. Religious leaders have served as mediators to de-escalate foreign policy conflicts. Religious and secular civil society have also been driving forces behind coalitions challenging state action that promotes antisemitism and intolerance.

Take for instance the broad coalition that swiftly responded to Hungary’s planned statue honoring Balint Homan, a pro-Nazi government minister who ruthlessly and successfully called for the deportation of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. International civil society, both religious and secular, supported the local community already speaking out on the ground. With Human Rights First playing a prominent role, a diverse coalition collaborated with the U.S. government to persuade Hungary to withdraw its support of the statue. At #RadCon we urged reiterating this model of collaborative mobilization to address dangerous manifestations of antisemitism and intolerance.

Engaging with religious communities is not always easy, and there are potential pitfalls along the way. Such work must be guided by broad notions of tolerance and inclusion. All must have a seat at the table. But when religious leaders, civil society, and government ban together, they can become a powerful force to combat hatred.

As we face rising xenophobia and antisemitism across the world today (take a look at Germanythe U.K., and here at home, for example), we must build broad coalitions to counter hatred and division. Violence and hate against one religious group must be seen as an affront to all, and we must respond to it together.

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Published on September 30, 2016

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