Faith abroad: how religion shapes Trump administration’s foreign policy

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
International Relations
2021, Vol. 35(4) 551 –573
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0047117821999434
Faith abroad: How religion
shapes Trump administration’s
foreign policy
Murat Ülgül
Karadeniz Technical University
Religion has always been an important factor in American foreign policy. From the ‘holy wars’
against the Indians in the pre-independence period to the ‘crusade’ against Iraq in 2003, faith and
religion have shaped the policies of American administrations in all periods. As Bonnell observed
in 1971, ‘without a single exception...all presidents have publicly avowed their trust in God’.
And even if the president was not a religious individual before moving to the White House, Billy
Graham noted, they all ‘left the presidency with a very deep religious faith’. The same can be
applied to Donald Trump whose presidency witnessed important domestic and foreign policy
decisions that can be linked to religious motives. This is especially clear when one takes into
consideration that around three quarters of evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for him
in the elections and Trump’s statement before the House elections that ‘nobody’s done more
for Christians and evangelicals’ than him. This study will analyze the religious characteristics of
Donald Trump and the members of his foreign policy team, such as Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo,
and how their religious identity affected the foreign policy decisions of the Trump administration.
American foreign policy, Donald Trump, evangelicals, political decision-making, religion
In the summer of 2018, Turkish-American relations went through a severe crisis when
Turkish courts refused to release Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was arrested
on espionage charges following the failed military coup in Turkey in July 2016. As a
response to the court verdict, the Trump administration announced sanctions against
Turkey while the president stated that ‘Our relations with Turkey are not good at this
time’, implying that this crisis was different from the former problems in their bilateral
Corresponding author:
Murat Ülgül, Karadeniz Teknik Üniversitesi, İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi, Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü 2.
Kat, Ortahisar, Trabzon 61080, Turkey.
999434IRE0010.1177/0047117821999434International RelationsÜlgül
552 International Relations 35(4)
relations.1 As the value of the Turkish lira dramatically dropped during these events,
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defined American policy as an ‘economic
war’2 and wrote in The New York Times that they may ‘start looking for new friends and
allies’ if the Trump administration continues its ‘unilateralism and disrespect’ toward
Turkey.3 In the meantime, Turkish officials believed that their American counterparts
were realist actors and they would not jeopardize relations with a significant ally over an
individual. Numan Kurtulmuş, Deputy Chairman of the Justice and Development Party
(AKP), pointed out this thinking by stating that the United States would not ‘risk to lose
Turkey as an ally in the Middle East’ and what the Turkish government will do is to act
rationally in the pastor crisis.4
This expectation relies on the understanding that, rather than ideological variables,
realpolitik considerations have always been the dominant factor in the history of Turkish-
American relations as former crises between Ankara and Washington5 were always even-
tually solved after both countries understood each other’s importance for mutual national
security interests. After the secular republic of Turkey was formed,6 indeed, ideological
variables such as religion did not play a major role in Turkish-American relations, and
even if religion had some effect, it was mainly secondary and positive.7 Nevertheless, too
much emphasis on realpolitik today may underestimate the potential role that religious
values have on the deterioration of bilateral relations. If we look at the discussions on this
issue, scholars and researchers generally put the blame on the Islamization of Turkish
politics under the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.8 While the ideological change in
Turkish politics is hard to ignore,9 it would be misleading to overlook the other side of
the coin: the religionization of American politics. Although religion has always been an
important variable in American public life as well as in the mindset of American politi-
cians since the foundation of the country, it has become a critical factor for understanding
American domestic and foreign policies since the late-1970s when conservative evan-
gelical groups and organizations became significantly invested in shaping domestic and
foreign policies. Being aware of this situation, post-Cold War presidents, especially
Republican ones, have been eager to show their religious identity whenever possible as,
in the middle of George Floyd protests, President Donald Trump posed in front of St.
John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible to cameras.10 When we go back to our example,
it is hard to ignore the fact that some political disagreements in Turkish-American rela-
tions such as the Brunson case or Trump’s pro-Israeli policies are hard to analyze without
bringing religious groups’ concerns and ideologies into the equation.11
As this introductory example of Turkish-American relations aims to show, religion is
a critical variable that foreign policymakers should not miss when they frame their rela-
tions with the United States. With this argument in mind, this article will analyze the
effects of religion in American foreign policy during the Trump administration and show
that in recent years the growing religiosity in American domestic politics significantly
affects what this country’s foreign policy interests are. For this purpose, first I will show
how religion affects American foreign policy in several ways by examining institutional,
ideological, personality, and group factors. Then I will explain the religiosity of President
Trump and the key politicians in his administration as well as the growing religionization
of policy institutions in the United States. The subsequent section will offer some exam-
ples of how religion has shaped some important foreign policy decisions during the

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT