Faith in the Special Relationship? An Interview with Ger FitzGerald

The Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’ is grounded in a shared history and language and in cultural similarities. What does it mean then that, according to a new report from the British Council, “the characteristics of religious identification and practice substantially differs across the two countries”? Sophie Stuart-Menteth, a graduate student at Cambridge University, interviewed report author Gerald FitzGerald to explore these differences and their implications.


Religion & Diplomacy: Tell us a bit about the origins of the report. What prompted this survey?

Fitzgerald: Because of our specific interest in religion and belief and our core mission to strengthen transatlantic ties, we thought that this would be an interesting and productive area. There’s also a dearth of comparative US-UK surveys that examine religion and belief and it provided an opportunity to revisit and amplify the findings of our history of convening transatlantic expertise at the intersection of religion and international affairs.

In the U.S., religion and belief has been at the forefront of the British Council’s civil society work for more than a decade. The Bridging Voices project, which I manage out of our office in Washington, D.C., has been an important component of that work. There is also currently a push to mainstream religion and belief, when it’s appropriate to do so, across the British Council’s global network.

R&D: The figures relating to perspectives on the greatest threats to peace were fascinating. People in the UK are over twice as likely as those in the US to identify religious extremism as one of the top three threats (20% vs. 8%). Instead, the US seems to be more concerned with domestic issues, with one fifth picking racism, domestic terrorism, and political extremism (20%, 19%, 19%). Does this create potential tensions in any collaboration over religion policy?

Dr Gerald Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald: People who have read the report have zeroed in on this. I think it points to two things: First, I think that religion has been constructed as being more problematic in the public sphere in Britain whereas, generally speaking, religion has been constructed in the American imaginary in a more positive fashion—especially as it forms an important part of the founding story of the American imagined community.

I think that the ‘deprivatization’ of religion in the UK, to use José Casanova’s term, has created some dissonance because it conflicts with a deeply-entrenched European self-understanding that has long assumed the universality of secular-modernization processes. The Rushdie Affair and the Headscarf Affairs were critical junctures in the sense that they revealed the fissures in these European secular assumptions and self-understandings in the face of Europe’s multicultural and multifaith reality. Unfortunately, the narratives surrounding these events were grossly simplistic and failed to reflect the diverse and nuanced opinions across British and French communities. Of course, international actors, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, also became involved in unhelpful ways and British Muslim communities were caught in the crossfire. These tensions have been massively exacerbated, of course, after 9/11 and 7/7 as crude media discourses often fused religion and extremism. We saw this survey question as an opportunity to critique that prevailing construction

Second, I think that Americans are simply more internally-focused. This is represented in enduring isolationist factions in American politics that span the spectrum from an anti-imperial faction on the political left to libertarian and nativist factions on the political right. This is also present in parts of the UK of course, but I think it’s more entrenched and inward-looking in the U.S.

I don’t think this has much impact on the relationship between US and UK foreign policy establishments—at least not in my experience. Foreign policy bureaucracies on both sides of the Atlantic are quite nuanced in their understandings of the importance of how we use language. This is evident, for example, in the way the State Department has resisted and pushed back on the Trump Administration’s attempts to deploy the terminology of ‘radical Islamic extremism.’

R&D: Throughout the report, it is clear that the people in the US are more likely to hold stronger views on religion. For example, while two thirds of Americans agree strongly that Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) is a fundamental human right, less than half of Britons feel the same (64% vs. 46%). What, if any, are the relational and diplomatic implications of this divergence?

Fitzgerald: This variation between the U.S. and the U.K. in the space reserved for religion in the public sphere has diplomatic and relational implications in a number of different ways. First, because of the unique state-religion trajectory of the U.S., Americans are very attached to the role of “freedom of religion” as an integral part of the founding national myth, which is often cast in terms of the “first freedom.” I’d argue that this has path dependent effects. While there is obviously a complex causality involved, I’d suggest that one such effect is the tendency in the U.S. to separate out ‘international religious freedom’ from other human rights agendas whereas Britain—and Europe more generally—continues to pursue a more holistic approach. This is mirrored in terminological differences between ‘religious freedom / liberty’ (in the U.S. parlance) and ‘freedom of religion and belief’ (in the British parlance). However, I sense that there may be some convergence occurring here in recent months. For example, with the U.K. and other European countries recently signing on to the International Religious Freedom Alliance, I’ve noticed that the framing language on the U.S. side has become increasingly FoRB-like.

R&D: The report aims to highlight the need for greater appreciation by foreign policy establishments of the role religion plays in international affairs, requiring more robust religious literary training for diplomatic personnel and enhanced capacities for ‘religious engagement’. What would this look like practically, particularly enhanced capacities for religious engagement?

Photo credit: British Council

Fitzgerald: There’s a tendency among foreign policy elites to see attention to religion as only being an important consideration in the Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) worlds, which means that we are in danger of missing how important religion and belief can be in shaping everyday lives and decision-making processes. Also, I think that foreign policy establishments can lurch between ‘theologocentrism’ (where everything becomes reduced to religion) and a tendency to retreat to a secular safety zone from where religion can be safely ignored. These are both serious cultural and cognitive blind spots that are not mutually exclusive. Training in ‘religious engagement’ is important so that foreign policy professionals can know when—and when not—to engage with religion and/or religious leaders.

This is exacerbated by the ‘conveyor belt’ from graduate study to foreign policy establishments, which has traditionally drawn from academic disciplines such as International Relations. As an IR grad myself, I’d argue that the dominance of realist and liberal theories in the study of IR means that grad students receive scant training in cultural determinants, which are seen as theoretically irrelevant. Indeed, it is often the case that the only engagement of the American IR graduate with ‘religion’ is a reading of The Clash of Civilizations. Even if the point of reading Huntington is to critique him, this is still tragic. I think there needs to be more emphasis on drawing from disciplines within the humanities that ask the big, existential, questions.

Ideally, addressing these kinds of issues could involve mandatory generalist trainings for junior diplomatic personnel. It could also involve developing specialist knowledge on specific religious traditions within institutions or in preparation for particular diplomatic deployments. The U.S. made some strides on this under the Obama Administration—and I’m thinking in particular of the founding of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs by Secretary Kerry (which has been reduced in size and rebranded as Strategic Religious Engagement by the Trump Administration). The FCO has been conducting an increasing number of elective trainings in various aspects of religion and belief, which is encouraging. There’s a long way to go—and sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps backwards. However, the ultimate goal is to mainstream these ideas and bring foreign policy establishments into alignment with new post-secular understandings.

R&D: The report explored peoples’ use of digital media for information on religion and belief, and found Americans to be more engaged with this (three in ten Americans access digital sources at least once a week, in comparison to only two in ten Britons, 31% vs. 21%). Is there a way that digital sources could be included in strategies to increase understanding of religion by foreign policy establishments? Secondly, what do you think accounts for the greater engagement with digital sources by men and non-Christians across the US and UK?

Fitzgerald: Yes, I think this is already happening. There’s evidence that demonstrates that hybrid learning environments have distinct advantages in terms of educational outcomes. I know that people within the State Department have been working on digital learning tools, such as producing animated videos, to illustrate the extent to which the separation of church and state does—and does not—impact diplomatic work outside the U.S. This can be tricky territory to navigate for the uninitiated. Beyond websites and digital documents, I’m interested in network mapping tools, which I think can be very useful in visualizing the globalized activities of transnational religious groups. This could produce data visualizations, for example, of how ‘boomerang’ effects—with both good and bad outcomes—can occur when religious groups interact with states across a variety of issues. My impression, however, is that governments are not yet particularly interested in network analysis—so, again, there’s a great deal of work to do!

For religious minorities, I think that increased barriers to information may prompt individuals to resort to online resources in proportionally greater numbers. For example, the internet provides many Muslims with spiritual guidance by means of online ‘fatwa banks’ where one can do keyword searches for fatwa on particular issues. It is likely to be more difficult for non-Christians to access spiritual guidance in a person-to-person modality. As far as gender differences are concerned, there’s a distinct lack of research and theorizing about the intersection of gender, religion, and communication. There are studies that find that women are, generally speaking, more religious than men, but with this assumption, one could also make an argument that we should expect women to engage more than men with online resources. There may also be some gender differentiated social desirability bias effects here as well. I think this again falls into the “needs more research” category.

R&D: What do think are the biggest challenges facing foreign policy establishments in trying to understand religion?

Fitzgerald: I think there are three noteworthy challenges that I would mention. First, I think that both Britain and the U.S. are challenged by the persistence of secular biases within foreign policy establishments involving tacit assumptions about what ‘religion’ is, where it belongs and does not belong, and who or what speaks on its behalf. This has resulted in ‘blind spots’ about the role that religion, and religious authority, plays in development, conflict and peace dynamics, disaster relief, and a host of other international issues.

Second, and this is particular to the U.S., there is a lack of clear legal guidelines about whether the separation of church and state ends at the water’s edge or whether, and to what extent, it extends into the international sphere. Historically, this has led government to be slow to respond in arenas where religion plays a global role. More recently, it has led to a tendency to see religion through a lens of counterterrorism or CVE. The U.S.-led intervention in Iraq in 2003 also brought this home when it was assumed that the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s bureaucratic-rational regime would provide a blank slate for building a new governance model. However, important national leaders with charismatic authority remained in place—leaders such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani—with whom the coalition was not at all equipped to engage.

Finally—and again more germane to the U.S. case—the role of religion in government has become ensnared in the domestic culture wars. This has produced a tendency in the U.S. to see ‘religious freedom’ and ‘religious engagement’ functions as being in competition with one another, which results in a kind of zero-sum mentality. That is, under more conservative administrations, we tend to see a growth in ‘religious freedom’ capacities and a corresponding decline in ‘religious engagement’ capacities. More liberal administrations trend in the opposite direction. So, there’s not only ‘siloing’ but also territorialism between these different functions.

R&D: The report refers to academics, including Charles Taylor, who have written about living in a ‘post-secular’ world. How do the findings in this report help us understand the world Americans and Britons inhabit?

Working in religion and international affairs, it has become almost obligatory to start a talk by citing the Pew global religious landscape data from 2017, which noted the 84 percent of the world’s population identifies with a religious tradition. This still causes surprise for many people in the Global North. What’s even more surprising, however, is Pew’s projection, in the very same report, that this percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades. This seems to create some dissonance, and even hostility, among Brits and Americans who are very attached to the secularization-modernization mentality. I think that we have yet to grasp the full importance of this for cultural relations and diplomacy. One of the drivers of the British Council report was to draw attention to the increasing role of religion in international affairs. We see this in the growth of religiously-inspired forms of nationalism in the domestic sphere and the harnessing of religion for the purpose of projecting soft-power in the international sphere.

R&D: The report looks as perspectives in the US and UK. To what extent do you think its methodology and findings are relevant beyond these two countries?

I’m very cautious about making any generalizations on the survey data! I think it would be interesting to replicate this kind of survey across a variety of countries. In terms of distilling the findings of our convenings of expertise, I would say that the idea of a ‘secular bias’ in foreign policy establishments is something that I believe continues to operate across much of the Global North.