Other foreign policy experts have another name for it: Religion Avoidance
Syndrome. And the departure of Douglas Kmiec as U.S. ambassador to Malta, they
say, is symptomatic of a longstanding God gap in American foreign policy,
Religion News Service reports.
Kmiec, who helped shape an intellectual framework for President Obama’s
outreach to Catholics during the 2008 campaign, was slammed in a recent
State Department report for spending too much time writing about religion.
Kmiec’s focus on faith, “based on a belief that he was given a special
mandate to promote President Obama’s interfaith initiatives … detracted
from his attention to core mission goals,” the State Department’s inspector
general wrote in a February report made public in early April.
Kmiec, a former lawyer in the Reagan administration and onetime dean of
Catholic University’s law school, announced in separate letters to President
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he would step down as
ambassador on Aug. 15, which he pointedly noted is the Feast of the Assumption.
In his resignation letters, the Catholic intellectual fiercely defended his work.
Kmiec told Obama his work was “devoted to promoting what I know you believe in
most strongly—namely, personal faith and greater mutual understanding of the faiths
of others as the way toward greater mutual respect.”
“If I may be forgiven a dissent from the view adopted by the Inspector
General, it is that I doubt very much whether anyone could spend too much
time on this subject,” Kmiec wrote. He also tied his work on religion to
Clinton’s promotion of “smart power,” and he said it had a “highly positive
effect on our bilateral relations.”
The inspector general’s office, he said, has a “flawed and narrow vision of
our diplomatic vision” and “manipulated their policy dislike of the
president’s policies, especially his inter-faith initiative, into an
unauthorized ‘outside activity,”‘ Kmiec told Clinton. The State Department
did not respond to requests for comment.
The controversy over Kmiec is part of a widespread aversion to religion
within Washington’s foreign policy establishment, said Thomas Farr, a former
director of religious freedom at the State Department. Farr said he has not
read Kmiec’s speeches, and that, as a fellow Catholic, he was disappointed
with the ambassador’s support for Obama. But, Farr continued, Kmiec is
correct about faith in Foggy Bottom, nickname for the Washington
neighborhood that is the location of State Department headquarters.
“There is a deep-seated discomfort with dealing with religious ideas,
concepts and religious actors,” said Farr, who now teaches at Georgetown
University. “It isn’t an animus necessarily,” Farr continued. “It’s simply a
sense that religion is not relevant to foreign policy or ought not to be
relevant to foreign policy.”
With political tumult—at times fueled by religious beliefs—cascading through the
Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. can ill afford to ignore the role of faith in
individual lives and popular uprisings, Farr said.
Farr and Kmiec are not the first to find fault in the State Department’s
hands-off approach to religion. “Our diplomats are very well trained and
they are very capable,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in
2006. “But they have not really focused on religion per se as a subject of
Albright, who wrote a book on faith and diplomacy called “The Mighty and the
Almighty,” has said her former colleagues were “a little surprised” about
her focus on religion. “They really look at me as if I had, you know,
ventured into some post-secretary of state mode where I just didn’t
understand what was going on,” she told the Public Broadcasting System
program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly in 2006.
The State Department has taken small steps toward reckoning with faith,
including a three-day course on religion and foreign policy offered this
summer by the Foreign Service Institute, Farr said. But the inspector
general’s report on Kmiec could send a chilling message to other diplomats
that religion lies outside their portfolios, said Randolph Marshall Bell, a
State Department veteran who now directs the First Freedom Center in
“The wrong signal to me would be that somehow attention to aspects of
religion which touch upon our foreign policy interests should be separated
out,” Bell said.