Kerry: Understanding religions needed for effective diplomacy

Two secretaries of state — one current, one former — took to the stage in a packed house at Rice’s Stude Concert Hall April 26 for a Baker Institute for Public Policy event focusing on the link between religion and foreign policy.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke before Rice students, faculty and staff and supporters of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at the university's Stude Concert Hall April 26. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke before Rice students, faculty and staff and supporters of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at the university’s Stude Concert Hall April 26. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Prior to giving a news-making speech, current Secretary of State John Kerry was introduced as “a man who has known great enthusiasms and devotions through his tireless efforts to build a safer and a more stable world” by former Secretary James A. Baker III, the honorary chair and namesake of the university’s Baker Institute.

“We cannot understand the world if we fail to comprehend and honor the central role that religion plays in the lives of billions of people,” Kerry implored in a 45-minute address, his first speech focusing exclusively on the topic of religion and foreign policy.

“My basic argument is straightforward,” he said. “The more we understand religion, the better we are able to engage religion, the more effective our diplomacy will be. … We don’t make contacts for the sake of having interesting conversations; we do so to make progress on our foreign policy and security goals, to make America safer.” This approach has traditionally not been a focus of U.S. diplomatic strategy, he said.

Within his first months in office in 2013, Kerry established the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, headed by U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs Shaun Casey, as part of the Obama administration’s initiative to encourage interfaith cooperation. In U.S. embassies around the world, diplomats have been encouraged to understand and reach out to religious groups. Rice alumna Liora Danan ’03 serves as the office’s chief of staff and was in attendance at the speech. Casey and Danan met with Rice’s Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, other religion scholars at the university and local civic leaders the day after Kerry’s speech.

In his speech, Kerry highlighted religious initiatives that the State Department has promoted, including a 2015 workshop for religious leaders in Nigeria on the topic of corruption and meetings with female leaders in Gambia to find ways to curb female genital mutilation or cutting. Meetings with Islamic leaders have focused on economic development as well as refugee relief and human rights. “We don’t advocate for a set of religious beliefs, or even belief over nonbelief, but that doesn’t mean that religion is irrelevant to our approach to world affairs,” he said.

He underscored how religion can have either a positive or a destabilizing influence on world affairs. “It is part of what drives some to initiate war, others to pursue peace,” said Kerry, who pointed out that extremist groups such as Islamic State have carried out atrocities under the veil of religion. “They continue to kill Yazidis because they are Yazidis, Christians because they are Christians and Shia because they are Shia. Daesh is responsible for committing genocide against these groups in areas under its control,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Also addressing domestic politics, Kerry cautioned against current presidential campaign rhetoric attacking members of the American Muslim community and associating them with the violent actions of extremists.

James A. Baker III, who served as the nation’s 61st secretary of state from 1989 to 1992, introduced Kerry.

James A. Baker III, who served as the nation’s 61st secretary of state from 1989 to 1992, introduced Kerry.

“Muslims have lived with us from the founding of our country,” he said. “They have fought on our side in every war, made homes in every region — proudly in Houston — and pursued a wide range of occupations. In other words, they’re Americans.”

Following his remarks, Kerry participated in a brief question-and-answer session with Rice History Professor and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

The event was part of the Baker Institute’s Shell Distinguished Lecture Series. More than 650 Rice students, faculty and staff and members of the Baker Institute Roundtable had tickets to attend Kerry’s lecture.

Rice President David Leebron, who introduced Baker, highlighted the institute’s growing influence in domestic and international policy research. “Founded only 23 years ago, the Baker Institute is now among the most respected policy institutes in the world, and indeed ranked among the top five university-affiliated think tanks worldwide,” Leebron said. “This is the result of the vision and commitment of two extraordinary men: James A. Baker III … and Ambassador Edward Djerejian, the founding director, who is tonight in Armenia.”

Kerry’s visit to Rice was part of a two-day trip to Texas that also included a stop in Austin, where he took take part in a clean-energy event and a summit focusing on the Vietnam War.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.