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Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion

Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion

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Populist parties have been on the rise for a generation now. From Italy’s Northern League, France’s Front National, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party, through the Austrian Freedom Party and the Swiss People’s Party, to Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders’ respective efforts in the Netherlands, and our very own UKIP and BNP, European democracies have seen populist parties claim headlines, win votes and shape agendas. Most have remained electoral minorities, only gaining toeholds of power, and then only briefly; but some, notably Fidesz and Law and Justice, have exercised real power and most remain significant forces in European politics, which mainstream politicians dismiss at the peril.

A heretofore understudied element in their rise to prominence is their use – the verb is deliberate – of religion, a gap now plugged by this collection of essays, published (if overpriced) by Hurst. Twelve chapters cover all the cases above, as well as the USA and, awkwardly, Israel, topped and tailed by fine introductions and conclusions by the editors. Unusually for collections of this sort, the focus, tone, and analysis is consistent and impressive and the volume makes for illuminating, perceptive and enjoyable – if rather depressing – reading.

Most of the parties surveyed have made a pitch for the continent’s Christian heritage, whether that is defending its Christian “roots”, “values”, “principles”, “people” or “identity”. However, the ways in which they have done so have differed subtly according to cultural context.

The Northern League and the Law and Justice Party have been able play a great deal on Italy’s and Poland’s deeply Catholic culture, as has, to a lesser extent lesser Austria’s Freedom Party. By contrast, Hungarian populism has mixed its Christianity with certain pagan elements, while the Front National and the various smaller Dutch populist parties have invoking Christian identity only in a very half–hearted way, liberally mixing it other invocations, whether that be to France’s much–treasured laïcité, or Netherlands’ long–standing traditions of liberalism. These last two examples are especially interesting as they offer the spectacle of secular and liberal traditions being used to constrain, silence or even attack the freedom of minority groups.

For it is, of course, immigration, Islam, and the apparent “Islamization” of European culture that lies at the heart of this populism and its hijacking of religion.

The Dutch and French examples show that there is nothing intrinsic about Christianity that serves this populist agenda – any ideology will do. More importantly, and the real analytical strength of these essays, is the fact that even when a populist party is explicit and focused in its appeal to Christianity as a means of attacking Muslims, elites, multiculturalism, social liberalism, or any of the its other targets, it appeals not to Christian faith but to Christian identity that matter.

Time and again, the contributors show that populist rhetoric appropriates a content–lite Christianity, indifferent – often actively hostile – to Christian teaching and ethics, but rich in the symbolism of mythological Christendom. Hearteningly, the Churches have usually (but by no means unanimously) rejected populists’ overtures, and often proved the most prominent critics of their calls to, for example, ban burqas, minarets or mosques, or remove immigrants and asylum seekers. Not surprisingly, Pope Francis is a particular populist bête noir.

Saving the People demonstrates how the recent populist conversion to religion is nothing of the kind, but rather a cynical appropriation of Christian identity for narrowly political and usually morally–ugly purposes. And it implies that that the best antidote to this bad religion is probably not no religion, but real faith.

Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion is edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell and Olivier Roy and published by Hurst Publishers, 2016.

Nick Spencer is Acting Head and Research Director of Theos (@TheosNick)

This review was first published in Church Times (£).

Image available from Church Times.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 17 November 2016

Politics, Society


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