By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Although religion and politics can be a volatile mix, they also can be a force for good, said a U.S. State Department official.
For the past three years, Shaun Casey has been the U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs, a new office when he was appointed. It now has a staff of 30 people who are trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of religious groups worldwide and how they can help diplomatic efforts.
The office advises Secretary John Kerry, State Department bureaus and diplomatic posts around the world about working with people of different faiths and determining an area’s religious dynamics. Sometimes his office deals with religious freedom and violent religious extremism, but those hot-button topics are often handled by other departments.
As Casey sees it, his office is primarily concerned with building bridges by forming religious partnerships on common ground areas such as climate change, economic development, anti-corruption and health care.
Prior to the 2015 climate change talks in Paris, Casey’s office connected with religious communities speaking up on the issue. More recently, the office worked with religious leaders in Nigeria on anti-corruption efforts.
A combined effort for his office and religious groups in the U.S. has been refugee resettlement.
"Without the efforts of religious communities, we would only be able to settle a fraction of what we do; they play an essential role in our success," Casey told Catholic News Service Sept. 22, just days before his office was hosting its first conference.
Casey said the government helps pay for the first 60 to 90 days of refugee resettlement in the United States, but the work and continued support for them is carried out on the ground level by community and faith-based groups.
In mid-September, Kerry announced that the U.S. planned to admit 110,000 refugees next year, an increase from its original commitment to take in 70,000, which was then upped to 85,000 — including more than 10,000 Syrian refugees.
In May, at a conference in Rome sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, Casey said the work religious groups are doing to resettle refugees gives him hope for the country’s future but he said there is still a lot of work to be done.
"One American faith-based development and humanitarian organization reported that it took three years to raise $2.5 million for Syrian refugees, but that it took only a week to raise almost three times that amount following the earthquake in Nepal. We must continue to counter hateful rhetoric and anti-Muslim bigotry in some American communities. And we must push back against forces in the United States that seek to build up walls in communities by inflaming conversations in the media about refugees," he said.
Cooperation between his State Department office and religious groups handling refugee resettlements and other issues is something Casey said other countries — Italy, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom — are looking to emulate.
Casey, who was raised in the Church of Christ, came to his government position after years in academia — most recently as professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington — and he plans to go back to academic work once his political appointment ends with the close of the Obama administration. One of his Catholic connections is Father Bryan Hehir, who was his doctoral adviser at Harvard Divinity School in Boston.
Casey, who wrote "The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960," in 2009, joked that he would "turn into a pumpkin" Jan. 20 before saying he would still keep looking into how religion and politics intersect.
For now, with months left at the helm of this small office, he insisted: "It’s the best job in this town."
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.