Luther Alumni Magazine

Advising the State Department

When associate professor of religion Todd Green started teaching at Luther in 2008, he didn’t imagine that eight years later he’d be lecturing at the FBI Academy at Quantico. But that’s exactly what he was doing—among other things—during the 2016–17 academic year, when he served as a Franklin Fellow at the US Department of State.

Todd Green, associate professor of religion, served as a Franklin Fellow at the State Department during the 2016–17 academic year. David Green photo
Todd Green, associate professor of religion, served as a Franklin Fellow at the State Department during the 2016–17 academic year. David Green photo

The Franklin Fellows Program brings in professionals from the private and nonprofit sectors to advise on areas of new and emerging global concern. Green, a nationally recognized expert on Islamophobia, was asked to work in the Office of Policy and Global Issues in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, focusing on Islamophobia’s impact on freedom of religion, human rights, and countering violent extremism initiatives.

Green was put forward for the position by the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the academic guild with which he’s affiliated. He explains that the AAR has for decades been trying to improve the way the US government engages religious communities and understands the role religion plays in domestic and global affairs.

“European and US outreach to Muslim communities tends to take as a starting point the idea that Muslims pose a security threat and that we need to find a way to neutralize that threat,” Green says. “I find that whole paradigm to be problematic. My consistent cadence throughout the year was to try to find constructive ways of engaging Muslims that don’t start from the presumption that they are a danger, but rather that they’re productive members of society who have a lot to contribute, who are contributing, and who deserve to have their full civil rights and civil liberties protected and fought for as much as any other member of any other religious community.”

Green says that the 2016 presidential election and subsequent shift in administration had a profound impact on his work at the State Department. In thinking one night about how his role might change, he says, “It dawned on me that I now had the most ridiculous job in Washington. I was an adviser on Islamophobia in an administration that got to power because of Islamophobia,” noting that President Trump tapped into anxiety and hostility toward Muslims and used lots of Islamophobic rhetoric during his campaign.

That said, Green had some opportunities in the Trump administration that he didn’t have in the Obama administration. His interim supervisor asked him to analyze the speeches of Trump and the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, so that Green’s office could suggest alternative language on terrorism that might not be as alienating to Muslim communities. He was also able to give two presentations to the FBI Academy at Quantico and one to the Department of Homeland Security. And he traveled to Europe to speak at several embassies to audiences of journalists, scholars, diplomats, nongovernmental agencies, and Muslim organizations.

Green returned to Luther in June. He plans to use his new European embassy connections in his course on Islam in Europe, which he’ll teach abroad over J-term. His course on Islamophobia, which he’s teaching again this fall, will benefit from the new perspective he’s gained on how policy is formulated.

The experience will also inform his life as a public scholar, which has become more and more a focus of his work. “I’ve become a big believer in public scholarship,” Green says. “It’s one of the reasons I did the State Department work. But part of it is also my own recognition that too many of us in our discipline have for too long ceded the discourse about Islam to individuals and organizations prone to bigotry, and now they have acquired tremendous power over the narrative of Islam in way that has done great harm to Muslims.”

Green believes that places like Luther can make a difference. “The need for college graduates who are literate in the study of religion is more significant now than it has ever been,” he says, “and spending a year in Washington widened my idea of what the academic study of religion, not to mention the study of Islam or Islamophobia, can do in terms of career paths. Knowing that will shape the way I mentor students. I would love to see some of our graduates take knowledge from a course like Islamophobia or Islam in Europe and then serve in the State Department or the Department of Justice or work in a think tank in Washington or even in the White House one day.”