Religious Tolerance and the U.S. Foreign Policy Bureaucracy

Note: This is the first of 12 posts prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance at Rice University. 


By David Buckley, Ph.D.
Paul Weber Endowed Chair in Politics, Science & Religion, University of Louisville



How might the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy have an impact on religious tolerance abroad? While foreign policy is often portrayed as the realm of security and economic interests, U.S. diplomacy has become increasingly attentive to religious dynamics in recent years. This post contrasts two approaches that have coexisted within American diplomatic institutions: (1) tolerance via ideological change and promotion of religious freedom and (2) tolerance via policy engagement. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and in fact coexisted (somewhat uneasily) at the U.S. Department of State by the closing years of the Obama administration. However, the Trump administration has brought significant change, with a prioritization of religious freedom promotion as an appendage of its “America First” foreign policy. This change is tied to longer-term trends in American democracy that are likely to outlive the current administration.  


This post offers brief reflections on distinct approaches to religion in U.S. diplomacy, particularly at the State Department, and the implications this may have for religious tolerance abroad. It draws on my ongoing research on changes in the State Department tied to the Obama-Trump transition. The U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy became relatively more attentive to religion in the roughly two decades preceding the 2016 election, a process that involved distinct sets of assumptions about foreign policy and toleration. In one view, diplomacy impacts toleration through promoting particular values, especially tied to religious freedom. In the other, toleration arises largely via policy engagements that may not directly promote a set of ideological values, but may build tolerance indirectly by strengthening elite ties and improving local governance. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but coexist uneasily, and are increasingly out of balance within the Trump administration.

While the Obama administration brought unique foreign policy priorities, its approach to religion at the State Department represented longer-term trends with roots at least in the Clinton administration. On the one hand, primarily through its Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) and its annual reporting on religious freedom around the world, the State Department at times pursued tolerance via the promotion of particular ideological values tied to religious freedom. At the same time, other initiatives tied to religion at the State Department, particularly its Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA), offered an engagement-based approach to religion and diplomacy that emphasized policy-based interactions rather than direct promotion of values or ideological change.

The religious freedom approach took its current form from the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, with some updates in subsequent years. The State Department’s IRF office issues an annual global report, and strives to promote ideological commitment to religious freedom abroad. The engagement model emerged more recently. After bureaucratic discussion both inside and outside of the U.S government, a 2012 white paper of the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group at the State Department called for “an official mechanism within State” to “better communicate and potentially collaborate [with religious communities],” and “improve understanding of religious dynamics relevant to foreign policy.”[i] In 2013, Secretary John Kerry officially established the State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, which would eventually come to be known as the Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA). By mid-2016, RGA had expanded quickly to include approximately 30 staff members.

Much of RGA’s engagement with concepts like tolerance and pluralism was indirect, via policy engagements focused on topics as diverse as disaster relief or wildlife trafficking. These engagements were not primarily designed to advance tolerance, but rather to address policy challenges and opportunities of mutual interest to U.S. diplomats and religious communities, while building the capacity of American diplomats to understand the impact of religious dynamics on their day-to-day work. Engagements could take place in Foggy Bottom or embassies and consulates in the field. To give one example, in summer 2017, RGA worked with partners in the U.S. government, nongovernment organizations and religious institutions to convene a roundtable on responding to religious dynamics in international elections. This included policymakers from State and USAID, programmatic experts on elections planning from groups like the National Democratic Institute and International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and representatives of religious organizations involved in governance programming like Catholic Relief Services. To give an example from the field, American diplomats, including RGA staff, worked in collaboration with Nigerian religious leaders and civil society activists to promote anticorruption work in that country, including partnerships to involve religious networks in citizen-based anticorruption activities.[ii] Whether in Foggy Bottom or farther afield, the primary goal of these engagements was effective policy implementation. However, one could reasonably hope that such initiatives would also advance tolerance among participants over time by building cross-cutting partnerships, strengthening communication between and among religious communities, and improving the quality of local governance.

While not primarily intended to promote theological dialogue or a particular conception of toleration, there are several reasons to suspect that the engagement-based diplomatic approach could impact tolerance if practiced prudently over time. First, as Mandaville and Nozell argue persuasively in the context of “countering violent extremism,” the empirical evidence that ideological forces are at the root of intolerance is quite mixed. However, there is significant evidence that religion could interact with other local forces, particularly poor governance and weak rule of law, that have been linked to extremism and diminished tolerance.[iii] Religious actors may provide distinct advantages in addressing these challenges, particularly where closely linked to service provision and aware of the detrimental impact of poor governance on communities. Second, an engagement model can mitigate the risk of U.S. efforts to promote tolerance via ideological change. These risks include perceived double-standards in American dedication to ideological change, and the potential that U.S. advocacy of values like toleration may, even if unintentionally, increase polarization and undermine tolerance at the grassroots. At a time of increasing violence targeting religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Jews, within the United States, concerns over double standards in efforts abroad are as acute as ever.

The transition to the Trump administration has seen significant changes in religion and U.S foreign policy, including bureaucratic decisions that have emphasized attempts at tolerance via promotion of religious freedom while downgrading attention to the engagement approach. Secretary Tillerson made it clear early in his brief tenure that he would slim the ranks of political appointees in his department; at this writing three of the four political appointee positions previously in S/RGA remain vacant. From its late-2016 peak of roughly 30 staffers, RGA has declined sharply in capacity, at one point to fewer than a half dozen full-time employees. In August 2017, Secretary Rex Tillerson wrote to inform Congressional leadership that the Office of International Religious Freedom “will assume the functions and staff of the U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs.”[iv] President Trump’s first international trip to Saudi Arabia demonstrated this emphasis on ideological change, with his keynote address launching of the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology,” along with a remarkable edict from an American president directing political leaders of Muslim-majority countries to “drive out” extremists from their domestic houses of worship.[v] The priority on ideological change has outlived Secretary Tillerson’s term in office, with Secretary Pompeo recently completing his second “ministerial” level meeting on religious freedom in Foggy Bottom.[vi]

If these distinct approaches to religion and U.S. diplomacy have coexisted uneasily in recent years, there are several reasons to believe that such coexistence more challenging in the years ahead. First, partisan division over issues of religion and politics has grown along with the broader (asymmetric) polarization of American politics. Polling from the Pew Research Group and Public Religion Research institute documented partisan gaps over religion and politics that predated the Trump administration, and recent research seems to show these gaps continuing to grow.[vii] It is possible that an ideological approach to tolerance rooted in religious freedom becomes increasingly tied to Republican periods of executive control, while religious engagement predominates in Democratic administrations. Second, because there is significant flexibility in the American religion-state legal relationship, approaches to religion and U.S. diplomacy are vulnerable to fluctuation between presidential administrations. Executive branch (and White House) authority over foreign policy has been growing for decades, meaning that there are few institutional obstacles to reshaping the place of religion in U.S. foreign policy from administration to administration. The Trump Administration has been free to alter bureaucratic structures with limited constraint from the legislature, courts, or career officials, and this is unlikely to change in future administrations.

This instability is a diplomatic obstacle, undermining continuity in staffing capacity and making leadership more difficult in a crowded State Department organization chart. Looking forward, there are several steps that could help to restore some balance to American diplomatic efforts related to religion and foreign policy:


  • Recognize the distinct diplomatic approaches grounding IRF and RGA offices, and maintain their distinct missions and organizational independence;
  • Continue to develop legal guidance on the applicability of constitutional law to religion and U.S. foreign policy, as related to both religious freedom and engagement approaches;
  • Assess the effects of U.S. diplomatic initiatives on religious tolerance abroad, particularly initiatives linked to areas of governance and rule of law that research indicates are tied to intolerance;
  • Implement existing diplomatic guidance on the potential adverse consequences of American interventions into local religious landscapes.


Works Cited

[i] Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group of the Secretary of State’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, “Ensuring the Opportunity for Mutual Counsel and Collaboration: A White Paper of the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group,” (2012).

[ii] For a summary of one meeting associated with this initiative, see

[iii] Peter Mandaville and Melissa Nozell, “Engaging Religion and Religious Actors in Countering Violent Extremism,” (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2017).

[iv] Rex Tillerson, “Letter Concerning Special Envoys and Representatives,” Politico,

[v] Donald Trump, “President Trump’s Speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit,” White House,

[vi] For details on the ministerial, see

[vii] See for example and For a more academic treatment of polarization, see Geoffrey C Layman, Thomas M Carsey, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Party Polarization in American Politics: Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences,” Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 9 (2006).


David Buckley is an associate professor of political science and the Paul Weber Endowed Chair in Politics, Science & Religion at the University of Louisville. He has also served as senior advisor to the Office of Religion and Global Affairs as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, 2016-2017