Saturday, October 14, 2023

Peter S. Henne's "Religious Appeals in Power Politics"

Peter S. Henne is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of Middle East Studies in the Global and Regional Studies Program at the University of Vermont.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Religious Appeals in Power Politics, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Vladimir Putin was credible as a speaker on far-right religious causes. In America, many conservatives see Putin as “defending sovereign nationhood…and traditional values” against “multiculturalism” and “nontraditional sexual identity.” Prominent conservative Pat Buchanan called on Western conservatives to back Putin as a champion “against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite." Steve Bannon spoke before a meeting of European conservatives, and argued that the West “should focus more on Putin’s promotion of ‘traditionalism’ and values that support ‘the underpinnings of nationalism.’” And the number of US Republicans who see Putin as very unfavorable went from 51 percent in 2014 to 10 percent in 2016. Some have noted Buchanan’s support for Putin is due to the view that Putin is “standing up for traditional values against Western cultural elites.” Similarly, evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Larry Jacobs back Putin as he is “on our [sic] side in the war against secularism and sexual decadence,” with some calling him a “moral compass.” There are some signs of US evangelicals “leaning on Russia for support” as a “model” to institute laws in line with conservative Christian values.

There are numerous other examples of Putin’s credibility on religious issues among American conservatives. Putin’s ability to “portray himself as a defender of traditional social values,” and as a “religiously devout alternative to Western countries” has “drawn praise” from “like-minded American activists.” For many US conservatives, Putin “personifies many of the qualities and attitudes that conservatives have desired in a president: a respect for traditional Christian values, a swelling nationalist pride and an aggressive posture toward foreign adversaries.” As one expert put it, Putin is the “true defender of Christian values,” and America is the one that is “decadent.” Experts have argued that Putin’s “religious, nationalist turn” inspired alt-right figures in America. The President of the World Council of Families said that “the Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world,” while others noted that they look to “Russia as having the potential to ‘save’ Western civilization.” Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch with ties to pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine, is also closely connected with US evangelicals.

Just as in the United States, these efforts seemed to have resonated with far-right Europeans. One participant in the above conference said he saw the event as “pushing the fight back against liberalism” and “the destruction of traditional values including Christianity;” he argued that “Russia is about tradition and Christianity.” One Russian analyst argued that “Putin embodies mostly the model that can be envied and is envied by many in the West," and that “in the eyes of millions of Europeans and Americans, Putin is the man who embodies those traditional and also conservative values.” Many populist parties in Europe see Putin as an “ally” because he shares their concern over immigration, globalization, and Islamic radicalism; they “perceive” his actions as a “defense for strong traditional values.”
This provides half the story of my book. I argue that states often draw on religious appeals when dealing with international crises. These appeals have significant impacts on international relations, and can build coalitions with like-minded audiences. I demonstrate this with in-depth case studies of Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Egypt in the 1960s, the United States’ religious outreach during the Global War on Terrorism, and Russia’s efforts to gain control over its neighbors. Page 99 discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to create a coalition with far-right forces in Europe and the United States, with the goal of undermining opposition to his aggressive foreign policy. One of the ways he has done this is through appeals to “traditional” or conservative Christian values.

Yet, as I said, that is only half the story. I also argue that, more often than not, these religious appeals backfire on the states using them. They increase tensions in already tense situations. They can be get turned around and redirected by their targets in a way that harms the state initially using the religious appeals. And they are often poorly-formulated, leading to a waste of resources. A reading browsing only page 99 would get the sense that religious appeals are pretty effective, whereas most of my evidence (including for Russia) finds they are an unwieldy if impactful foreign policy tool.
Learn more about Religious Appeals in Power Politics at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue