Understanding Global Trends in Religion and Politics: An Interview with Jonathan Fox

Jonathan Fox is one of the world’s leading authorities on religion and politics. He serves as Professor of Religion and Politics at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel and has published over a dozen books and over 100 journal articles and chapters. He is also director of the Religion and State project, which systematically measures the intersection between government and religion.

In this interview with Religion & Diplomacy, Fox shares his insights on contemporary global religion-state dynamics and his advice for diplomats and scholars involved in this field. The interview was conducted by Canadian scholar Robert Joustra, Associate Professor of Politics & International Studies at Redeemer University in Ontario.


Joustra: People talk about a religious resurgence or a religious turn in international relations since the new millennium. Do you think this is true? What are some of the basic insights or mistakes this view leads to, in your opinion?

Jonathan Fox (photo credit: Bar-Ilan University)

Jonathan Fox: This question is really two inter-related questions with two different answers. The first question is whether religion has returned or become increasingly important as an influential factor in international relations since the new millennium. I don’t think it has because I think it has always been a factor. There have always been religious political actors influencing foreign policy and the relations between states. There have always been leaders who are personally religious and their religious beliefs have informed many aspects of their policymaking including foreign policy. There have always been religious political actors such as religious institutions and leaders who have sought to influence foreign policy. Even the most secular of countries have always included a proportion of society that is religious and their religious beliefs have influenced their political participation and attitudes toward foreign policy. Jim Guth and Brent Nelsen, among others, have written extensively on this. Religious lobby groups have also existed in many countries.

The second question is: has there been a shift in how we think about religion in international religions in the new Millennium? The answer to this is a resounding yes. Through the end of the 20th century both in policymaking and academic circles religion’s role in international relations was mostly ignored. While there are a few exceptions, until the end of the 20th century academic journals on international relations published almost no articles that addressed religion as a serious influence on international relations or foreign policy. Religion was also not on the radar of Western foreign policy makers and diplomats. Multiple important Western policy makers including Madeline Albright and William Inboden have made this point. Two decades into the 21st century this has changed. While in the year 2000, there were barely enough researchers to put together a panel at an academic conference, today academic research on religion and international relations is thriving.

What happened to cause this tectonic shift? In 20th century academia, the idea that religion is a thing of the past that will become inconsequential was a central paradigm across academic disciplines. This belief was linked to the Enlightenment’s most severe anti-religious philosophies. Future Western academics, diplomats and foreign policy makers absorbed this attitude during their education and were socialized into it when they began to work in academia and the foreign policy community. When religious factors did obviously influence international relations this was usually addressed by theorizing about it under some other heading such as “the modern causes of terror” or “culture.” When it could not be ignored it was seen as deviant and an example of a dying phenomenon. By the 21st century it was becoming clear that religion was not dying and some scholars began to talk about religion in international relations. The events of 9/11 catalyzed this process, but I believe this realization would have occurred in any case. While since the beginning of the 21st century some senior scholars chose to devote their careers to studying religion and international relations, this increasing awareness of religion in international relations has been largely driven by scholars who began their career in the new Millennium. As this scholarship has become more prominent, it has had increasing influence on the policymaking community. Though likely there has also been an increasing demand for insight on religion and international relations from the policy making community that has spurred academic research.

Robert Joustra. (photo credit: Redeemer University)

Joustra: A lot of practitioners can get lost in the abstract debates on theory in religion and politics, and just as many find Pew Research Center stats on religiosity and restrictions and never move beyond the headline grabbing numbers. You’re an expert that can move back and forth between both conversations. How do you think diplomats should be assessing and using the qualitative theory on religion and politics, and the quantitative studies that people like yourself have pioneered?

Fox: Addressing religion in the diplomatic setting is simple in theory but likely quite complicated and difficult in practice. First, diplomats need to develop religious literacy. This means they need to develop the knowledge and ability to understand religion. Foreign policies have numerous audiences and all of them can potentially include people whose worldviews are informed by religion. These audiences include diplomats, other policy makers, community leaders, and the general population. These four categories of audience exist in both the foreign countries with which diplomats are engaging as well as in their own countries. Diplomats need to understand how religion can influence perceptions of their country’s policies and foreign policy discourse. They also need to know how to identify these religious audiences and how to speak to them.

Second, much of the academic literature in international relations is about cause and effect. Much of this literature discusses how religion influences the formulation of foreign policy. Understanding this process, especially in countries where this influence is pronounced, can give a diplomat a deeper understanding of the social and political foundations of another country’s foreign policy which can provide a level of insight that can help a diplomat address that foreign policy more effectively. For example some emerging experiment-based research suggests that when a conflict is framed as religious instead of as nationalist or ethnic, this can have a profound influence on attitudes toward foreign policy regarding that conflict both among religious and secular individuals. Thus how diplomats speak about issues such as conflict can be important in influencing an audience’s attitudes toward a foreign policy issue.

Other aspects of this research look at the consequences of religious involvement in foreign policy. I feel that in the future this research may be deeply important in predicting and understanding the impact of religious involvement in foreign policy. However, in its current stage there is no real agreement in the research on these influences so currently it is difficult to glean any practical advice from this collective research project.

Joustra: In your last book you make the controversial and counter-intuitive claim that Western democracies are not as free or as liberal as we like to believe. Do you see a rising tide of illiberalism in the West—like some self-described post-liberal pundits have described it—or is that too pessimistic?

Photo credit: Cambridge University Press

Fox: My research has consistently found that religious discrimination is present in the West and levels of religious discrimination by government and society are, on average, higher in the West than in Christian-majority countries in the developing world, regardless of whether they are democratic or not. That being said, I do not think about this phenomenon in the context of liberalism and illiberalism, though it certainly would not be illegitimate to frame it in this manner. The causes of this discrimination are multiple and a bit too complex to discuss in detail in this format but the one cause that seems to be, thus far, unique to the West is political secularism as an ideology.

I define political secularism as an ideology or set of beliefs advocating that religion ought to be separate from all or some aspects of politics or public life (or both). Some manifestations of secular ideologies can be anti-religious. Marxism, for example, is entirely anti-religious. However in the West the ideological anti-religious element of secularism manifests in the prohibition of religious practices that somehow contradict a secular ideological belief. In the West, I found three prominent examples of government restrictions on religious practices that fit this description and all of them are restrictions Jews and Muslims in particular.

First, Several Western European countries—Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland—limit ritual (Kosher and Halal) slaughter. This is based largely on the argument that this type of slaughter is cruel, even barbaric, and violates animal rights—a claim both Jews and Muslims dispute. Second, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all heavily regulate infant male circumcision. Advocates of this ban argue that this practice violates the bodily integrity of the child. These countries do not ban circumcision but allow it only under heavily regulated circumstances which place a significant burden on Muslim and Jewish religious communities. Prominent movements exist in a number of countries seeking an outright ban on male infant circumcision. Third, many local governments and public schools in Europe ban the wearing of head coverings traditionally word by Muslim women and married Orthodox Jewish women. This is justified by a secular conception of women’s rights. These three types of restrictions are practically nonexistent outside of the West. They also each represent cases where governments have made a conscious policy choice to place secular ideological beliefs and morality above religious morality, belief and practice.

While, as I said, this could be called illiberal, I feel that attributing this trend to the increasing influence of secular ideologies is a better and more precise way to understand the topic. This phenomenon clearly is on the rise in the West. It is also worth noting that in many cases, these bans are also supported by far-right nationalists who frame these practices as anathema to their country’s national culture. While I believe that this is truly what they believe, I would also argue that this can also be seen as these groups taking advantage of an existing movement to further their particularistic agenda.

Joustra: One of the complaints diplomats often hear from host countries is that they won’t be lectured on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) from representatives of states that have their own problems. Turkey, Russia, and India, for example, love to point out the faultlines and discriminations in North Atlantic liberal democracies. How do you think diplomats should respond to those complaints in advocating FoRB?

Fox: Given the West’s poor and declining record on FoRB, if I were a diplomat I’d be at a loss as to how to answer these charges. Arguing that we are bad but you’re worse holds little water in this context. Given this I’d urge diplomats to lobby their own governments to improve their own record on FoRB. To quote my most recent book, Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me: Why Governments Discriminate against Religious Minorities“if the West wants to promote religious freedom, it needs to clean up its own house. This is not true of all Western countries, many of which engage in very low levels of religious discrimination, but only Canada engages in none. It is difficult to promote a foreign policy intended to end religious discrimination when religious discrimination is occurring at home.”

Joustra: Where are the trends, as you see them, pushing religion and politics globally over the next decade? What should diplomats have their eyes on, and where might students of religion and IR be properly focusing their research to support that work? 

Fox: Religion is a complex social institution, among other things, and the trends surrounding religion and politics are complex. Having said that I’d like to emphasize what I see as one of the most important, and likely the most politically important, trend: the competition between religion and secularism. Religious and secular political actors are continually and constantly seeking to influence government religion policy, including foreign policy. Religious actors seek to influence policy in line with their religious beliefs and interests. Advocates of political secularism desire to both reduce religion’s influence and promote policies that are often at odds with core religious beliefs and rituals. My research has shown that this competition is present across the globe.

It is important to remember that neither camp is monolithic. There are differences of opinion within religious denominations over theology and how it should influence politics and, obviously, even greater differences across denominations and religions. The secular camp is also divided as there are many varieties of secular ideology which often make very different policy prescriptions.

This competition is active and I see it remaining active and becoming more intense for the foreseeable future. While much of it involves domestic policy it still has numerous implications for international relations. First, it has a profound influence on levels of FoRB in a country which has become a major diplomatic issue. Second, as I discuss above, many of these religious political actors are actively trying to influence foreign policy in their countries. This is particularly prominent among Muslim and Jewish diaspora communities regarding Middle East foreign policy but it also influences other aspects of foreign policy. In fact, Robert, I believe you’ve explicitly argued that religious lobbying in the US and Canada are responsible for the emphasis placed on FoRB in their foreign policies. Third, in this increasingly interdependent world, local religious issues have a way of crossing borders and becoming more international.

As for where we should focus our research. I’ve never been one to tell my colleagues what to research. In addition, the academic study of religion and international relations is a relatively new field. Again and again, I’ve been surprised and impressed by the innovation and ingenuity of my colleagues when researching the topic and feel the field would most benefit from allowing this trend of the individual members of the hive mind following their own intuitions of what to research. I feel we will learn far more using this unfettered approach which looks at multiple aspects of the topic at hand from a multitude of perspectives. To me this is the path to the deepest insight.