The role of religion in public services
Several years ago while I was teaching a course, Religion and Global Politics, at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, a student asked me why my co-instructor, Professor Bryan Hehir, always wore the same thing: a black suit and collar. I explained that Professor Hehir was also Father Hehir, an ordained Catholic priest and that his outfit was his “priest’s suit.”
Although I had been aware that religious illiteracy was high, this exchange reinforced this awareness. Part of the reason has to do with education. In the American system, due to the American Constitution and the strict separation of church and state, religion is not part of the public education curriculum. Therefore, a large number of American students are not taught about Christianity; much less Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or any other faith.
This explains ignorance of American students but it did not explain the ignorance of the student who queried me. She was from Asia. Here the explanation also derives from the fact that she comes from a country that has adopted a strict form of secularism; meaning that religion, if it is to persist and manifest itself at all in her society, is supposed to do so only privately. Religion plays little to no role in public discourse or education. Thus, when this woman was educated and then moved onto college and into her professional life, she had no orientation or understanding of religion and how it might enter public space.
This simple story explains why, when policy makers from such influential institutions as the United Nations and World Bank approached development, religion and religious actors were not part of the calculus for delivering aid. They approached development through a secular (keep religion out) and modernized (religion is backward) lens. This is despite the fact that contemporary estimates put the proportion of aid being delivered globally through religious networks somewhere between 30-80 percent.
The lack of transparency on the amount of aid being delivered and mediated through religious institutions and actors only serves to highlight the problem of religious illiteracy in the social sciences. Only now, in the last decade or so, have policy makers and scholars realized the central and often critical role religious actors have played; and that in order for them to be (more) effective, religious actors and networks need to be both better understood and constructively engaged.
This is the path undertaken by the World Bank while under the stewardship of President James D. Wolfensohn. Wolfensohn’s commitment to poverty reduction as development policy led him to notice and advance faith-based organizations as natural allies. Within the academic community, religion too has begun to become a bit more central. Part of the push came from the Henry Luce Foundation, which sought to provide funding on religion and global politics to a large number of American-based schools of public policy and international affairs.
These are the sorts of schools that trains tomorrow’s World Bank officials and a good number of them have received Luce funding to develop courses, hire faculty, run seminars and produce research into the role of religion and religious actors in public life. My program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Religion in International Affairs, for example, was started with Luce Funding. As part of this program I taught courses, ran seminars, hosted conferences and sponsored research that examined a whole range of issues. Most importantly, my students were engaged on the topic and a good number of them will take that away with them to the IMF, their government ministries, or aid and development agencies.
Thus, supporting the creation and expansion of academic programs that offer a high quality and sustained focus on religious actors and issues and designed to train tomorrow’s public services professional will facilitate improved outcomes across a broad portfolio of global public service missions including in the delivery of aid and health services.
Monica Duffy Toft will be chairing a panel discussion on “The Role of Religion in Foreign Policy” at the American Academy of Religion on Friday November 16th. The event is being jointly organized by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Click here for more details and to register your attendance.