A Clash of Civilizations? the Influence of Religion on Public Opinion of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Article excerpt

The authors argue in this study that religious beliefs play a significant role in predicting American public opinion on foreign policy issues in the Middle East. Their findings reveal that Evangelical Christians have remained strong supporters of a hawkish foreign policy toward the Middle East, even as overall public support for the Iraq War declines. They also find that Evangelicals are among the strongest supporters of Israel and hold more negative views of Islam than others. These results reinforce the growing importance of the "faith factor" in public opinion and American politics as a whole.

Keywords: Evangelical Christians; foreign policy; Middle East; public opinion; religion

In a November 2006 article of the American Apolitical Science Review, Kenneth Wald and Clyde Wilcox called for political scientists to "rediscover" the "faith factor." They wrote, "Apart from economics and geography, it is hard to find a social science that has given less attention to religion than political science" (Wald and Wilcox 2006, 523). The authors noted, for example, that the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociology Review each published four times as many articles with a religious title as the American Political Science Review did from 1906 to 2002.

Of the religion articles that have been published across social science disciplines, most of the scholarship during the past two decades has focused on religious-secular conflicts concerning so-called culture war issues, such as abortion, gay rights, and pornography (Hunter 1991; Cook, Men, and Wilcox 1992; Wald 1992; Guth et al. 1996; Layman and Carmines 1997; Sherkat and Ellison 1997; Layman 2001; White 2003). However, there has been considerably less attention devoted to the influence of religion in shaping public opinion on foreign policy issues. As one noted scholar concluded, "the role of religion in explaining attitudes toward issues of international relations is somewhat limited" (Jelen 1994, 391). More recently, James Guth, an expert on religion and politics, observed, "Whatever progress over the past decade in explaining the sources of foreign policy attitudes, there have been few systematic efforts to include religious variables" (2006, 3).

These shortcomings, particularly in the political science literature, point to the need for additional research on religion's role in shaping public opinion on foreign policy issues. To fill this gap in the literature, we examine the role of religion in shaping U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. We focus on the Middle East because it is the region that has most dominated the public agenda since the Iraq War began in 2003. There are also strong reasons to suspect that religious beliefs are especially important to understanding public opinion toward U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. First, several prominent Evangelical Christian leaders (e.g., James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson) have been vocal supporters of the war and President Bush's foreign policy in the region. By contrast, Catholic bishops, the National Council of Churches, several constituent mainline denominations, and many black Protestant denominations have publicly opposed the Iraq War. These elite cues would suggest that there might be distinct religious differences among Americans on issues such as the Iraq War or Middle East foreign policy issues more generally.

Second, biblical interpretation may also shape foreign policy attitudes. Those with a literal interpretation of the Bible believe that the land of Palestine permanently belongs to Israel and that world conflict, especially conflict in the Middle East, is a possible sign of Armageddon and the imminent return of Christ as described in the book of Revelation. As Boyer (2003) explained, "For many believers in biblical prophecy, the Bush administration's go-it-alone foreign policy, hands-off attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and proposed war on Iraq are not simply actions in the national self-interest or an extension of the war on terrorism, but part of an unfolding divine plan. …