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Is Religious Freedom Important For Biden’s Asia Diplomacy? – OpEd

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By Ben Joseph

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(UCA News) — In May, US President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Asia, the land of major world religions where freedom of religion is fast shrinking for minorities.

Religion has been and continues to be a powerful tool for US diplomacy in Asia, where religion is linked to the emotional core of the masses. Governments and politicians in Asia, even when leading authoritarian regimes, cleverly use religion for their advantage. Religion, therefore, is both a diplomatic and political tool across much of Asia. 

Just like other US presidents, Catholic Biden is expected to operationalize religion across a wide range of American foreign policy domains when he visits Japan and at least two other yet-to-be-disclosed Asian allies in May.

During the Cold War, US foreign policy championed global spiritual health to combat communism. So, established religions, not necessarily Christianity, came in handy to take on the godless social order of communism.

Currently, however, it promotes religious freedom, which also has secular connotations because legalizing religious freedom inevitably privileges some religions over others and, at times, even criminalizes indigenous practices and beliefs.

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Whether it is advancing religious freedom globally, cultivating faith-based organizations with humanitarian and development aid, fighting global terrorism by reforming the Muslim world and Islamic theologies, or engaging religious leaders to solve global crises and foster peace, they all have an element of secularism attached under US foreign policy linked to a wider body of human rights norms, including the rights to health and education.

Linking freedom of religion with human rights norms also aids the rights of LGBTQ persons, sexual and reproductive rights, the support of human rights defenders, and civil society.

Though international religious freedom has not been a top priority in American foreign policy since the collapse of the USSR, with the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) new funding streams and special appointees are taking place.

Signed into law on Oct. 27, 1998, the IRFA stresses advancing the cause of religious freedom throughout the world. Under the law, spiritual customers have the right to select from a wide range of faiths the one that suits their interests. They have the right to proselytize and convert others, too.

In Asia, there are important issues of blood, soil and community. Two of Asia’s leading religions — Islam and Hinduism — discourage conversions out of the faith. Of late, in many Asian states like India, a Hindu-majority country, and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, national identity and political power are tied to religious belonging.

A change in identity politics has profound repercussions and thus comes with many challenges in the Asian context.

The majority of influential actors who champion religious freedom in American foreign policy are generally Christian. This strong Christian footprint is rooted in a wider American social context favoring faith traditions of Protestant evangelicals and Catholics. From climate change to women’s rights, religious freedom is currently embroiled in America’s domestic culture wars. 

Asians see this as a Judeo-Christian idea which potentially endangers the very same Christians whom the US is out to save around the world. Because of this, Christians in other countries become tainted by association with the West in their local context.

This Christian soft spot in US policy is problematic as favoring particular groups rubs against the norms of church-state separation, secular values of neutrality or liberal principles of universalism. So, exporting religious freedom by the US may not always result in the well-being of Christians worldwide.

In an era where the US is engaged in a war on terror against certain jihadist groups and competing with communist China, many misinterpret this as the clash of civilizations, whereas the clash of religions would have been the apt term to describe the growing gulf between religious denominations in the world.

Like other human rights, freedom of religion has its moral and political standing to empower the marginalized and to strengthen the oppressed. This is particularly true for Asia, which is still reeling under poverty by Western standards.

But the chances of lifting millions of Asians out of poverty has gone with the wind as US foreign policy is tied to neoliberal policies where the invisible hand of the market is determining the fate of nations. In short, the much-trumpeted trickle-down effect does not happen, at least with the poor.

Promoted by the likes of Friedrich Hayek, Augusto Pinochet, Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Roland Reagan, Alan Greenspan, Donald Trump and now Biden, the key elements of neoliberal ideology are fiscal austerity, rampant deregulation, free trade, fewer taxes for the rich and corporations, privatization and a cut in welfare spending.

It advocates the idea that every individual acts — almost all the time — out of pure self-interest. Selfishness has made rich countries richer but that does not mean that the country is fair, just or equitable.

Inequality increased in Asia and Africa after nations on these continents were forced to adapt to the ideological catechism of neoliberalism known as structural adjustment programs or SAPs.

This push for neoliberal policies has seen the US engaging deeply with hardcore fundamentalist outfits in Asia, Latin America and Africa in exchange for facilitating US trade interests in their countries.

For example, India, ruled by a right-wing Hindu party that is keen on curtailing the religious freedom of minorities, is a close ally of the US. For American corporations and multinational companies, India in South Asia is a bigger market than Germany, the leading EU economy. That market cannot be sacrificed on the altar of religious freedom.

If Biden, who championed his Catholic faith as the core of his political ambition, seeks to reclaim US leadership through a reassertion of core American values, he will need to redefine religious liberty — and Asia, home to all world religions, is the right place to start.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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