November 9th, 2010
08:31 AM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
President Obama’s visit to Asia has been covered largely as a political and economic tour, but it is hard to avoid the religion angle of the story, which is taking the president from the country with the most Christians (the United States) to the country with the most Hindus (India) to the country with the most Muslims (Indonesia). The world's three largest religions, in other words, in a span of ten days.
In India, Obama danced with schoolchildren on the Hindu holiday of Diwali (a popular festival of lights and the most important holy day for many Hindus), visited the memorial of the spiritual and political leader Mohandes Gandhi (a man, Obama told the Indian Parliament, who helped deliver him to the White House), and met with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the first Sikh to hold India’s highest office.
In Indonesia, the country where he lived for four years as a child, Obama is slated to visit Istiqlal Mosque, the nation’s largest Islamic house of worship, and to address the Muslim world in the midst of a people known for repeatedly rejecting at the ballot box Islamic extremism in favor of moderate Islam.
So what is the religion story here?
The story is that religion matters worldwide—from Christianity in the United States to Hinduism in India and Islam in Indonesia. Yes, India and Indonesia are economic powers, but they are also nations of believers in which religious faith and practice move not only hearts but also elections.
In her book The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright, wrote that, during her tenure as Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, she had dozens of economic and political experts she could call upon any time of the day or night if she had a question about the GDP of Dubai or the political situation in Myanmar. But she had zero advisers on religious matters.
This approach makes sense if human beings are motivated exclusively by greed and power—if, in other words, everything they do can be understood by the lights of economics and political science. But, for better or for worse (or for both), human beings as a species are religious animals, motivated by theological beliefs and ritual practices.
America no doubt needs India as a political and economic partner. But that partnership will founder if the president does not understand that people in India are deeply religious, and that religion matters every bit as much in New Delhi as it does in Washington, D.C. And so it goes for Indonesia as well.
Assuming he keeps the Istiqlal Mosque on his itinerary for Indonesia, the president will doubtless be criticized, even as he was criticized for foregoing a visit to the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in India. But he is right to keep religion on his mind, and on his presidential itinerary—not because religion is something he should promote but because religion is a powerful force worldwide.
Even if there is no God and no afterlife, both Hinduism and Islam are real, with undeniable effects in the here and now. The same goes for the Sikhism of Prime Minister Singh, and the Confucianism of South Korea and Japan. But that is a story for another day.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.