Faith in Diplomacy

September 1, 2014
Shaun Casey
HDS alumnus Shaun Casey

Shaun Casey, MDiv '83, ThD '98, sat with a local imam in a café in Sub-Saharan Africa. A careless word or gesture could cause offense and derail the important cross-cultural meeting.

The conversation stalled, the coffee cooled, and Casey's curiosity got the best of him. He said he wanted to ask the imam a personal question. Tension rose. His companion agreed and Casey asked how he went from student to cleric to leader of his mosque. A gregarious man, the imam smiled and launched into a long and friendly conversation about his "pilgrimage."

"He talked of apprenticing with a master teacher," Casey says. "His education started with technical Qur'anic story interpretation and linguistic skills, and gradually shifted to the pastoral skills needed to address the concerns of followers. The spiritual and academic pilgrimage he laid out was a lot like the one I experienced at Harvard Divinity School."

As special advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry for faith-based community initiatives, Casey often finds his HDS experience close at hand even when he's thousands of miles from Cambridge. He draws on it every day as he travels around the world to advance the State Department’s goals of eliminating extreme poverty, promoting human rights, and mitigating conflict—work that brings him in touch with faith leaders and communities grappling with pluralism.

"At HDS, I learned not only how to articulate my own perspective much more clearly," he says, "but also to interact with people from very different orientations. That’s a learned skill set. We’re not born with that."

A member of a large Irish-American family from the "boot heel" of Missouri, Casey was born with a curious mind. His interest in the sociopolitical implications of religious belief and practice—the thread that runs through his scholarly work and career—developed in his youth. When he entered college at Abilene Christian University in West Texas, Casey was stunned to discover that several of his professors were HDS graduates.

"I had no idea that people could go to a place like Harvard and study religion at that level," he says.

Casey worked closely with Abilene's HDS alumni over the next four years, and, by the time he graduated, knew that he wanted to come to Cambridge. The difficulty of the cross-country transition from West Texas to eastern Massachusetts was muted by his excitement at the rich intellectual environment.

"I came to Harvard with the mind of a thief," he says. "I wanted to take everything I could in terms of learning and experience."

While at HDS, Casey found the resources to think deeply about lived religion and civil society. He looked beyond the Divinity School and studied international security, getting his master's degree in public administration.

Casey continued his studies of religion and society in HDS's ThD program, where his advisors included professors Bryan Hehir (now at Harvard Kennedy School), Francis Fiorenza, Ronald Thiemann, and Harvey Cox. As graduation approached, he saw an opening for a faculty position at Wesley Theological Seminary, a school located in the public policy hub of Washington, D.C.

"I brought the listing to Brian Hehir, who read it and said 'Shaun, this is you!' " Casey remembers. "I thought 'Please, if there is a God, let that be true!' "

At Wesley, Casey ran the National Capital Semester for Seminarians. The program brought students to Washington, D.C., to study religion, theology, and public policy. Casey also took participants around town to meet others working at the intersection of faith and politics, and he placed students in internships.

"The work brought me into a lot of offices in D.C.," he says. "I built a network and eventually took part in the 2008 Obama campaign as a member of the religious outreach staff."

For the past ten years, Casey's network has included John Kerry, now U.S. Secretary of State. During this time, he says that Kerry became "keenly aware" of the political and social power of religion across the globe, in part thanks to conversations with Casey. After the 2012 election, Kerry came to the State Department convinced that the U.S. government had not interacted effectively with the world's religious communities.

To address the problem, he tapped Casey in July 2013 to be the first special advisor of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

"You don't have to look that far into our past to see where we've paid a huge price for our failure to understand—and ignorance of—lived religion," Casey says. "Because of this failure, Secretary Kerry said that we have to get better. That's the challenge that he's given to my office: to try to increase the capacity for the State Department to engage with religious actors and religious movements in a more sophisticated way."

Now in his second year in the Obama administration, Casey says that the need for religiously literate diplomats who understand how to bridge cultural divides has never been greater. His office is currently conducting an international study of religious engagement, work that demands advanced knowledge of the world's faith traditions.

"Part of my mission here at the State Department is to demonstrate the power of analysis and insight that scholars of religion bring to the work we do here," Casey says. "I've insisted we reach out to the best people we can find to make us smarter, and they've helped immensely."

Casey says his goal is to "bend the arc" toward a more effective, more humane, and more enlightened engagement with religious communities around the world. He says that Harvard in general—and HDS in particular—can play a central role in training leaders who draw on religious scholarship and wisdom in a more effective way.

"Harvard is uniquely poised globally to train people to understand both religion and international relations," he says. "I don't think there's a university with greater assets and talent. We just need to build degree programs and relationships that enable students to take full advantage of the assets that are there."