Populism’s Co-opting of Religion

Europe finds itself navigating a state of Euroscepticism, xenophobia, and right-wing populist movements. At its core, populism pits the ‘pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’. For different groups, this means different things. Most attribute populist rhetoric as nationalistic and socio-economically driven. Religion offers many benefits for populist groups, yet is overlooked in much of the literature. This article attempts to highlight that populist group also draw upon religion as a means to rally ‘the people’.

By basing their identity in Christian culture, populists thus require something to stand in opposition to their ideals and their ‘people’. David French elaborates this point by arguing that populism typically uses mass mobilization against an opposing force. Islam has typically filled this role. This is likely due to the recent immigration crisis that Europe recently faced. Susi Meret and Andreas Beyer Gregerson argue that Islam has transformed into a floating signifier for the Danish People’s Party. They go on to say that “Islam is represented as a main religious and cultural challenger that threatens national identity and security”. National identity here is not limited to the Danish case. Rather any populist group can argue this. Donald Trump has attempted repeatedly to impose a travel ban on Middle Eastern countries because any Muslim could be a threat. The simple fact that a person can be banned because they come from a country where Islam is practiced may seem ludicrous to most, but this type of action and rhetoric strikes a cord with right-wing populists.

It is clear that right-wing populist groups are using religion as an identity, one that they can coopt to represent ‘the pure people’. Populist leader Viktor Orban has recently changed the branding of his government from an “Illberal democracy” to that of a “Christian democracy”. Going further Orban stated earlier this year that “Unless we protect our Christian culture we will lose Europe and Europe will no longer belong to Europeans”. This eludes to the Orban governments stance against immigration, by tying this to Christian culture. Orban has been able to appeal to those who may not be religious but do view immigration negatively. In the case of Hungary, it is clear that the government is becoming increasingly anti immigration and opposed to multiculturalism, likely due to Orban’s coopting of Christian culture.

But is all of this to be unexpected? Nadia Marzouki and Duncan McDonnell seem to think otherwise. They argue that There is nothing new about right-wing populists exploiting religion for political gain. Populism has been known to be very pragmatic and fluid in the make up of policy. Religion serves as a great platform for populists as it already has an established support base that shares a common identity. Not only that, populists are then able to twist long held beliefs to further their own cause. This cause as demonstrated above focuses on limiting immigration to protect the Christian way of life. By doing so, populists paint a picture of doom, one that they alone can offer salvation against. They tell the ‘people’ that the country’s problems are not their fault. Rather, the people are morally upright citizens who are victims of the elites.

Unfortunately, this trend overall seems to be growing, as the new European Commission, which has yet to be created, has already got a taste of populist backlash. In this case, the wound was self inflicted, as according to some, the proposed vice president of “Protecting Our European Way of Life” echoes the far-right rhetoric. This sparked an immediate response from the left with critics arguing that this position title identifies Europe as white and Christian, and migration from the Middle East and Africa as a threat to that identity. This example demonstrates that right-wing populist groups are now being closely identified with Christian values. More importantly, it appears that both the populist and the ‘other’ are both starting to see right-wing populism through the lens of religion.

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