Elevating the Value of Religious Literacy in U.S. Diplomacy

Religious literacy is important because it allows diplomats to understand “lived religion”-- how religion influences the beliefs, behaviors and daily lives of people in context. Religious literacy also enables diplomats to accurately assess the role of religion vis a vis specific policy issues or contexts -- avoiding the pitfalls of over-emphasizing or over-looking, religious dimensions and potential influence on a policy issue. Supporting improved religious literacy through religious studies education can also be a powerful tool for supporting more pluralistic societies globally. Given the relevance of religious factors, and the fact that most people in the world identify with a religion, U.S. foreign policy can benefit from a more religiously literate diplomatic corps.

Since 2015, under the auspices of the Secretary’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society initiative, the Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs has convened a working group focused on developing tools and resources on religious literacy and religious actor engagement for State Department officials. The working group is comprised of renowned scholar-practitioners on world religions and religion engagement. They represent diverse religious traditions, civil society, academic institutions, and fields of practice. The working group has met periodically in 2016, and has helped build a body of material intended to further enhance U.S. diplomats’ abilities to assess religious dynamics and engage with religious actors. 

Dr. Diane Moore is the founder of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard University’s Divinity School and is a key contributor to the working group.  We recently had the opportunity to welcome Dr. Moore to the State Department, where she joined Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs Shaun Casey for an interview about the Religious Literacy Project and her efforts to provide training and resources on religious literacy for educators, journalists, diplomats, public health and business leaders. 

Dr. Moore, one of the earliest advocates for religious literacy, defines the concept as ‘the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses.’  In essence, Dr. Moore believes a religiously literate person has a basic understanding of the history, texts, beliefs and practices, and current and dynamic manifestations, of the world’s religions in their specific local contexts. 

During her discussion with Special Representative Casey, Dr. Moore highlights the cultural studies approach she and her research team at Harvard have applied to building educational resources on religious literacy for classrooms and broader audiences.

Listen to Dr. Moore and Special Representative Casey’s conversation in our latest podcast.

This approach acknowledges that religions are internally diverse, are living traditions, and that they are embedded in all dimensions of human experience. This is an approach that we have embraced as we have engaged both religious leaders and members of the public throughout our work in the Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. It is also an approach we look forward to integrating more deeply into our foreign policy.

About the Author: Claire Sneed is the Team Lead for Thematic Advisors and leads on training and tools development in the Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs.

For more information:

A visitor looks at religious texts at an exhibition at the British Library in London, April 25, 2007. [AP photo]
Posted by Claire Sneed
November 2, 2016


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