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When Two Aren’t Better Than One: Right-Sizing Religion at the State Department

Experts debate plan to merge religious freedom and religious advocacy offices.
When Two Aren’t Better Than One: Right-Sizing Religion at the State Department
Image: Ken Orvidas

Four years after the Obama administration created the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants to shut it down.

The office’s tasks—to advise State Department leaders on religion-related policy matters and to help diplomats navigate religious dynamics overseas—and its million-dollar budget should be moved under the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF), according to a proposal laid out this fall.

The move is part of a bold attempt to “eliminate redundancies” and “create a more efficient State Department,” wrote Tillerson, who plans to cut the number of US special envoys and representatives from 66 to 30.

Some of the positions—including those for the Colombian peace process and Northern Ireland issues—would be dropped. But the IRF office would expand, absorbing not only the RGA office but also offices for religious minorities in the Middle East and Asia, the representative to Muslim communities, and the special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Those offices would bring 16 staff and $1.8 million to IRF, which has 23 positions and a $20 million budget.

“There’s no question that we always want to make the work as efficient as it can possibly be,” said Melissa Rogers, a scholar who previously led Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “The question is, ‘Has [Tillerson] pursued that aim in the right way?’ ”

Shaun Casey, who launched the RGA office in 2013, sees it as “a disaster.” The religion offices were already streamlined, he said, but the biggest problem is that the two offices do totally different things. Though both have “religion” ...

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