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Is the ‘new’ religious engagement really all that new? The need for reflection on the underlying values and assumptions in the engagement with religion

Date:19 August 2013
Author:Religion Factor
Is the ‘new’ religious engagement really all that new? The need for reflection on the underlying values and assumptions in the engagement with religion
Is the ‘new’ religious engagement really all that new? The need for reflection on the underlying values and assumptions in the engagement with religion

In this post, Brenda Bartelink draws on her research on faith based development organisations in the Netherlands and Uganda, and Dutch initiatives to engage with religion to raise some critical points for reflection on the new US Office for Faith-Based Community Initiatives . Following on from last week’s post on this new office,  she points to the importance of reflection on the (historical) assumptions and values that are underlying initiatives to engage with religion in international development cooperation and foreign policy.


In 2005 Dutch development minister Agnes van Ardenne announced that religion should be a new theme on the development policy agenda (1). I considered it a strange statement at the time, in particular from the mouth of a minister of the Christian Democratic Party. Development cooperation has a long history, in which religion and development are entangled in complex ways, including through the missionary and church organisations that laid the foundation for the development organisations that emerged in the Netherlands in the 20th century. Moreover, just before the Minister came to office, her predecessor had finished a research project focussed on Muslim women and development. Religion a new theme? I don’t think so.


I had a similar reaction when I first heard about the plan to set-up a new office for religious engagement in the US Department of State. I am not an expert on US foreign affairs and religion, but surely if there is one country in the world that takes religion into consideration in its foreign affairs, it’s the United States? In my study of FBOs in the past years I have come across more than a few US debates on the topic. It was already in 1999 that William Saffire wrote in his column in the New York Times that the term “faith based” had become so hot in the US that it should be enshrined in the official canon. He also describes why the word “faith” seems to escape the difficult discussion about the separation of religion and politics.


The office for faith-based community initiatives is new in its physical form, yet draws upon a longer engagement with FBOs. There may be reasons that this continuity isn’t part of the communication though.  The engagement of religious organisations in the fight against HIV/AIDS under the PEPFAR programme by G.W. Bush has both been heralded and despised. The US President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief was established in 2003 as a commitment to give $15 billion over five years to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  15 % of its funds were earmarked for abstinence-only prevention programmes channelled through faith based organisations. (2) PEPFAR was problematic for many development practitioners because through its focus on abstinence, a conservative evangelical Christian morality was imposed on African FBOs. (3) A piece by epidemiologist and HIV activist Helen Epstein in the New York Review of Books shows the impact on the national AIDS policy of Uganda. With these discussions in mind I was surprised to see the new initiative being framed as NEW.  In my view this illustrates a lack of (historical) reflection that anthropologists of development have criticized for a long time. (4) 

Linda Woodhead has recently raised concerns about the way in which the new office seems to be promoting US religious engagement as the only  way to approach this issue. Following on from her discussion of European approaches to religious engagement, let me consider what we can learn from Dutch engagements with religion in the field of development cooperation. In the Netherlands there have been several initiatives to increase the attention to religion in international development since the new Millennium. Yet few of the initiatives in which the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was involved were very sustainable, because most MFA policy makers and civil servants have the opinion that religion is something the state should not mingle with.  The Knowledge Forum on Religion and Development Policy only had a few successful years under the minister I mentioned before.


However, religion has not totally disappeared from the stage. In 2010 for example a conference for high-level religious leaders on HIV/AIDS was organized in which the MFA participated as well. However, this has not led to greater attention for religion in development policy, nor in more support of the work of faith based organisations that work with ordinary people, respecting their faith and values in everyday life.

This high level leaders summit, no matter how important that may be, draws in the question previously raised by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Austin Dacey; engagement with whom? Religious organisations, like the religions they emerge from, are highly diverse. We only have to take a look at our own Dutch history of religious particularism to see the challenges.


Moreover, people ‘live’ their religions in a holistic way. To remain with the example of AIDS, anthropologist Susan Whyte has illustrated how people in Uganda draw on various recourses and meaning systems to deal with (the treatment) of AIDS, pragmatically combining Western medicine, Christian faith, traditional spirituality and witchcraft (5). How does one avoid understanding people only in the context of their religious tradition (or perhaps more accurately, in the context of the assumptions we make about their religious tradition), creating essentialist religious identities? And how do we address the problem of representation given the diverse and complex identifications people have? Or we could reverse these questions into a warning for religious communities and organisations about the ‘dangers’ of becoming engaged with the government, like Erin did in her previous post on this blog. I suppose we then should add a warning about the problems raised in situations in which values conflict or compete.


Erin Wilson pointed at the ambivalent understandings on gender in religious institutions in her piece. However in development cooperation, religious values may also conflict with secular values. The previous minister for development cooperation Ben Knapen for example, stated that the Netherlands is particularly suitable to raise attention on sensitive issues such as gender and sexuality in developing countries because of its tradition of breaking taboos. However in my own research on sexuality and religion in Africa, I also found that this may result in the feeling that a Western liberal view on sexuality is imposed and hinder more locally owned ways of opening up (the so needed) discussion about sexuality and the position of women.


Whether promoting evangelical Christian moralities, or secular values such as gender equality, sexual freedom and democracy, political engagement with religion always runs the risk of creating a dichotomous frame of good religion/ bad religion (6), which jeopardizes the plurality and tolerance that is needed to create space for people’s personal engagement with religion in modern societies.


A focus on religion excludes the reflection on secular values that form the core of much development and foreign policy work. It reiterates the deeply embedded assumption that secular values are neutral and universal, religious values are subjective and particular. Respect for the beliefs and values of people, their communities and organisations around the world can only be realized if all actors, including secular governments and NGOs, are fully part of this, willing to put their values up for discussion. Initiatives to engage religious actors in the Western agendas of development and foreign policy is more identity politics, than it is a contribution to a more equal world in which plurality (whether informed by religion, gender, culture, sexuality or other) is respected.

Brenda Bartelink is the Senior Project Officer for the Oikos Foundation Knowledge Centre for Religion and Development, Utrecht, the Netherlands. She is currently completing her PhD in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen, examining the history of faith-based development organisations and their role in the contemporary development sector. She is also a fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain.

(1) Agnes van Ardenne-Van der Hoeven (2005) The outstretched hand.Speech given at the Cordaid, ICCO and ISS Conference “Religion: A Source for Human Rights and Development Cooperation” on 7 September 2005 in Soesterberg. Found at

(2) Prince, R., Dennis, P., Dijk R. (2009) ‘Introduction to Special Issue: Engaging Christianities: Negotiating HIV/AIDS, Health, and Social Relations in East and Southern Africa’, Africa Today 56(1): v-xviii.

(3) Dennis Altman (2010) ‘Exporting Moralities’ in Peter Aggleton and Richard Parker’s Routledge Handbook of Sexuality Health and Rights,

(4) David Lewis (2009) ‘International Development and the ‘perpetual present’: Anthropological approaches to the re-historicization of policy’ in European Journal of Development Research vol. 21, 1, 32-46

(5) Susan Reynolds-Whyte (1997) Questioning Misfortune. The pragmatics of uncertainty in Eastern Uganda. Camebridge University Press

(6) For more on this, see E.S. Hurd, 2012. “International Politics After Secularism” Review of International Studies 38(5): 943-961


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