Erin K. Wilson: The power politics of ‘religion’: Discursive analysis of religion in political science and International Relations

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 That political science and International Relations (IR) have ‘found religion’ has become a common trope in recent times. After years of neglect, scholars have, so the story goes, ‘(re)discovered’ religion and its significance in contemporary global politics. This continued relevance of religion flies in the face of predictions of secularization theory, which had significant influence on the field and led to the long neglect of religion as a factor of importance in understanding global political dynamics. The initial (and still largely predominant) interest in religion in political science and IR was as something that could be clearly labelled and identified, measured and analysed, despite there being no agreed definition of what exactly religion is. The majority of mainstream approaches to religion within political science and IR utilize a ‘you know it when you see it’ kind of approach to the study of religion.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 More recently, however, a growing collective of scholars working at the intersection of religious studies and political science and IR have introduced more critical approaches. To study religion critically in political science and IR is to contest the very idea of ‘religion’ as something and its associated assumptions, along with its binary opposite, ‘the secular’.[1] Rather than exploring what ‘religion’ does in IR, critical approaches to the study of religion instead examine what ‘religion’ is in IR, who gets to define what ‘religion’ is, how they define it, why they define it as they do and what the consequences are in real world law and politics of defining it in one way and not another. Religion is understood as an unstable ‘practice, discursive formation and analytical category’,[2] rather than a fixed unchanging entity. As such, discursive analysis is a central component of critical approaches to religion within political science and IR.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This chapter outlines key features of the discursive approach to the study of religion within political science and IR. It begins with a brief overview of the history of the study of religion within the field, noting the almost ideological sway that secularization theory held (and in many cases continues to hold). Political science and IR are concerned with the study of power in domestic and international politics. According to secularization theory, the social and political power of religion was/is in continual and inexorable decline, making it a largely irrelevant topic for scholars of politics and IR. That influence began to be challenged in the post September 11 2001 environment, when scholars of IR realised that they had failed to predict both the end of the Cold War and September 11 and that perhaps religion was not as irrelevant to understanding global events as had been previously thought.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 A key innovation in this respect was the engagement with discourse analysis that had taken place in the field since the 1980s and in the 2000s was utilized in the study of religion in political science and IR. The chapter then outlines the contours and purposes of discourse analysis within the field in general, before turning specifically to the question of the discursive analysis of religion. The chapter outlines the ‘relational dialogist’ discursive analysis approach, which draws on the work of Julia Kristeva and Raia Prokhovnik to unpack and take account of oft-neglected dimensions of ‘religion’ as a discursive phenomenon. Throughout this discussion, I provide relevant examples from the United States of America (USA), which is arguably the most well-known case in which these factors come into play and thus requires the least introduction and background. The chapter concludes by reviewing the ways in which the discursive study of religion in political science and IR contributes to our understanding of power relationships in contemporary global politics.

The study of religion in political science and IR: a marginal endeavour

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Up until the 1990s, if religion were mentioned at all in IR scholarship, it was usually as an anomaly or as a dangerous, irrational and dogmatic influence on the political sphere.[3] For the most part, however, religion is hardly mentioned at all prior to the end of the Cold War. While there are a number of reasons for this neglect, the prevalence of secularization theory within the social sciences is one of the main contributing factors. With its overarching view that religion would continue to be less significant in public life, secularization theory contributed to the marginalization of the study of religion in political science and IR.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Several events contributed to a revision of this approach, however. The increased significance of religious actors in domestic political life, particularly in the USA, contributed to an increased interest in the role of religion in political science. Within IR, the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s caught many analysts unawares. The significant role of religious actors in the civil society movements that contributed to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and ultimately the end of the Cold War was a further signal that perhaps IR scholars were missing something by not taking religion into account in their analysis. The failure of IR scholars to foresee the possibility of an event such as the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, however, was the key event that opened up the field to greater interest in analysing religion.[4]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Much of this renewed interest in religion was, however, uncritical. It took religion as something that could be clearly labelled, identified, measured and analysed, separated from other socio-political and economic factors. The primary goal of these ‘face value’ approaches was to understand under what conditions religion contributed to violence, discrimination and conflict and under what conditions religion contributed to building peaceful and inclusive societies. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has termed this ‘the two faces of faith approach’,[5] or more simply ‘good’ religion vs ‘bad’ religion. According to this narrative, rather than religion disappearing, it has become increasingly more prominent, both as a source of peace and tolerance and as a source of violence and terrorism. The issue now is to facilitate contributions from religion that support peace, human rights, development, gender equality and so on, while minimizing those aspects of religion that contribute to violence, intolerance and chaos. One of earliest examples of this narrative within IR is R. Scott Appleby’s The Ambivalence of the Sacred, in which he argues that religion can be both a source for violence and conflict, as well as a source for peace and conflict transformation and it is difficult to determine how, why and under what circumstances religion will contribute to either conflict or peace.[6] This narrative has emerged with even more force in politics and public life in the context of the perceived rise of religiously inspired terrorism.[7]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 While the increased attention to religion as an issue of significance in contemporary IR brings much-needed analysis to a long neglected area, the new mainstream approach of good religion and bad religion continues to uphold the key assumptions of secularism and secularization theory.[8] This means that while there is more attention being given to religion as a phenomenon in global politics, analyses are still limited by the same assumptions about what ‘religion’ is—and, indeed, what ‘secularism’ is—that contributed to the neglect of religion in the first instance. The identification and critique of these assumptions concerning religion and secularism is one of the most groundbreaking contributions to come from critical perspectives on religion in political science and IR. It is here that the discursive study of religion has been most significant.

Discursive analysis and the power politics of religion in political science and IR

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Language is one of the key sites through which to analyse the place of religion in politics, in particular religion’s relationship with power. Some of the ways in which religion influences politics are embedded within the values, identities and worldviews that are assumed to be natural or normal within specific contexts. These embedded influences from religion have become inextricably entwined with elements that have, until recently, predominantly been considered “secular” by social scientists and IR theorists.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Discourse analysis has enabled scholars of religion, political science and IR to draw out and unravel these seemingly tangled, deeply embedded cultural assumptions and explore their impact on constructions of identity, dominant worldviews and, in turn, decision-making processes and outcomes. This discursive analysis thus allows scholars to acknowledge subtle, implicit ways that ideas about ‘religion’ permeate worldviews through which identities are constructed and enacted as part of policy practice. Language is a potent site for the construction of national and civilizational identity and the development, justification and implementation of policy, as well as being a primary way through which ideas about religion influence politics.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Within IR, discourse analysis has gained salience in the post-Cold War era as a part of the general broadening of theoretical approaches. Critical and reflectivist scholars utilising discourse analysis challenged traditional IR approaches that focused on identifying external “natural” causes for state action. Instead, reflectivist scholars were concerned with modes of interpretation and representation and the consequences of choosing one mode of interpretation and representation over others.[9] Discourse analysis in IR focuses on the manifestations of particular ideologies and how these ideologies impact the perceptions and actions of actors in world politics.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Milliken argues that three key assumptions underpin the work of discourse analysts in political science and IR.[10] Firstly, discourse analysts hold that discourses are “structure[s] of signification which construct social realities”.[11] Discourses are viewed as different series of words, actions and/or symbols, or as Weldes and Saco suggest, “linguistic and non-linguistic practices” that constitute a particular way of articulating a specific interpretation and/or representation of phenomena.[12] As Milliken points out, such an understanding of discourse reflects a largely constructivist view of how meaning is generated.[13]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Second, Milliken highlights that discourses not only provide the means for interpreting and understanding the world, but also produce ways of being in and responding to the world.[14] Milliken refers to this as “discourse productivity”. Discourses emphasise certain interpretations of identity and action while excluding other possible ways of being in and responding to the world.[15] Following on from Milliken’s statement, it is also possible to argue that, as well as producing some means of interpreting the world and closing off other interpretations, discourse serves to reproduce “collectively held subconscious ideas” concerning what constitutes “normal and natural reality”.[16] The use of discourse analysis highlights the role of ideas about ‘religion’ in opening up some ways of being in and responding to the rest of the world whilst closing off others in domestic and foreign policy contexts.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The third commitment of discourse analysts develops out of the second. Discourses are not static but require constant work to be maintained and to uphold the hegemonic practices and status quo that discourses engender. Milliken refers to this as “the play of practice”.[17] Discourse analysts identify how hegemonic discourses attempt to “fix” meaning and silence alternative discourses.[18] Discursive analysis of religion within political science and IR is thus interested in the ways in which narratives, images and ideas drawn from religious traditions and/or ideas about ‘religion’ in general or specific ‘religions’ in particular (usually Christianity and Islam) play in efforts to maintain one interpretation of events and exclude or silence other interpretations in order to open up and justify one set of policy options over others.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The foundational work of David Campbell, Diana Saco and Jutta Weldes and Michael Barnett reflect these theoretical commitments of discourse analysts. Discourses manufacture ways of responding to the world and attempt to maintain or “fix” particular meanings and interpretations while subordinating alternatives. Campbell notes that discourse works in conjunction with state actions to reproduce and reinforce traditional representations of state identity.[19] The practice of foreign policy, Campbell posits, is an exercise in nation building and national identity construction, but, further, it is an exercise in who is included and excluded from the nation.[20] Religious narratives and ideas about ‘religion’ play a critical role in such discursive constructions.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 National discourses aim to privilege one “official” representation of the nation-state’s identity that encompasses its values, purpose and goals, all the while excluding other possible interpretations or representations. Consequently, viewing a state in a particular way becomes “natural”, while competing representations of state identity are viewed as unnatural, unpatriotic, “un-American”, for example. Through producing and privileging one identity over others, a particular set of policy options are made available while others are closed off. By privileging one conception of a state’s identity over another, particular avenues of state action are opened up and these choices are made to appear “logical” and “rational”, “natural” and “common sense” within the privileged identity discourse. Other policy options are excluded, made to seem “illogical”, “irrational” or “impossible”.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Jutta Weldes and Diana Saco note, in their discussion of the nexus of identity and action in relation to the USA and Cuba, that through particular discursive formations, the USA was able to justify a continued state of hostility towards Cuba into the post-Cold War period. This hostility persisted despite the fact that, in realist power politics terms, Cuba did not pose a significant threat to US power and interests.[21] This is a significant insight, since it points us to the importance of the power politics of language and identity within political science and IR. Power politics is not only about material reality, but about the ways in which that reality is discursively represented and interpreted.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Michael Barnett’s study of Israel and the Oslo Peace Accords also demonstrates how discourse works to produce one mode of identity and action over another.[22] The case Barnett examines is particularly important, however, because Yitzhak Rabin sought to depart substantially from traditional representations of Israeli identity. Consequently, the discourse utilised was central to Rabin’s success in gaining support for a different set of policy options and actions.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Barnett’s study emphasises frames and narratives as important components of the construction of identity and state action. These frames and narratives are social and cultural resources that policy makers and speechwriters can rely on to give added meaning and context to the linguistic and rhetorical devices they utilise in speeches and policy pronouncements. These devices are used in the construction of national identity and then further used to articulate specific avenues of state action consistent with the purpose, goals and values contained within the construction of national identity. Discourse analysis identifies “representational practices” that serve the purpose of opening up some policy options and closing down others.[23] These representational practices “have an ideological depth to the extent that they engage a stock of signs with which people make their everyday lives intelligible”.[24]

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In other words, the representational practices utilised by policy makers and speechwriters deliberately draw on discourses commonly used within the culture and population of the nation that are representative of the way in which the nation, its identity, purposes and goals are thought about or, alternatively, are representative of the ideology of the nation. These discourses are ways of thinking about politics and the nation, so deeply embedded within society that they have become subconsciously held and understood belief systems across the majority of members of that nation. Policy makers and speechwriters use these discourses to invoke specific meanings and ideas without explicitly stating them.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 A further insight to be gained from discourse analysis is the importance of the relationship between identity, power and state action. Discourse analysis emphasises the construction of power through language and the reproduction of power in action. For scholars employing discourse analysis, primarily those from constructivist, feminist, critical theory and postmodern perspectives, power is not simply the product of material resources, as the more traditional theoretical approaches within IR, particularly realism, would suggest.[25] Power is constructed in multiple ways and operates at multiple levels. Language is a crucial part in that process. Weldes and Saco argue that one form of power revolves around the ability to define or be defined, that is, to define one’s own identity or be defined by another.[26]

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 This ability to define oneself is related to what Janice Bially Mattern refers to as “the power politics of identity”.[27] Through utilising discourse analysis, Mattern suggests that power politics is not restricted to physical force but also occurs through “representational force”, a function of discourse. In contrast to the realist power politics of physical force, Mattern describes this practice as a power politics of identity, occurring through discourse.[28] In important ways, these insights from Mattern and Weldes and Saco suggest a significant link between power, identity and state action. Further, Strenski has argued that power, as well as being a crucial component of politics, is also inextricably tied to religion.[29] Thus, discursive analysis of religion is a crucial tool for political science and IR scholars interested in exploring the implicit connections amongst identity, state action, power and religion.

Religion and Discourse Analysis

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Images, ideas and narratives connected with ‘religion’ and various ‘religious’ traditions provide unique linguistic and discursive tools through which this relationship between power, identity and state action is activated. The distinctive characteristics often associated with religion—its relationship with the transcendent, its narrative dimensions, institutional and communal authority—imbue religion with different forms of power that can be effectively utilised in discourse to make certain modes of identity and action possible over others. ‘Religion’ can endow the state (and also the individual) with an identity that is closely connected to the supernatural or the deity of a dominant religious tradition (in the case of the USA, for example, the Judaeo-Christian God). This identity can carry with it notions of being chosen, exceptional and special, possessing a unique calling or mission in the world, which in turn provides a source of legitimacy and justification for the state. Whilst this is a trope commonly associated with the USA,[30] it is also one that emerges in constructions of national identity in other contexts.[31] In turn, this sense of “chosen-ness” can be used to justify a myriad of actions. ‘Religion’ consequently can be used to exercise power over those outside the state, subordinating them to the state through the use of discursive elements that demonise or satanise the “other”.[32] Examples of this type of discourse have been abundant in the context of recent debates about migration, where the words ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’, ‘criminal’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘Muslim’ have become inextricably entangled with one another in Euro-American contexts.[33] While the state and individuals within the state carry the status of being chosen and possessing a special calling or mission, by implication other states and individuals outside the state do not.

A Relational Dialogist approach to the discursive study of religion

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 There are multiple methods and approaches for engaging in the discursive study of religion within political sciences and IR. In this section, I outline one such approach, the relational dialogist approach, which draws on the work of Raia Prokhovnik and Julia Kristeva. It builds on previous analysis of the ways in which political scientists and IR scholars have understood ‘religion’, through a series of binary oppositions. These binary oppositions are: institutional/ideational, individual/communal and irrational/rational. Dualistic approaches prevalent within political science and IR have predominantly emphasised only one half of each dichotomy, leading to a limited understanding of religion as institutional, individual and irrational. A relational dialogist understanding of religion considers all six elements equally, as well as adapting and expanding how some of the elements are conceptualized.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Kristeva’s engagement with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism provides the starting point for this particular discursive approach. Dialogism highlights the ongoing interaction of ideas, emphasizing fluidity and change, rather than rigidity.[34] In Kristeva’s analysis, dialogism is both ‘‘subjectivity and communication.’’ The text is telling a story, describing a series of events, but also communicating with texts and events that have come before and will come after. Kristeva refers to this as intertextuality.[35] The aim of dialogism, she argues, is not to arrive at a finite point of understanding and definition, but to strive ‘‘toward harmony, all the while implying an idea of rupture (of opposition and analogy) as a modality of transformation’’.[36] This approach recognizes that ideas are constantly developing and changing. Changes occur through interactions with other ideas within and across texts and historical events. There will be moments of agreement and ‘‘harmony’’ about what ideas mean and what their implications are for analysis and for broader society. Yet dialogism highlights that such moments are not conclusive. There is always the possibility of shifts and changes in ideas and how they interact, how texts communicate with each other and with broader society.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Dialogism suggests that religion understood as institutional, individual, irrational and irrelevant to politics and IR is not a fixed permanent definition, but one that will shift through interactions with other ideas. Thus, dialogism refracts established understandings of religion and politics. Dialogism represents a condition of constant rupture, with few moments of agreement or fixity. This situation is, however, somewhat debilitating. Prokhovnik’s model of relational thinking provides a way to move forward from this point. Understanding concepts as existing in relationships provides a way for managing these concepts and using them in practice, all the while remembering that the meaning associated with these terms are infinite and open to change. Using Prokhovnik’s relational thought model, connections amongst ideas are understood in much the same way as relationships amongst people, an ever-present, constant component of society yet always containing possibilities for change and a level of uncertainty.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Dualism endeavors to remove this uncertainty by establishing fixed understandings of particular ideas. As part of this process, dualism separates concepts that in fact exist in close relationship with one another. In contrast, Prokhovnik highlights that relational thought seeks to emphasize the connections that exist within these dichotomous pairings, arguing that there are numerous ‘‘intellectual and social benefits’’ in recognizing the relationships that are present both within and across existing dualisms.[37] In contrast to dualism’s restrictive ‘‘either ⁄ or’’ pattern, relational thought proposes a ‘‘both ⁄ and’’ approach, assisting transcendence of barriers established across existing dualisms.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Prokhovnik’s model deals primarily with gender relationships, but translates easily to religion and politics. Politics has been situated within the public sphere of domestic state societies and the public international sphere. Largely since the Peace of Westphalia, religion has been considered a private state affair and within states, a private individual affair.[38] Relational thought enables recognition of relationships amongst these traditionally separated dimensions of human activity. Thus, using a relational thought model, it is not a question of whether politics and the public realm should be “secular” or “religious.” Elements of both exist within the public political realm and should be recognized as such. The secular and the religious shape and define one another, so that what is considered secular is affected by what is considered religious and vice versa.[39] Further, regarding religion itself, it is not a question of whether religion is primarily institutional or ideational, primarily individual or communal, primarily ‘irrational’ or rational. Religion is made up of all six of these elements, and many others besides. At different times and in different contexts, some aspects will be more important to consider and analyze and will have more significant influence on aspects of politics than others, but all should be incorporated into the way in which religion and its relationship with politics are understood within political science and IR.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Combining Kristeva’s dialogism and Prokhovnik’s relational thought develops a framework that acknowledges connections amongst elements in religion that are not fixed, but are fluid, shifting and changing as they interact with each other, with other ideas, other texts and with people’s practical experiences, past, present and future. This opens up possibilities for rethinking and reassessing traditional secularist assumptions about the relationship between religion and politics and the nature of religion that have restricted much international relations analysis on this issue. Below, I highlight some specific words and phrases associated with the six elements of a relational dialogist discursive approach that can be applied to the study of religion in political science and IR.


30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Four main types of religious institutions are included in this dimension: organised churches, religious lobby groups, religious charity groups and religiously affiliated political parties. The traditional focus on religion’s institutional dimension suggests it exercises influence primarily through religious institutions and organisations. Institutional understandings of religion are perhaps the most easily identifiable of all the elements of religion within texts. When writers use words and phrases such as “church” and “faith-based organisation,” or the name of a specific religious denomination, they tend to refer to the institutional element of religion. Reference to leaders of specific religious institutions or organisations also relates to religion’s institutional element. Clearly, though, a primary focus on religion’s institutional aspect leads to a neglect of religious traditions and communities where the institutional dimension is less significant or indeed is entirely absent. The dominant focus on institutional religion within political science and IR helps to explain why scholars have, until recently, neglected religion in general and religion’s beyond Christianity in particular within their analysis.


31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 The ideational element of religion is perhaps the most important of those factors that have been excluded from the dominant political science and IR understanding of religion. The neglect of this dimension has detrimentally affected understandings of the relationship between religion and politics.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 “Ideational element” refers to key doctrines or core tenets of the beliefs of a particular religion. These effect how believers interpret, make sense of and respond to the world around them. Taking Christianity as an example, ideational influences include assumptions relating to the fallen nature of the world (Romans 3:23), the existence of good and evil in an antagonistic relationship,[40] the idea of a Saviour or Messiah,[41] concepts of unmerited grace and mercy,[42] the existence of Heaven and Hell (1 Peter 1:4; Matthew 10:28), an eschatological view of world history,[43] resulting in the eventual destruction of the present world and the creation of a new, perfect world (Revelation 20), the division of history into before Christ and after Christ, the idea of being chosen or of possessing a specific calling (stronger in some Christian denominations than in others) (Romans 8:28-30) and the need for redemption from sin.[44]

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Taking the USA as an example, the ideational dimension provides implicit influence on the construction and maintenance of US national identity, interpretations of events in global politics and justifications of US foreign policy. These include references to the USA as the ‘city on a hill’, ‘the last best hope of mankind’, ‘the bearer of the world’s burdens’, all of which resonate with ideas about Christ found within the Christian scriptures.[45] However, this influence often goes unnoticed, because it has become embedded in the “deep culture” of many Euro-American societies, part of the “collectively held subconscious ideas” that underpin what are thought to be “typical patterns of political behaviour”.[46]

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 The language associated with the ideational element of religion also has close links with the discourse of nationalism. Smith observes “religious traditions, and especially beliefs about the sacred, underpin and suffuse to a greater or lesser degree the national identities of the populations of the constituent states.”[47] Words such as “sacrifice”, “purpose”, “destiny”, “mission” and even ideas of “favour”, being “blessed” and possessing “responsibility” often carry religious connotations, linking the nation to a deity or supernatural force in powerful ways. Although neither God nor a specific religious tradition may be explicitly referenced, there is an underlying assumption or linkage to a general religious theme. This can have powerful implications for the social construction of the nation and for the justification of foreign policy.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Considering the long history of Protestant influence in the USA, the connections that words such as “sacrifice”, “destiny” and “mission” have with the Judaeo-Christian tradition are especially important to take into account when exploring religion’s influence on US national identity and foreign policy. David Campbell and Michael Barnett’s work, discussed previously, highlights further the significant role of religion can play in shaping national identity and foreign policy. Other words that may also indicate the influence of religion’s ideational element are “faith,” “belief,” “unique,” “special,” “chosen,” “devotion,” “hope,” “spirit,” “serve” or “be of service,” “devotion,” “giving,” and especially “sacrifice.”

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 While these words do not on their own necessarily carry religious connotations or indicate a particular instance of religious influence each time they are used, they are powerful components of discourses of religion and nationalism. Consequently, whether intentionally or not, these words play an important role in constructing a particular understanding of the nation, its role and purpose in world politics and, accordingly, in the justifications employed for certain policy choices and actions.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Building on this, it then becomes possible to determine the ways in which ideas about ‘religion’ influence the identification and development of options available for state action. Not only does the ideational element of religion influence meaning on its own but, combined with the other five elements, it works in conjunction with nationalism to promote a particular ideology or worldview, opening up certain interpretations of and responses to events in world politics, as well as closing off others. This occurs both consciously at the level of policy development and subconsciously at the level of embedded cultural assumptions.


38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The individual element of religion acknowledges a level of personal involvement or choice in relation to religion. The degree of this personal involvement and choice will vary across specific contexts and religious traditions. It suggests, however, that there is always some component of religious belief that exists within the individual. The individual chooses who and/or what they believe and why. Even if this choice is made on a highly limited basis or in the context of coercion to choose a particular belief system over another, some level of personal, individual agency and engagement exists within religion. Within secularist understandings of religion, the tendency has been to emphasise personal choice, to the extent of almost denying communal, public expressions of religious belief or devaluing the role of community in the development of personal religious beliefs. This preoccupation with individual religious freedom stems in part from the liberal emphasis on the individual and the importance of individual freedom.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 The influence of the individual element of religion can be difficult to assess. If religion is mentioned, the text will use words such as “personal”, “private”, “individual” in conjunction with words mentioned above as possessing ideational connotations—for example “faith” and “belief”. This implies that an acknowledgement of the influence of religion’s ideational aspects at an individual level is acceptable and even relatively common. It is quite a different matter, however, when the individual concerned holds a public role and the beliefs become public also. The possibility then opens up for religion to influence politics through the personal beliefs of the public individual. This situation is problematic for secular liberal politics, where the separation of church and state is rigorously defended and (at least in theory) enforced. If the public individual has a close affiliation with an organised church or other religious institution, this circumstance becomes even more problematic, since it potentially offers a way for that religious institution to influence politics through its close relationship with the public individual (a concern that affected the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and that also arose as part of criticisms of George W. Bush’s presidency).


40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 The communal element of religion often operates in conjunction with the ideational, contributing to the construction and maintenance of a sense of national community or identity. Although traditionally the communal element of religion operates primarily amongst religious believers, the same effect is transferable to a community established on different grounds. The communal element of religion works to establish a community of believers, joined together by their beliefs in the same doctrines and their participation in the same institutions and rituals. In this way, the communal element of religion is similar to nationalism and other political ideologies that establish a sense of community.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 The communal element of religion is observable within texts in two main ways. Firstly, references to specific religious communities or communal activities focused around religion indicate the influence of the communal element of religion. Bellah provides several examples of such “public rituals,” including national memorial services and prayers.[48] Secondly, the communal element of religion may influence the construction or creation of a community based not on affiliation with a religion or religious group, but through the use of words and symbols implicitly associated with a particular religion. While membership of the group or community is not contingent upon religious beliefs, religious language is used to create a close-knit community. Anthony Smith, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jeffrey Seul note religious communal language is often used in the construction of national identities.[49] Religion contributes to the creation of communities through shared values, norms, customs and practices. Religion also provides a shared sense of heritage, history and of direction and purpose for the future. Juergensmeyer and Seul both note religion can link individuals and communities to an identity and destiny that exists outside of the boundaries of time and space.[50] As such, whether it is claimed by or assigned to individuals and groups, religion is a powerful marker of individual and collective identity. This second function of the communal element of religion is again demonstrated in the “civil religion” of the USA.[51] Affiliation with a theistic religion is not imperative for membership in the American civil religious community but the language of religion, and of a particular type of religion (Judaeo-Christianity, specifically Protestantism) is still utilised to create that sense of community and belonging.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 The same words that indicate religion’s ideational influence are often used to construct a community, especially when used in conjunction with references to the collective (for example “we”, “our”, “America” “the United States”, “the West”, “Western civilisation”). Ideas of destiny and purpose as well as shared values and goals are powerful ways through which religion contributes to the development of a community. This, too, has strong links to nationalism. Yet these ideas are also used to create a sense of community that extends beyond the borders of the nation-state. Through its relationship with otherworldliness and its capacity to transcend political borders, religious language has the capacity to create a sense of community that extends beyond the confines of time and space. As Smith has highlighted, nationalism can operate in the same way, with members of nationalist groups and populations believing they are part of an historical legacy and building an eternal future.[52] Much of this imagery is borrowed from religion. The ideational and the communal elements of religion may also be utilised to construct an idea of community that goes across borders. Political leaders attempt to do this during times of conflict so as to clearly identify the states that are allies and those that are enemies. Examples of this include the Franklin Roosevelt’s references to the United Nations in opposition to the axis powers in World War Two during his 1942 State of the Union, and uses of terms such as “Western” civilisational identity or the “free world” in opposition to communism by US political elites during the Cold War.[53]


43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 The irrational and rational elements of religion are the most problematic of all six elements of a relational dialogist approach to religion. Both “irrational” and “rational” are highly contested terms. There is much debate over what is deemed “irrational” and “rational” and what criteria are used to decide this. More importantly, however, irrational and rational form a central component of how religion and its relationship with politics in Euro-American contexts have been understood, regardless of how contested both terms are. Rational and irrational are categories that emerge out of a secularist worldview, whereas religion itself holds a completely different understanding of the world. Understanding it as a different world entirely from that viewed from a secular perspective may in fact be more accurate.[54] A ‘religious’ ontological perspective may hold that belief in God and/or life outside the natural, physical realm is not “irrational” but is entirely logical, plausible and ‘rational’. Describing religion as ‘non-rational’ rather than irrational, as is the practice of some authors in an effort to acknowledge this difference in perspective, is also not entirely satisfactory. Such an approach still privileges the secularist worldview by describing religion as simply being something that is not rational. Perhaps the most helpful perspective is that of Immanuel Kant, who suggested that religious faith was in fact beyond the limitations of human reason,[55] making it neither rational nor irrational, but something else entirely. Alternatives exist, such as replacing ‘irrational’ and ‘rational’ with ‘spiritual, emotional, physical and cognitive rationalities’, also with their own obvious shortcomings. Thus, “rational” and “irrational”, like all the other components of the relational dialogist understanding of religion, should not be seen as fixed permanent categories, but rather as temporary terms within one approach that is endeavouring to move us away from a conceptual bias in favour of secularism towards different ways of thinking about the world that allow greater space for religion.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 The ‘irrational’ element of religion operates both on its own and in conjunction with other elements of religion to influence interpretations and representations of events in world politics. The irrational element of religion refers to the potential for justifying thoughts, policies and actions, whether personal or in relation to the nation as a whole, through the use of ‘transcendental’ or ‘otherworldly’ ideas or doctrines. In liberal Enlightenment terms, such justifications are ‘irrational’ because they are not based in human reason alone but rely on belief in a higher being or in some other reality that is not demonstrable in this world. The liberal secular emphasis on the irrational element of religion is perhaps the least obvious yet most pervasive of the three traditionally emphasised elements of religion in IR. The irrationality of religion has not always been explicitly stated in studies that have considered religion. However, until the post-Cold War era, the majority of IR scholars did not engage with religion at all, largely as a result of religion’s assumed irrationality.[56] The lack of reference to religion in texts, then, is indicative of religion’s presumed irrationality and the need to exclude religion from politics and public life.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Yet, the irrational elements of religion have also been and continue to be significant influences in politics and public life. This is in part because the elements of religion that are generally viewed as irrational by liberal scholars are highly effective tools in the construction of identity, especially national identity. The irrational element of religion is particularly useful in the construction of categories of “self” and “other”.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 An author or speaker may utilise irrational linguistic characteristics of religion to construct a particular interpretation of actors and events in world politics that represents identity in terms of self and other, privileges certain courses of action over others and leaves little room for negotiation or compromise. These linguistic characteristics of religion include highly emotive language, intolerance, advocating violence and open discussion of spirituality (for example, referring to God, Satan, evil, demons and angels. George W. Bush’s infamous use of the term ‘axis of evil’ in his 2002 State of the Union is a clear example).[57]


47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 The rational element of religion is highly complex for a variety of reasons. Liberal secular observers hold that religious belief is incompatible with rationalism because at some level, religion requires the implementation of faith. Faith is considered unreliable,[58] and stands in direct contrast to rationalism. Rationalism focuses on those things that can be observed and for which significant evidence exists to support their reality, without the need to exercise faith. Thus, because accepting the existence of God, for example, must, at some point, occur on the basis of faith, liberal secular rational enquiry cannot acknowledge God’s existence.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 The position of religious thinkers on this issue is quite different, largely because they do not view belief in God as irrational. The late Pope John Paul II articulated this view in his letter to the Bishops on the relationship between faith and reason.[59] According to this view, any rational search for truth and reason must begin and end with God. The argument is based on the belief that God is omnipotent and therefore it is only through knowing God that humans can begin to understand and know themselves and the world they live in. Pope Benedict XVI reiterated this view, arguing that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, but rather compliment and complete one another.[60]

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Eberle has highlighted that the assumptions surrounding the acceptability of secular grounds over religious grounds, by secular political science and IR scholars particularly, are misleading.[61] He argues “ ‘secular’ connotes ‘natural’ and ‘universal’, whereas ‘religious’ connotes ‘supernatural’ and ‘particular’”.[62] He goes on to observe, however, that “secular” justifications for particular beliefs, values and principles are not universal and natural, but are in many cases culturally specific. Social scientists, including political scientists and IR scholars, argue that secular grounds are the only acceptable justifications because they are rational and universal. Yet, as Eberle points out, secular grounds are seen to be rational and universal precisely because they are made within a particular cultural setting that establishes secular thought as rational, universal and acceptable. “Secular grounds, then, are cultural grounds, grounds we find plausible, in large part, because we have been socialized into one culture and not another”.[63] Thus, Eberle suggests, there are problems with valuing the secular over the religious that may lead to errors in public political decisions, particularly decisions concerning public ethics and morality.[64]

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Eberle’s broad critique of secular assumptions in liberal society support Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s more specific arguments regarding IR. Hurd suggests that secularism “is a normative formation that is widely perceived as legitimate,”[65] part of the broader set of assumptions within IR that drive how political authority and state action are understood and deemed legitimate or illegitimate. “Secularism produces authoritative settlements of religion and politics, while simultaneously claiming to be exempt from this process of production. This is a formidable exercise of power”.[66] Following on from Hurd’s observation, secularism produces an “authoritative settlement” concerning what is “rational” and common sense as well as determining what is “irrational.” Secularism produces these authoritative settlements because of its assumed universality and rationality which, as Eberle noted, are in fact culturally embedded, particular assumptions about the nature of secularism.[67] This again calls into question traditional categories of “rational” and “irrational.”

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 While these differences are potentially unresolvable, this does not necessarily hinder analysis, as both secular and theological interpretations of the rational element of religion are pertinent to the discursive study of religion in politics and IR. From a theological perspective, when a text acknowledges the existence of God and the importance of religious faith it is a manifestation of the rational element of religion, although from a liberal secular perspective, this may be perceived as influence from the irrational element of religion. Consequently, references to God may be classified as both irrational and rational, consistent with the both-and approach of relational dialogism.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 From a secular perspective, the rational element of religion manifests when authors of texts utilise calls for tolerance, peace, “do unto others”, generosity to the poor, respect for authority and the law, equality, even discussions of sovereignty and the separation of church and state. All of these references reflect the more rational teachings of various religious traditions. Many secular thought traditions also promote these values. In some situations, it is possible to argue that these value commitments are also not ‘rational’, since they may go against the self-interest of the state. As such, I suggest that these values should also be classified as both ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’. Such classification is also important in order to avoid falling into the trap of characterizing religion as only ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Contributions of discursive analysis to the study of the power politics of religion in political science and IR

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 The discursive study of religion within political sciences and IR has opened up significant avenues for analysis and understanding previously unacknowledged within these fields. Discursive analysis of religion has contributed to more nuanced understandings of the ways in which different identity markers are entangled and moulded by a variety of actors across different contexts and policy issues, including conflict, migration, climate change, humanitarianism, trade and gender.[68] One of the most significant areas where concern with the discourse of religion has contributed is in analysis of the right to freedom of religion or belief and the politics surrounding who is able to claim this right and who is not,[69] and how emphasis on this right by different actors can have entirely different and at times contradictory meanings.[70] In other words, the discursive study of religion has enabled the recognition of yet another dimension to power politics in political science and International Relations: the power politics of religion.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 [1] E. K. Wilson. (2012). After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 10.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 [2] J. Agensky. (2017). ‘‘Recognizing religion: Politics, history and the “long 19th century”’ European Journal of International Relations vol. 23, no. 4, 2.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 [3] Examples of this approach include E. H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919–1939, Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations and Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State and War are all key examples of this approach. See Wilson, 2012, op cit, Chapter Two for a detailed discussion of these works and the influence of secularization theory.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 [4] D. Philpott. 2002. “The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations” World Politics vol. 55, no. 1, 66–95.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [5] E. S. Hurd. (2015). Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 22.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 [6] R. Scott Appleby. (2000). The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation. Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, 5.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 [7] M. Mamdani. (2004). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror. New York: Doubleday, 11.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 [8] Hurd, 2015, op cit, Chapter Two.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 [9] J. Milliken. (1999). “The Study of Discourse in International Relations: A Critique of Research Methods” European Journal of International Relations vol. 5, no. 2, 225–226; D. Campbell. (1998). Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 7–8.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 [10] Milliken, ibid, 229.

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 [11] Ibid.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 [12] J. Weldes and D. Saco. (1996). “Making State Action Possible: The United States and the Discursive Construction of ‘The Cuban Problem’, 1960–1994” Millennium vol. 25, no. 2, 374.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 [13] Milliken, op cit, 229.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 [14] Ibid, 229.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 [15] Ibid.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 [16] J. Galtung. (1996). Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization. London: Sage Publications, 211.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 [17] Milliken, op cit, 230.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 [18] Ibid.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 [19] Campbell, op cit, 69.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 [20] Ibid.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 [21] Weldes and Saco, op cit, 374.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 [22] M. Barnett. (1999). “Culture, Strategy and Foreign Policy Change: Israel’s Road to Oslo” European Journal of International Relations vol. 5, no.1, 5–36.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 [23] M. J. Shapiro. (1989). “Representing World Politics: The Sport/War Intertext” in Der Derian, James and Michael J. Shapiro (eds.). International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics. Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 72.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 [24] Ibid, 73.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 [25] C. A. Snyder. (1999). “Contemporary Security and Strategy” in C. A. Snyder. (ed). Contemporary Security and Strategy. London: Macmillan, 1.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 [26] Weldes and Saco, op cit, 371.

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 [27] J. B. Mattern. (2001). “The Power Politics of Identity” European Journal of International Relations vol. 7, no. 3, 351.

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 [28] Ibid, 351.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 [29] I. Strenski, (2010). Why Politics Can’t Be Freed from Religion. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 [30] See, for example, C. Cherry. (1971). “Introduction” in Cherry, Conrad (ed.) God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall 1–24.

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 [31] A. D. Smith. (2000). “The ‘Sacred’ Dimension of Nationalism” Millennium vol. 29, no. 3, 791–814.

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 [32] M. Juergensmeyer. (2000). Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 176.

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 [33] E. K. Wilson and L. Mavelli. (2016). ‘The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Beyond Conceptual and Physical Boundaries’ in L. Mavelli and E. K. Wilson (eds.). The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Secularism, Security and Hospitality in Question. London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2.

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 [34] J. Kristeva. (1986). “Word, Dialogue and Novel” in Moi, Toril (ed.). The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 39–40.

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 [35] Ibid, 39.

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 [36] Ibid, 58.

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 [37] R. 2003. Rational Woman: A Feminist Critique of Dichotomy. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 14.

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 [38] S. M. Thomas. (2000). “Taking Religion and Cultural Pluralism Seriously: The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Society” Millennium vol. 29, no. 3, 815–841.

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 [39] T. Asad. (2003). Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0 [40] Lewis, C.S. 2002 [1952]. Mere Christianity. London: Harper Collins, 42.

94 Leave a comment on paragraph 94 0 [41] J. McDowell. 1993. A Ready Defense. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 248–249.

95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 [42] Yancey, Philip. 1997. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, esp. Chapter Four.

96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 [43] Erickson, Millard J. 1998. Christian Theology. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1155–1247.

97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 0 [44] Lewis, op cit, 55.

98 Leave a comment on paragraph 98 0 [45] Cherry, op cit, 21; Wilson op cit p120.

99 Leave a comment on paragraph 99 0 [46] Galtung, op cit, 211, A. Osiander, 2000. “Religion and Politics in Western Civilisation: The Ancient World as Matrix and Mirror of the Modern” Millennium vol. 29, no. 3, 762.

100 Leave a comment on paragraph 100 0 [47] Smith, op cit, 795.

101 Leave a comment on paragraph 101 0 [48] R. Bellah. (2005). “Civil Religion in America” Daedalus 134(4), 40–55.

102 Leave a comment on paragraph 102 0 [49] Smith, op cit; Juergensmeyer, op cit; J. R. Seul, (1999). ‘“Ours in the Way of God”: Religion, Identity, and Intergroup Conflict’ Journal of Peace Research vol. 36, no. 5, 553–569.

103 Leave a comment on paragraph 103 0 [50] Ibid.

104 Leave a comment on paragraph 104 0 [51] Bellah, op cit.

105 Leave a comment on paragraph 105 0 [52] Smith, op cit, 795–796.

106 Leave a comment on paragraph 106 0 [53] For more detailed discussion of these, see Wilson, op cit, Chapter Five.

107 Leave a comment on paragraph 107 0 [54] M. Blaser. (2013). ‘Ontological conflicts and the stories of peoples in spite of Europe: Towards a conversation on political ontology’. Cultural Anthropology vol. 54, no. 5, 547–568; E. K. Wilson. 2017a. “‘Power Differences’ and ‘the Power of Difference’: The Dominance of Secularism as Ontological Injustice’” Globalizations vol. 14, no. 7, 1076–1093.

108 Leave a comment on paragraph 108 0 [55] Bernstein, Richard J. 2009. “The Secular-Religious Divide: Kant’s Legacy” Social Research vol. 76, no. 4, 1037.

109 Leave a comment on paragraph 109 0 [56] J. Fox. (2001). “Religion as an Overlooked Element of International Relations” International Studies Review vol. 3, no.3, 55–56.

110 Leave a comment on paragraph 110 0 [57] Juergensmeyer, op cit, 17102.

111 Leave a comment on paragraph 111 0 [58] C. J. Eberle. (2002). Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 313–314.

112 Leave a comment on paragraph 112 0 [59] Pope John Paul II. 1998. “Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason)” Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship Between Faith and Reason. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html (accessed 5 December 2018).

113 Leave a comment on paragraph 113 0 [60] Zenit Catholic News Service. 2007 (28 January). “Angelus: On the Faith-Reason Synthesis – A Precious Patrimony for Western Civilization” Zenit – the World Seen from Rome. http://www.zenit.org/english Code: ZE07012804. Accessed 29 January 2007.

114 Leave a comment on paragraph 114 0 [61] Eberle, op cit, 313–314.

115 Leave a comment on paragraph 115 0 [62] Ibid, 313.

116 Leave a comment on paragraph 116 0 [63] Ibid, 314.

117 Leave a comment on paragraph 117 0 [64] Ibid, 316.

118 Leave a comment on paragraph 118 0 [65] E. S. Hurd. (2008). The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 14.

119 Leave a comment on paragraph 119 0 [66] Ibid, 16.

120 Leave a comment on paragraph 120 0 [67] Eberle, op cit, 314.

121 Leave a comment on paragraph 121 0 [68] Wilson, 2017, op cit; E.K. Wilson. 2017. “The socio-political dynamics of secularism and epistemological injustice in global justice theory and practice” European Societies vol. 19, no. 5, 529–550.

122 Leave a comment on paragraph 122 0 [69] Hurd, 2015, op cit; C. M. Gruell and E. K. Wilson. (2018). ‘Universal or Particular? Or Both? Understanding the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Cross-Cultural Perspective’ Review of Faith and International Affairs, vol. 16, no. 4.

123 Leave a comment on paragraph 123 0 [70] E. A. Castelli. (2007). “Theologizing Human Rights: Christian Activism and the Limits of Religious Freedom.” In Non-Governmental Politics, ed. Michel Feher with Gaëlle Krikorian and Yates McKee, 673–687. New York, Zone Books; Gruell and Wilson, op cit.

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