Peter S. Henne is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion and security and Middle East politics. He is the author of Islamic Politics, Muslim States and Counterterrorism Tensions (2017). He received a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University in 2013 and worked as a research associate with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project.
Most examples of religious soft power involve the Middle East or Muslim World. But religious soft power arises around the world, including two great powers whose geopolitical struggles define contemporary international relations: the United States of America and Russia.
Both have drawn on faith as part of their geopolitical struggles. During the Cold War, America deployed its Christian identity to undermine the appeal of Soviet communism. After the Cold War, it promoted moderate religious voices as a counter to extremism and created official bodies to address religious issues. Religion has also been a significant element in post-Cold War Russian politics. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia justified its foreign policy through Christian faith and presented the country as a champion of conservative Christian values.
While it is difficult to untangle the influence of military, economic, and cultural factors, the religious soft power of the United States and Russia does matter. Several states with questionable rights records—such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt—have emphasized their devotion to religious tolerance and the defense of persecuted Christians in response to U.S. pressure. And Russian has used its ties to the Orthodox Church to justify aggressive policies, while its religious rhetoric has won it the support of far-right nationalists and conservative Christians.
Religious Soft Power in U.S. Foreign Policy
Religion has been part of America’s soft power since the Cold War. America appealed to the Christian identity of its allies to combat the officially atheist Soviet Union’s appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower turned to famous evangelical preacher Billy Graham as “America’s pastor,” a role which included a series of revivals in West Germany that mixed piety with anti-Communist messages. America also attempted to promote the Saudi monarchy as a kind of “Islamic papacy,” hoping Muslims would flock to the U.S.-backed Saudis instead of Soviet-aligned regimes.
Religious soft power continued to play a role in U.S. foreign policy as the United States pushed “moderate Islam” as a counter to Al-Qaeda after 9/11. The United States turned to countries like Jordan as a model for “moderate Islam” and emphasized their common enemy in Al-Qaeda. In a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, President George W. Bush argued, “our war is against evil, not against Islam,” and noted the “thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans.”
Religion also mattered in America’s foreign policy outside of security. Beginning in the late 1990s, the United States officially advocated for international religious freedom (IRF) around the world. During the Obama administration, State Department efforts expanded to include broader religious engagement through the creation of a new Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA). While the IRF office emphasizes “naming and shaming” to pressure states into changing their policies, it has also tried to demonstrate the attractiveness of religious tolerance through outreach efforts. The RGA office, in turn, advised the secretary of state on religious issues, worked with religious communities across a broad array of diplomatic functions, and facilitated other State Department offices’ efforts to incorporate religion positively into their work. For example, Shaun Casey, the special representative for religion and global affairs, argued his State Department office hoped to “engage the religious communities” who cut across multiple issues in order to “make progress on human rights, poverty,” and “conflict.”
These religious appeals in U.S. foreign policy served as a form of religious soft power for the United States. The United States hoped its Cold War-era deployment of religion would increase its attractiveness to those wary of the atheist Soviet Union. Its post-Cold War religious appeals had a similar function, highlighting America’s common ground with Muslims in the struggle against Al-Qaeda and promoting America as a partner for people of faith around the world.
Religious Soft Power in Russian Foreign Policy
Religion has become an important element of Russian foreign policy. While religion played little role in the Soviet era, this changed after the Cold War ended. Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, re-joined the Russian Orthodox Church and called on Russians to “practice patience and humility and strive for spiritual purification.” Vladimir Putin then intensified the ties between the Russian state and the church. Putin has “co-opted and subsumed” the Russian Orthodox Church, granting it funding in return for its support. Examples include the Defense Ministry building an Orthodox cathedral and the patriarch of the church calling Putin’s reign a “miracle from God.”
Putin has relied on the Russian Orthodox Church to justify his aggressive foreign policies. Putin defended intervening in the Syrian civil war by pointing to the presence of Syrian Christians and claiming Russia would restore Christian communities affected by the fighting. Putin relied on the Russian Orthodox Church’s authority over the Ukraine Orthodox Church as a means of influencing that country’s politics, which is why the latter's split from the Russian Church was so significant. Putin has also tried to "cast himself as the protector of the faith" to gain support among Orthodox Christians, an effort the Russian Orthodox Church has echoed.
Additionally, Putin has framed Russia as the defender of conservative values. Putin has promoted Russia as a “moral counterweight to the United States” and a “bastion of traditional values.” He discussed the annexation of Crimea as a holy mission, arguing the peninsula has an “undeniable civilizational and even sacral value” for the country. Putin has also pushed conservative social values inside Russia, such as crackdowns on LGBTQ Russians and abortion restrictions.
These religious appeals function as a form of soft power in Russia’s foreign policy. Russia has made use of its hard power in international relations, bullying and threatening its neighbors and interfering in U.S. politics. Framing these policies as part of a religious mission is an attempt to grant them a legitimacy that may attract international support for Russia’s international ambitions, while pushing conservative values in domestic politics may increase admiration for Russia among conservatives around the world.
Just Cheap Talk? How Religious Soft Power Matters
Few would deny that America and Russia occasionally appeal to religion. The more important question, however, is whether this is an important element of geopolitics, or whether it is just “cheap talk.”
It is true that the religious elements of U.S. soft power have never been an important part of its foreign policy. Yet, despite being frequently downplayed, the religious aspects of U.S. foreign policy have persisted and even expanded. This suggests they are far from neglected in U.S. foreign policy. Similarly, while Putin has attempted to present himself as a duly pious Christian, some have argued that Putin's alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church is often based on convenience. Even if Putin’s religious appeals are only cynical ploys, however, they do play a persistent role in Russia’s foreign policy.
Additionally, there are signs these religious appeals affect other states’ behavior. There are several examples of the impacts of America's religious soft power. Jordan has presented itself as a champion of moderate Islam since 9/11, some of which is in response to U.S. priorities. Additionally, the UAE launched a religious tolerance campaign, in line with U.S. international religious freedom initiatives. Egypt’s military regime has similarly emphasized its dedication to protecting the persecuted Coptic Christian minority, also in accord with U.S. urging. Outside the Middle East, Vietnam engaged in a series of negotiations with America over its religious freedom record, resulting in it being removed from the “Countries of Particular Concern” list of particularly severe abusers of religious freedom. Each of these examples includes military or economic motivations for the country’s shifting religious policies. Yet, even if they only felt the need to adopt U.S. religious priorities in order to maintain good ties with America, this still indicates U.S. religious appeals were having some impact on other states’ behavior.
Similarly, whether or not Putin is sincere, his religious appeals have increased Russian influence. Putin has reached out to the Greek Orthodox Church, which corresponded with public approval for his rule in Greece. While it is hard to point solely to his religious appeals, they have resonated with Orthodox religious figures in Greece—one called him the "model of an Orthodox leader"—and this, in turn, likely influenced broader public opinion. Putin's religious appeals have also resonated beyond the Orthodox Church. Putin is incredibly popular among right-wing parties around Europe, and their political power means Putin faces sympathetic politicians in many of the countries he butts heads with.
Another area where his appeals have worked is among American Christians. Prominent evangelical Franklin Graham expressed support for Putin's anti-LGBTQ laws. Graham also pushed back when the United States criticized Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Olympics, granting Putin important political cover. Likewise, the Christian Post uncritically reported on Putin's "vows to defend Christianity," noting that Putin has "long been a supporter of Christianity and Christian values within Russia." This sympathy for Putin among evangelicals may be especially valuable. Evangelical Christians are an important bloc supporting U.S. President Donald Trump, who is facing charges of colluding with Russia in the 2016 election.
What Does This Mean for Geopolitics?
Thus, religious appeals play an important role in the contemporary foreign policies of both the United States and Russia. Religious soft power is an element of international relations even beyond the Middle East and Muslim world. Those trying to understand these states’ foreign policies should not ignore the significance of religion, just as those studying religion in international relations should not confine themselves to Muslim states.
This can also tell us a few things about the nature of geopolitics itself. As I noted, it is hard to differentiate between the effects of religious soft power and the effects of material factors, like—for example—America’s military and economic might. This only matters, however, if we think of religious soft power and material power as mutually exclusive. Instead, scholars of power politics argue that states have a variety of tools—military, economic, cultural, symbolic—to choose from when engaging in geopolitical competition with others. Religious soft power is one among many of these tools, even if it is used in tandem with military or economic pressure. It may be difficult to find examples of religious soft power mattering more than military or economic might. Likewise, there are clear limits to the effectiveness of these appeals, as seen in the split between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. But religious appeals seem to amplify the effectiveness of material power. Additionally, the fact that states like America and Russia keep relying on religious appeals—even if they are not always effective—demonstrates religious soft power has value to those who deploy it.
Finally, there is an important caveat to discussions of religious soft power: we often assume faith’s impact on geopolitics will be positive, but that is not always the case. America’s religious soft power may have convinced Egypt to emphasize protecting its Coptic Christian population, but that has only deflected criticism of its abysmal human rights record. Likewise, Russia’s religious appeals have led to destabilizing impacts throughout the world.
Ultimately, religious soft power is not irrelevant to geopolitics, but neither is it a cure for conventional power politics. Instead, it will be an indelible part of states’ foreign policies throughout the twenty-first century, although America and Russia are diverging in their approach. Russia seems to be intensifying its religious appeals as it continues to disrupt international order. By contrast, under the Trump administration, the United States is narrowing its focus to international religious freedom and jettisoning some of the “soft power” elements of the Obama administration, such as the RGA office. As a result, America risks losing an important foreign policy tool even as rivals, like Russia, become more comfortable with its use.
Editor's Note: These articles were written as part of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project, a partnership between Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Brookings Institution supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the respective authors.