Government Innovation in an Era of White Nationalism

Successful national and local efforts are mission-driven and collaborative.

Shaun Casey

Illustration of immigrants walking over landscape resembling US flag

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi / The i Spot


This is an edited version of the keynote address delivered at the “Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government: Refugee and Immigration Issues,” sponsored by the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative, held at Harvard Divinity School on December 7–8, 2017. Additional articles from the symposium are found under the "Who are 'We'?" section of this issue.

I have been incredibly fortunate over the course of my winding, checkered career. During my long sojourn as a student from HDS to the Kennedy School and back to HDS, I was very lucky to have a wealth of support from an astonishing cast of academic firepower. At times, Harvard students can be complacent with the intellectual riches around us. The older I get the more I value the opportunities I had here in Cambridge. Two teachers influenced me, in particular. Both were at the top of their respective academic fields while they simultaneously practiced forms of public engagement in the wider society. In different ways and contexts, the late Richard Neustadt at the Kennedy School and Bryan Hehir, now of the Kennedy School and formerly at the Divinity School, modeled for me how it is possible to build an academic career that can have an impact far beyond the academy. My earliest childhood memories are heavily shaped by intense family debates on religion and politics, so to have a career that has enabled me to move back and forth from the academic study of religion into national and international politics has been a remarkable gift. HDS trained me and propelled me into this endlessly fascinating space.

Government can do much better in understanding the religious dynamics of its space, but scholars of religion, too, can do better in understanding the challenges of working in government.

Let me set out what I hope to accomplish in this talk. First of all, I will survey one space among the complex boundaries between the academic study of religion and the work of government: the intersection of religious literacy and the provision of government services in the United States. I will argue that there is room for improvement on both sides of the equation. That is, government can do much better in understanding the religious dynamics of its space, but scholars of religion, too, can do better in understanding the challenges of working in government (this may actually be the hardest part of the relationship). Let me hasten to add that what the Religious Literacy Project at HDS is doing in this and other gatherings is precisely the kind of collaboration that is so needed in our country. 

Second, and to help focus my first claim, I will reflect broadly on my experience in the State Department as special representative for religion and global affairs and then, more specifically, discuss our work on refugee resettlement issues, in order to glean lessons learned and best practices I saw in the context of local government work. I believe that both stories can yield insights for anyone working in government where religion arises as a dynamic in their work.

Third, I will conclude by assessing our current political environment through the lens of the growth of white nationalism. I will offer a preliminary assessment of the consequences of this for both the academic study of religion and the role of government in issue areas where religious dynamics play a significant role. I believe the current national political environment increases the need to have a more sophisticated view of religion in government service and also, sadly, makes it harder to do this work. In the end, I hope to convince you that innovation is possible when it comes to democratic government entities becoming more adept at deepening understanding of religion. Yet progress is fragile and subject to reversal. In our current vexed political time, there are counterforces that reject pluralism, promote white nationalism, encourage xenophobia, and reject liberal international order. To ignore this political dynamic risks rendering the work of religion scholars or government service provision fruitless.

I was reminded recently, while reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1944 work The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, that perhaps the gravest sin of the Children of Light is naïveté. We should not underestimate the political forces that are arrayed against us, lest we fail due to not discerning the signs of our time.

Let me begin with the definition of religious literacy given by the HDS Religious Literacy Project:

Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses. Specifically, a religiously literate person will possess 1) a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.

Critical to this definition is the importance of understanding religions and religious influences in context and as inextricably woven into all dimensions of human experience. Such an understanding highlights the inadequacy of understanding religions through common means such as learning about ritual practices or exploring “what scriptures say” about topics or questions. Unfortunately, these are some of the most common approaches to learning about religion and lead to simplistic and inaccurate representations of the roles religions play in human agency and understanding.

Let me state at the outset that I like this formulation. I want to explore this understanding a bit in light of my own work, which involves trying to bring a deeper understanding of religious dynamics and a more sophisticated engagement with religious actors in perhaps the most hierarchical, patriarchal, traditional, and gendered corner of the U.S. government—the State Department. I will parse three clusters of ideas based on my government experience.

1. Religious Literacy Requires Team Capacity

A general religious literacy is seen as a luxury for many institutions at the intersection of religion and government, especially government entities. And this is a real problem. That is, given limited or shrinking resources, plus often narrowly defined policy missions, the breadth and depth of the needed knowledge on religion is often narrowly focused or circumscribed in its mission. What is often needed is expert knowledge on specific policy issues and specific religious communities. Not only is context a prerequisite for understanding religion sufficiently, but a knowledge of the policy mission of the government entity is also a necessity.

When I launched the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at State, I did not need scholars who were effective apologists for the need of the State Department to approach religion better. Instead, I needed staff who already knew how to interpret the political and social implications of lived religion in specific country and regional contexts. That is, I needed people who were multilingual in understanding religion in specific contexts and U.S. diplomatic priorities and organization and who had an ability to train other people on both sides of the coin. The perfect candidate had training in the study of religion in a specific geographical context, had lived in that region, and had a deep knowledge of U.S. diplomacy in the same space. All of these skills were crucial. 

Thus, in the context of government, religious literacy is often a team or office-wide capacity and not an individual capacity. So how do we talk about the religious literacy of offices, bureaus, teams? When I built a staff of 35, I was both thrilled by the talent and embarrassed that we pretended to be able to interpret the complexity of religious dynamics on a planet of over seven billion people! A crucial part of collective religious literacy, if that is a workable term, includes what sources you turn to when you do not have sufficient knowledge of religious dynamics on your staff. Working in government, you are always going to encounter mission-driven conundrums related to religion that no one in the organization is going to be able to answer instantly.

2. Humility Is the Best Posture

If you work in a government setting where religion figures significantly, you will always be challenged by situations that exhaust your knowledge rapidly.

There is a danger of elitism here when, in fact, humility is a better posture. If you work in a government setting where religion figures significantly, you will always be challenged by situations that exhaust your knowledge rapidly. At the nexus of the academic study of religion and the provision of government service, there needs to be some modicum of humility on both sides. In my years at the State Department, I encountered more than a few religion scholars who said one semester of their graduate seminar could cure the perceived ignorance in the State Department. What I wanted to say, but rarely did, was that the diplomatic illiteracy of the religion scholar rendered a lot of their free advice (or, in some cases, their expensive advice) useless for me. And this leads to my final observation about religious literacy.

3. The Scholarly Guild Needs to Engage in Mutual Dialogue

This has to do with the role of the religion scholarly guild. Too many of my brother and sister scholars are not willing to venture into mutual dialogue with practitioners in the policy and government world as equal partners. The range of reasons given to justify this reticence or unwillingness is wide, and I cannot parse it fully here. The best answer I have heard about why religion scholars should be willing to help the State Department to get better on religion came from my brilliant chief of staff, who noted that the State Department has tried, and will continue to try, to engage religious leaders (and usually not delve deeper to understand the implications of lived religion) and therefore will assess religious dynamics in a terrible fashion. So why shouldn’t scholars trained in religion try to bend those arcs in a better direction?

I am pleased that the Religious Literacy Project is helping to render my cranky observations about the scholarly guild moot. With these contextual observations as background, I now want to turn to innovation in government. The first step will be to set out how we tried to innovate in the State Department, and the second step will be to chronicle the forms of innovation I saw as I surveyed the resettlement of refugees in the United States in 2015 and 2016.

One of the most sobering moments of my life came the day I was sworn in as an employee of the Department of State in July 2013. After the whirlwind administering of my oath, I was ushered into an austere space euphemistically called “transition,” which consisted of a windowless room on the first floor of the Harry S. Truman Building, or Main State, as it was known. I had a phone, no working computer, no staff, and a wastebasket. All I had to do was to design a strategy for an office with an as yet undetermined number of staff, no set budget, no location in a building that considered real estate size and location as the highest form of political currency. (This was in contrast to the seminary where I taught and had an office in the sub-basement of a 60-year-old dormitory that was literally turning to dust. Students had to hire field guides to locate my office, and when they arrived, they often wondered out loud which administrator I had alienated to earn such a desolate location). It was not a glorious beginning.

Eventually we got a prime office location on the seventh floor, a roster of positions to fill, and a budget. Reflecting back now, I see four dynamics at work in those early days. First, I knew what I didn’t know and I immediately set out to find helpful veterans who could help me learn and recruit people who knew what I didn’t about how the State Department is organized and run. A friend told me that the hallways of the department were littered with the bleached bones of academics who had arrived hell-bent on bending the will of the place to their views. I knew [then] Secretary of State Kerry and many of his senior staff and their respective styles, so I was confident about those relationships, but having never organized anything larger than a 15-person graduate seminar that lasted for 14 weeks, I had a lot to learn. So I found tutors.

The central organizing principle of the State Department was a slow-motion train wreck between, on the one hand, six regional bureaus and, on the other hand, functional bureaus. The six regional bureaus were populated by careerists who saw themselves as akin to the U.S. Marines, through which U.S. policy is formulated and to which some 200 embassies and posts report back to Washington. The functional bureaus, in contrast, addressed crosscutting global issues, such as human rights, economic issues, military affairs, climate change, and nonproliferation issues. The ongoing interaction between these two sorts of bureaus, regional and functional, posed real problems for our office since we were neither fish nor fowl—we were an office in the secretary’s bureau, which dealt with the whole spectrum of department bureaus.

Historically, the State Department approached religion in three ways. The main response was to ignore it.

Historically, the State Department approached religion in three ways. The main response was to ignore it. The second response to religion, initially foisted on them by Congress, was through the lens of International Religious Freedom, which now has a 20-year vexed history. The third response was through the rubric of Countering Violent Extremism, which proved to be a highly problematic approach to Muslim communities and countries. Carving out a new role was going to be politically dicey.

The second dynamic I encountered was how to build a staff with a coherent mission and the requisite skills to bring a more sophisticated approach than the existing ones. Here, I looked for people with graduate training in religion or a cognate field who were able to interpret religion in context, in geopolitical terms, but also in terms of the political implications of lived religion, an understanding of current U.S. foreign policy, and experience in living or working around the world such that we could plausibly interact with the six regional bureaus of the department. And all of these hires had to have a security clearance! I couldn’t wait the average nine months to a year to hire staff without such a clearance and wait for them to get it.

We created a three-fold mission: one, to advise the secretary of state when religion cut across his portfolio, which meant we were constantly monitoring his priorities and aligning ours with his. Second, we wanted to equip embassies, posts, and bureaus to engage religious actors and assess religious dynamics with more sophistication. And third, we would be the portal through which any external actors or stakeholders could inquire about what the State Department was doing in their interest areas.

To perform this mission, we organized ourselves into a number of teams. First, we consolidated three small existing offices from across the department to create synergies.1 We then established a team of six regional advisers, each of whom related to a respective regional bureau with the mission of persuading these bureaus that we could help them be successful in their strategic goals by expanding their capacities to engage religious actors and assess religious dynamics in their regions. This is where we won the hearts and minds of the most skeptical careerists in the State Department: by proving the validity of our concept.

We also established a public diplomacy team, which was charged with telling our story, building a deep domestic and global network of interested parties, and promoting U.S. foreign policy globally. We modeled a form of innovative engagement that became a case study highlighted by the Bureau of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs as a model of success.

What we could not become was an office that comported itself as the smartest people in the State Department on all things related to religion. We could have settled for just talking to our next-door colleagues, the Office of Policy Planning, the internal think tank for the secretary. As one slightly cynical State Department veteran put it, “You can try to change the one world one memo at a time.” But this would surely have been a short trip to rejection by the department and would have led to oblivion for our mission.

The last aspect of our office I want to mention was a set of office values we aspired to instill and model to help us be able to collaborate across the department and in our engagement with religious actors domestically and globally and, frankly, to be able to build an office of 30 or so highly motivated, overachieving individuals into a team. This list is not particularly profound, but I can assure you it was not typical State Department office culture. Here is our list:

Find joy in your work.
Continue learning.
Treat others with dignity.
Support a flexible workplace.
Do collaborative, creative work.
Drive out fear.

While we were a team of experts, no two individuals shared the same skill set or knowledge base. We had to be collaborators who could work well with career government employees, tap wide knowledge networks, and be at ease moving across thousands of very diverse religious actors all around the globe. And I should add that dealing with countless religious actors required that we modeled a stance of openness, hospitality, and humility in an institutional space that has not always been known for such virtues. Culture mattered in our office, given our subject matter and our status as the new kids on the block.

What does my State Department story about religious literacy mean for the work of those in local government? Let me list five key lessons here:

  1. Senior leadership support is crucial.
  2. The definition of your mission has to be concrete in order to convince or woo doubters.
  3. Collaboration across government offices is key. Show how you help others succeed.
  4. Religion is so complex you have to be a permanent learning organization.
  5. Understanding your political and geographical context is also essential.

The second area of innovation I want to describe is how the U.S. government collaborated with nongovernmental organizations to resettle tens of thousands of refugees every year in the country. I have to confess that before I came to the State Department, I did not know that it paid for the first 90 to 120 days of a refugee’s life in the United States. In the midst of the expanding refugee crisis, fueled in large part by Iraqi and Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS, we began to monitor the crisis. In so doing, we learned that the State Department provided this funding for refugees through engaging nine implanting partners, six of which were religiously affiliated. I spent several months from December 2015 through the middle of 2016 visiting six refugee resettlement centers in Jersey City, Baltimore, Dallas, Phoenix, Des Moines, and Chicago.2

To my mind, [refugee resettlement] is one of the best, yet woefully under-told, good news stories about effective public-private partnership.

This system of refugee resettlement relies on an array of local networks to make the process possible—religious leaders and communities, nongovernmental organizations, social service providers, schools, police departments, municipal government leaders, and individual volunteers. To my mind, it is one of the best, yet woefully under-told, good news stories about effective public-private partnership. As many of you probably know, across the globe, more than 21 million people have fled their homes and crossed international borders as refugees, searching for safety. This does not take into account the 40-plus million more who have been internally displaced in their home countries. Quite simply, we are facing the largest refugee and forcibly displaced person crisis in human history. Some advocates note that if you count “people on the move” broadly defined, between 200 and 300 million people are in transit today.

In late September 2015, President Obama signaled the U.S. government’s commitment to addressing this issue by hosting, in New York, the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees to secure new commitments from 52 countries and organizations to increase humanitarian funding, admitting more refugees through resettlement or other pathways, and increasing the ability of refugees to access education and lawful employment. To model the spirit of this commitment to help the world’s most vulnerable people, President Obama signed a presidential determination authorizing the admission of up to 110,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017. Soon after that announcement, we met our goal for fiscal year 2016 of welcoming 85,000 of the world’s most vulnerable people from all different regions of the world.

Over the course of my travel, I had the opportunity to meet with approximately 100 refugees and hear their stories, to learn of the incredible work of the local resettlement offices, and to provide support to local religious communities and others who are so integral to the success of arriving refugees. In Jersey City, I met 20 refugees from seven different countries. I was dispirited by the end of our hour together. Hearing their stories of incredible hardship in their home countries, how difficult it was to live in UN refugee camps, the dissonance they experienced while moving to the United States, looking for affordable housing, finding entry-level work, struggling to learn English, my reaction clearly showed on my face. At the very end, a Syrian woman, with her husband and ebullient two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, Dr. Casey, we all know we will be in a better place in a year.” Likewise, I met a man in Dallas who told me, on his fourth day in the U.S., after spending 17 years in an Ethiopian UN refugee camp, “I love Dallas and I love America, because for the first time in my life I can work with my hands and support my family.” I was ashamed of my privilege and the ease with which I live my life.

What was so heartening to see was the outpouring of welcome and assistance for refugees at the local community level. Phoenix was no exception to this. In one recent fiscal year, Arizona welcomed over 4,000 refugees from almost 50 countries around the world. It is local communities—NGOs, local resettlement offices, religious communities, schools, volunteers, and others—that have devised innovative programs and support to help refugees. In Phoenix, organizations like Refugee Focus offer sewing classes as a part of its empowerment program for refugee women. The organization cooperates with Downtown Phoenix Partnership to collect vinyl conference banners, which the women reuse and sew into bags that are sold at local conventions. This gives me hope.

Despite the ugly anti-refugee rhetoric that persists in the U.S. media and political discourse, community members are still offering support for refugees.

In Des Moines, I saw innovation by the resettlement professionals who started a pro bono registry for mental health professionals to offer trauma counseling, because they were seeing unprecedented levels of trauma, especially among Iraqi and Syrian refugees. In Des Moines, they also started an incubator farm primarily for Burmese farmers to introduce their indigenous agricultural products to American markets. Despite the ugly anti-refugee rhetoric that persists in the U.S. media and political discourse, community members are still offering support for refugees. This will become even more necessary in the year ahead, if the United States continues to welcome refugees from all over the world.

In the six refugee resettlement centers themselves, I saw an incredible range of innovation, including the following.

  1. Former refugees were serving as employees. The fact that they had successfully navigated the bizarre UN and U.S. government process gave new refugees hope that they, too, could come to flourish in the strange new cultures they found themselves in.
  2. Diaspora groups played a huge role in helping refugees become American citizens. At every center, a dazzling array of diaspora groups helped refugees to navigate professional certification, find jobs, find affordable housing, and help children adapt to American public education opportunities.
  3. The centers all possessed incredible linguistic skills. The nine national implementing partners selected specific families and individuals based on their centers’ capacities to engage the refugees culturally, religiously, and in their native languages.
  4. The centers multiplied the paltry U.S. government funding they receive with dollars they had raised themselves. The centers realized there were often massive gaps in the government- sponsored resources available to the refugees, and they took it upon themselves to cover the fiscal gap.

Among local governments, I saw a wide range of innovation regarding refugees:

  1. School districts developed refugee-specific welcoming practices that required them to hire multilingual teachers, to develop faculty development plans with local colleges and universities that were previously unavailable, and to hire administrators who had been refugees themselves. The Des Moines public schools hired an assistant superintendent in charge of refugee student service and curriculum. The district partnered with Drake University to provide a master’s program for young public school teachers to gain formal education to advance on the career certification ladder and also to acquire the linguistic and cultural knowledge, including religion, that would enable them to be more effective in the classroom.
  2. Mayoral offices set up refugee welcome departments, offered city government–issued identification cards, and formed national networks of mayors to share best practices around refugee resettlement. One of the most prominent of these networks has been set up by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.3 One of my staffers at State, an HDS graduate, informed me of Boston’s Office of New Bostonians, renamed the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement, and its innovative cross-government resources that are being made available to immigrant and religious communities (compare this with “Countering Violent Extremism” as a welcome slogan!).
  3. Police Departments hired police officer liaisons to new refugee communities to serve as conduits between refugee communities and police departments. In the face of growing unrest in many urban areas, police departments—like the one I saw in Des Moines—appointed police officers as official liaisons to refugee communities (as well as to other communities) to build communication links between the police and the increasingly diverse communities they serve. As one such officer told me, “When bullets and/or fists begin to fly, it’s hard to build relationships and trust.”

My basic conclusion was that for refugee resettlement to succeed, it required a “whole of society approach.” I also saw new forms of interreligious cooperation.

My basic conclusion was that for refugee resettlement to succeed, it required a “whole of society approach.” I also saw new forms of interreligious cooperation that I had never seen before at the local level. Mosques, Buddhist temples, and other forms of religious worship have grown and expanded, and existing Christian churches, synagogues, and mosques have joined community-level efforts to welcome new Americans. Local religious ecosystems are changing in light of the newest waves of refugees, and new forms of civic life have emerged and evolved. There is much to do, and much to study about what is happening at the local level.4

As a result of my survey trip, our office was able to collaborate with two State Department bureaus to offer a grant to several of the religiously affiliated refugee resettlement agencies to gather best practices and to provide training to religious agencies in several European countries to bring these successful practices into their own refugee resettlement work.5 Perhaps the most important factor in this broad refugee resettlement partnership was the insistence of the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees on regularly convening their grantees to survey what was working in the refugee space, and what was not. This constant drive toward innovation led them to build deep relationships with religious actors.

In conclusion, let me say a word about the increasingly difficult national political environment. I am not going to make a detailed political statement here. I am trying to show that as a result of new or impending federal policies, such as the possible deportation of DACA registrants, the reduction of annual refugee admissions to the United States by over half, the attendant funding cuts to the nine implementing partners I mentioned earlier, and the Muslim ban that bars travel from several majority Muslim countries, local government work is going to be harder. To the extent the current administration cares about religion, it entails rewarding conservative Protestants and attacking Muslims. Full stop.

For the foreseeable future, innovation at the intersection of religion and government will come not at the federal level, but at the local level.

In the face of these policy changes, and others, cities are now increasingly in the foreign-policy business. Mayors and city councilors cannot say, “We’ll take that up next year in Congress.” For the foreseeable future, innovation at the intersection of religion and government will come not at the federal level, but at the local level. In any era of instability and uncertainty there will be anxiety, fear, and backlash. But there is also opportunity for innovation that can be spread across the whole country. And that is one arena where institutions of higher education that study and teach religion can partner with those in local governments to take up the hard work of democracy together.




  1. These three offices were the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
  2. I visited all of these centers with an eye toward how the partnerships were working, and to discern lessons to be learned about the best practices happening at the intersection of religion and government service provision.
  3. I attended their meeting in September of this year and was amazed at both the recognition of the eroding national support for this work, and at how the immediacy of need in this area led to the important work of sharing insights and lessons learned.
  4. One area for deeper study is to analyze how the relocation of now hundreds of thousands of refugees across almost 200 locations in the U.S. has spurred not only xenophobic responses, but also cooperation.
  5. The two State Department bureaus are the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Shaun Casey is director of the Berkley Center and a professor of the practice in Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is the author of The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960 (Oxford University Press, 2009), and he is currently writing a book on ethics and international politics tentatively titled “Niebuhr’s Children.”

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