State Dept.'s 'Faith-Based' Advisor: 'I Am Glad American Civil Religion is Dying'

Penny Starr | August 7, 2013 | 4:32pm EDT
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Shaun Casey was named the "special advisor" to the State Department's new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives by Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 7, 2013. ( Starr)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry announced Wednesday the formation of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, which will be headed by Shaun Casey, a former religion advisor to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and a liberal professor who last year touted the end of ‘civil religion’ in the United States.

“I, frankly, am glad American civil religion is dying,” Casey said at a discussion last year at the Center for American Progress focused on “God and Politics” in the last presidential election.

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Kerry introduced Casey as a person who cares about faith in American society.

“Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Shaun as a deeply thoughtful person who cares about the place of faith in our public life,” Kerry said.

The office is described by the State Department as a “portal for engagement with religious leaders and organizations around the world” and will be headed by Casey as “special advisor.”

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the State Department on Aug. 7, 2013 about the agency's outreach to people of all religions around the globe. ( Starr)

As reported earlier, Casey was a panelist at a discussion at the liberal Center for American Progress in January 2012. At that event Casey praised the demise of what he called “civil religion.”

“I, frankly, am glad American civil religion is dying,” said Casey, who is also a professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

“There is also a negative underside to that history with respect to slavery, manifest destiny, to war, you know, to empires, so I, frankly, am glad American civil religion is dying,” Casey said of the mix of politics and religion at the discussion.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss-French philosopher, is credited with coining the term “civil religion” in his 1762 book in his series “The Social Contract.” Rousseau described civil religion as the “moral and spiritual foundation of modern society.”

As an Obama campaign advisor on religion, Casey defended the then-candidate for his loyalty to his controversial pastor of 20 years, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

On March 18, 2008, Casey told The Washington Post, "The senator [Obama] is not naive, and what he's doing is very hard,” Casey said.

“He's trying to remain loyal to his pastor but also differentiate himself politically,” said Casey, who has also informally advised Kerry in the past.

In his remarks at Wednesday’s event, Casey said he was “humbled” by his State Department appointment and said it made him remember theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on foreign policy following World War II.

“I think we find ourselves today in a similarly complex ‘in between’ time, as was the case in the late 1940s,” Casey said. “Niebuhr feared at that age that America might be distracted by several things in its foreign policy that might have led the country astray.

“Among those was perhaps an inordinate pride in our own power and our own virtue, and also the absence of a clear path about how to negotiate a post-World War II map as well as the emerging Communist bloc,” he said.

“Now in contrast, he was preaching a message of chastened wisdom in which the United States government engaged in the slow, and at times difficult, process of diplomacy, willing to courageously pursue justice and peace while exercising American leadership in a very muddled and confused world,” Casey said.

“I’d like to think that Niebuhr would approve of our efforts today in expanding religious engagement as we, too, navigate through very perilous times,” Casey added.

Niebuhr once was a prominent leader of the militant faction of the Socialist Party of America. Both liberals and conservatives, however, have praised some part of the theologian’s evolving political and religious philosophy over the course of his lifetime, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who cited him in his book “Hard Call” as “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.”

Kerry cited the Bible’s New Testament in describing the new office’s mission, which he said would seek “common ground” between “all religions.”

“One of my favorite passages from the Scripture sums up what Shaun and I think this effort is really all about,” Kerry said. “It’s a familiar Gospel of Mark in which Jesus says to his disciples, ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.’”

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