Positioning religion in international relations: the performative, discursive, and relational dimension of religious soft power

Zikun Yang, Li Li

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Amidst the global religious resurgence in the post-secular world, the field of international relations finds itself unwilling or unable to situate religion back to theoretical paradigms subject to the Westphalian–Enlightenment prejudice. Advocates of religion’s theoretical and empirical significance often turn to religious soft power, a burgeoning theory that gradually becomes the anchorage of discussion but still suffers from conceptual ambiguity and limited explanatory capacity. This essay endeavors to fill in this lacuna by presenting the interdisciplinary attempt to integrate soft power in IR with the three dimensions of power in sociology, which results in a typology of performative, discursive, and relational dimensions of religious soft power. The explanatory and predictive capacity of this model is tested in the empirical case of the evangelical group’s influence on US foreign policy of the post 9/11 Global War on Terror. A process-level historical account based on archival sources furthers scholars’ knowledge of transnational religious actors’ ability to seize both systematic transformations at the international level and contentious dynamics in the domestic environment, which generates a reorientation in norms, identities, and values that contributes to the outcome of foreign policy, thereby answering the un-addressed question of how religion influences domestic and international politics. The bridging of IR, sociology, and historical sociology, three fields often intertwined, suggests a future direction for not only the religious return to IR but also the overcoming of the “intellectual autism” of this discipline, which needs to be better prepared for continuous challenges of soaring populism, nationalism, and clash of civilizations in the twenty-first century.
Original languageEnglish
Article number940
Number of pages23
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 29 Oct 2021


  • religions
  • international relations
  • soft power
  • evangelical
  • US foreign policy
  • political sociology


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