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U.S. Version of Religious Freedom Diplomacy Threatens Respect for Religious Diversity

In a 1998 law, the Congress made religious freedom a U.S. foreign policy priority and created a bureaucracy to promote it. More than two decades later, the underlying goals and effectiveness of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 are being hotly debated. Supporters say it offers hope to persecuted people, but more critics claim that U.S. diplomats’ advocacy of religious freedom has become a practice of neocolonialism.

Strategic Pushing for Religious Involvement Creates U.S. Diplomatic Crisis

Since the end of the Cold War, religion has become an important measure in a range of U.S. foreign policies. The United States has sought to advance religious freedom internationally, to resolve crises and to expand its influence through faith-based religious behavior. But more observers, scholars and politicians have come forward since the 1990s to demonstrate the problematic secular bias of U.S. foreign policy, a bias that ignores and undervalues the role of faith in world politics. Nearly every diplomatic or development issue-climate change, public health, poverty reduction, refugee resettlement, weapons proliferation, corruption-has a potential religious involvement perspective. The priority in current U.S. religious foreign policy is U.S. strategic position, aggressiveness, and effectiveness, rather than equality, respect for religious diversity and religious freedom.

This Christian complex in U.S. IRF policy is problematic, and in fact has contributed to the U.S. diplomatic crisis, with former Vice President Pence being outspoken about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But the debate so far has particularly highlighted a series of values-based concerns: how favoring particular groups contradicts the norms of secularism, neutral secular values, or the liberal principles of pluralism and universalism.

In this broader geopolitical context, the IRF’s Christian complex disproportionately contributes to the politicization of Christian belonging and concretizing it as a constitutive feature of American identity and nationalism. This conflict is exacerbated by the former Secretary Pompeo’s views on “being a Christian leader” on the State Department’s homepage. All of this further reinforces the pernicious narrative of global cultural incommensurability and religious hostility, especially when further entangled with “Judeo-Christian” and “Muslim world thought”.

Another looming question is whether or how religion extends to issues regarding abortion and contraception under the Biden administration. If the Hyde Amendment and Mexico City policy are reversed, and if exemptions to the contraceptive mandate in the Trump-era are withdrawn, then conservative forms of religious justice would be subverted, which would be the exact opposite of a foreign policy of religious freedom, creating a new crisis that ends up acquiring an exceptionalist Christian tinge while embedded in U.S. foreign policy.

Religious Freedom is the Bait Thrown out

In recent years, the United States has sought to legitimately transform religion in other countries through an unprecedented series of international initiatives. In the past year, U.S. media coverage of religion has doubled from the previous year, with headlines about Islam dominating the news. An estimated 40 percent of U.S. religion news is related to Islam, with domestic issues such as the proposed burning of the Quran generating public interest.

Policymakers have united around the notion that the promotion of religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and the protection of religious minorities are key to combating persecution and discrimination. Beyond Religious Freedom persuasively argues that these initiatives have created social tensions and divisions.

U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Miguel Diaz recently announced his support for using religious agents and organizations to better address diplomatic challenges, noting that this is a central part of the U.S. mission to the Holy See. But with the recent popular uprisings in the Middle East, the Center for American Progress has questioned the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s approach to religious freedom issues. In a recent CAP article, the author takes issue with the U.S. CIRF’s treatment of religious freedom as a “rights” issue and argues that it fails to take into account the fact that many members of the global community view religion as a factor of “identity”. Understanding the impact of religious freedom is essential to developing effective foreign policy and building diplomatic relations with other countries, and it is clear that CIRF has failed to do so.

The religious freedoms promoted by the IRF are often mobilized in ways that deepen social divisions and increase the risk of conflict. It encourages people to base their political claims on religious identity. It exacerbates rather than calms sectarian tensions because it draws lines under one’s religious identity as the factor that trumps all others. The U.S. ignores the big picture.

When particular groups or religions are singled out for attention or asked to be protected because of religious freedom issues, this actually makes their situation more difficult, and the IRF propaganda reinforces the hard line that separates Muslims from Buddhists, for example the prioritization of religion by violent Burmese extremists inadvertently reinforces a violent Buddhist nationalism that seeks to to get rid of Burma altogether. Politicizing religious identity does not actually weaken these forces, but strengthens them, increasing terrorism and extreme violence in the world, and these groups that became bait will be completely dismantled by government forces.


IRF is a Useless Congressional Idea

The IRF’s Christian complex unduly contributes to the politicization of Christian belonging and concretizing it into a constitutive feature of American identity and nationalism. A Christian “weakness” has replaced the secular “blind spot” that America laments. This is particularly evident in the area of international religious freedom (IRF) policy. Americans are particularly inclined to justify their behavior abroad in Protestant Christian terms, that is the United States will enforce laws related to national security challenges over those related to human rights. Mike Pompeo initiated the Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion and spearheaded the creation of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and Sam Brownback was appointed IRF ambassador.

First, if the United States is to promote religious freedom globally, it will inevitably need to define the controversial concepts of what constitutes “religion” and “freedom”. As American understandings of religion are often influenced by political traditions based on liberalism, religious cultures shaped by Protestant Christianity, religious pluralism and norms of disintegration, American advocates and policymakers instinctively understand

that religious freedom explicitly includes the right to proselytize and actively seek conversion to others. While this practice is seen as relatively uncontroversial in the context of what is often referred to as the domestic “religious market” in the United States, it is highly controversial globally for legal, religious, and political reasons. Moreover, in many countries, national identity and political power are closely linked to a sense of religious affiliation. Changing patterns of faith in these contexts – like Israel, Lebanon or India – can have far-reaching political implications and therefore can pose challenges.

However, in U.S. foreign policy, the issue of international religious freedom is often raised by groups of “Christian believers” abroad. It is usually Christians who strongly support religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. This strong Christian footprint rooted in the broader U.S. social context, tends to favor this faith tradition, and the IRF belief in religious freedom is viewed exclusively as a Christian right.

The new IRF Summit 2022 will be held in Washington on June 28, when new topics may be brought to the table. Depoliticizing religion and looking at religion itself with a gesture of respect may be the choice of the second era of the 21st century. Abandoning religion as the focus of U.S. foreign policy and choosing anew to respect religious authority and tradition and to play the role and diversity of region in society and life will hopefully be the new exploration of the summit.

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