Shaun Casey, head of the U.S. State Department’s new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, delivered a lecture at White Hall on Friday. In his speech, Casey addressed the challenges of his position while opening the door to potential Emory student involvement in the federal program.

The lecture, originally scheduled for Oct. 4 but postponed due to the government shutdown, attracted more than 50 students and faculty to White Hall 206 on Friday afternoon.

“I’ve had some wonderful conversations with students here,” Casey said.

He expressed his admiration for the “world class graduate program in religion” at Emory.

“I think there are many ways my office can partner with the rich resources here,” he said. “I look forward to that partnership later on.”

Casey took a leave of absence from Wesley Theological Seminary when Secretary of State John Kerry announced the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and appointed him as its special advisor in August, according to the State Department website.

Before meeting with Kerry, Casey had served as Barack Obama’s senior advisor for religious affairs during the 2008 presidential campaign and authored the 2009 book The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon.

While at Wesley, he taught Christian ethics and directed the National Capital Semester for Seminarians (NCSS), a multi-institution Washington D.C. semester program, according to the State Department site. Casey included during his lecture that he had the pleasure of involving several Emory students in the NCSS program.

His discussions with the Secretary of State prior to the creation of the new office, however, pulled him back into politics.

“When we first started talking, there were voices in the public life saying that religion destroys everything, but there were also voices saying that religion fixes everything,” Casey said, recounting his talks with Kerry. They met after Kerry’s presidential loss in 2004, when the latter was “processing his loss, processing his future.”

Casey expressed his deep respect for the Secretary of State, who, like him, saw the mix between destruction and amelioration that defined religion in society and politics.

“I admired his willingness to not follow the dictation that [religion] had to be one or the other,” Casey said. 

The two men also discussed the importance of understanding the religious complications of U.S. conflicts abroad, as well as “the price we pay for ignoring religion in places where we engage.”

Casey said he hopes that by the time he returns to academia, he will have permanently improved the State Department’s relationship with religious groups.

This, he said, will “make us smarter in crisis situations” and “foster the hope of sustainability between leaders of different religions.”

Among other topics, he described his work in globalizing a U.S.-based equal opportunity law for minorities and those with disabilities, his trip with Kerry to the Vatican and Emory’s leadership among other schools offering religion curriculum.

“You are in a place known for training people across disciplines in religion,” Casey said. “You need to shine a bright light on what you do, because I think [the trend in] college religion is going the other way.”

Once Casey finished his speech, a graduate student asked whether the tension between U.S. diplomats and those “suspicious of the West” would ever diminish.

“The tension’s not going to go away – it shouldn’t go away,” Casey said, adding that the awareness of such tension is in fact positive. “It’s going to continue to be difficult, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from what we do.”

A faculty member asked Casey if, while at the State Department, he had happened to hear any of the “God bless America” rhetoric common to the George W. Bush administration.

Casey answered that the State Department “represents a wonderful religious pluralism” that no longer embraces the “dominant religious language.”

“We’re a lot more sophisticated than we once were,” he said. “It’s not my high school lunchroom.”

College senior Sahil Gilani, who is applying to a graduate program in Religion and Muslim Civilizations, said much of Casey’s speech personally resonated with him.

“I feel like interfaith dialogue is something we take pride in here,” Gilani said, adding that Emory boasts a wide variety of religious organizations.

Candler School of Theology student Liz Whiting-Pierce said she was “wondering more specifically what ‘engaging’ means” when Casey described his office’s actions regarding religious groups abroad.

“I want to know structurally what that means, beyond what I would assume to be dialogue or listening,” Whiting-Pierce said.

Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament Studies Carl R. Holladay, who introduced Casey, said he thinks this is “an important moment” not only for the State Department but for Emory.

“[Casey] has recognized that there is some synergy – an opportunity for Emory partnering with and providing resources for this initiative,” Holladay said. “As [Casey’s] work moves ahead, he’ll develop an idea of who he needs.”

– Contact Lydia O’Neal at [email protected]