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.

Untangling International Nationalism

One of the grandest contradictions that can be uncovered when studying modern day far-right nationalist populist movements is there inherent reliance on internationalism. As Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde explained, at the very core of populism is a moral battleground between the pure people and the corrupt elite, which the far-right often intertwines with nationalism as their ideological underpinning. When we take this idea from the world of theory and apply it to real world examples, what emerges is a complex picture of nationalist movements tangled within the larger international landscape. By this, I mean that far-right nationalist populism claims to be the will of the people (often referring to their own ethnicity) pitted against the corrupt elitism of the broader international community. But how could a single nationalist populist movement compete against the broader international community?

The simple answer is that alone, they can’t. As David Motadel alluded to in his article “The Far Right Says There’s Nothing Dirtier Than Internationalism — But They Depend on It,” whether out of pragmatism or a deep despise for internationalism, historically and presently far-right nationalist populist groups frequently form alliances and depend on internationalism. Europe depicts this complexity better than any other. Take for example the Identity and Democracy Group (ID) of the European Parliament. ID is an alliance of European nationalists, which is the fifth largest political group in the European Parliament, holding 73 seats and making up a little over 10% of the whole. ID’s alliance is made up of representatives from 9 countries, predominantly from Italy, France and Germany. By uniting under a single banner, these far-right nationalistic populist groups aim to take on the elitism of internationalism through the European Union.

What is most interesting, if not surprising about the alliance formed by ID, is the existence of an east-west divide between far-right nationalist populist movements. Populism wields the most support in Central and Eastern Europe, notably in the Visegrad Four: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. However, there have been mixed reactions between these populist movements towards ID, and a consolidated nationalist alliance. The Visegrad Four’s far-right nationalist populist movements are much more dispersed amongst the European Parliament, as Poland, has members in the European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR), while Hungary has members in the Group of the European People’s Party (EPP). Of the four countries listed above, only the Czech Republic has some populist members in ID, as well as in the Renew Europe Group. It’s unclear where Slovakia’s far right Members of the European Parliament are situated, however they are facing tough competition from pro-EU and anti-corruption parties at home. Nonetheless, some informal networks exist that yet again display how nationalist movements rely on internationalism. One notable example is that, rather than creating formal alliances, countries such as Poland and Hungary have insured each other with their veto power in support of one another.

One final observation on international nationalism that Motadel brings to light, is the fragility and frictions that such alliances can cause. I believe this is most evident based upon the east-west divide in populism. One of the greatest obstacles facing right-wing nationalistic populist alliances can be displayed by their treatment of Russia. Some display pro-Russian sentiments, while the Soviet historical memory leads Central and Eastern European populist movements to vehemently oppose such considerations. Another principle natural to all nationalist movements that impacts the fragility of their alliances is that they are intended to be the voice of their own people, not a broader community of like-minded ‘others.’ Thus, it is natural for conflicting policies to emerge, such as the German populist movement’s desire not to destroy the EU, compared to the Italian populist movement’s threats to leave the Eurozone. Ultimately, the study of international nationalism is riddled with contradictions and bumpy relationships, but it is undeniable that these right-wing nationalistic populist movements have something to gain from one another. These gains include international recognition which provides legitimacy to their cause, and legal support through illiberal means.

Protecting Canada’s Youth from Right-Wing Populism

By: Nadiya Alexandra

With the defeat of the People’s Party of Canada, it may seem like Canada has kicked the threat of right-wing populism. To think so would be a mistake. We need to focus on protecting our democratic values more than ever, but how? The answer is civic education. We need to turn to our youth to ensure they understand the dangers of democratic backsliding and how to meaningfully participate in a democracy.

Many opinions converge to say that populism has already taken root in Canada; what happened in the U.S. could happen here; and there could be a Donald Trump in Canada. It is a scary thought, but Canada should take the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (EU) as cautionary tales, and act soon. 

Why should we focus on youth? For starters, the majority of North American youth know little about the consequences of authoritarianism. For example, Canadian history is mandatory in schools, but not world history. Joel Westheimer, a prominent civic education scholar outlines the problems associated with this lack of knowledge. 

In the U.S., about 25% of youth between the ages of 16 and 24 think that democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way of governing. Perhaps more concerning is that 70% of millennials believe it is not essential to live in a country governed by democratic law. It would be interesting to see how Canadian millenials answered these questions. Would we have better results? 

In Ontario, the high-school civics course is a half-credit that is lumped together with careers and can also be taken online. The majority of students say this course is a waste of time, and doesn’t teach how to get involved politically. 

The problems don’t end there. Even if civics is mandatory in Ontario high schools, how we teach civics is possibly entirely wrong. According to Joel Westheimer, there are three main approaches to teaching civic education for democratic participation. The most common approach is teaching students to be personally responsible. While this moulds students to be “good people,” it does not teach them about how to participate or think critically. The second approach focuses on participatory actions like getting involved in student council and the community. The third, and least common, but most important approach is justice-oriented. 

Westheimer’s social-justice oriented citizens need to analyze and understand the interplay of social, economic and political forces. These students ask questions, challenge the status quo, and aim at solving the root of social problems. This is how we should be teaching civics. 

If Canada’s brush with populism is not enough to convince you, we need not look far for examples where populism has a strong hold. Our neighbours to the south have been grappling with far-right populism for years now. The EU is facing rising populism, which shows itself through Brexit, racial intolerance, a so-called “migration crisis” and rising euro-scepticism. If we teach our students how to question and analyze social problems, perhaps we could stop the same things from happening in Canada. 

Scholars in the EU have started making the link between civic education and populism. An 89 Initiative report argues that civic education can restore civic faith among Europe’s youth. This report uses case studies of populism in the United Kingdom (Brexit) and Italy to prove the link between populism and civic education. We should learn from the U.S. and the EU before it is too late for us. 

In the wake of Doug Ford’s education budget cuts, popular dissatisfaction with Canada’s electoral system and the global trend of democratic backsliding, we need to turn our attention to Canada’s youth. We need to ensure high standards of education, which should include how to spot fake news and how to think critically about politics. We need to teach students how to get involved beyond elections. We need to promote democratic participation through civic education. Let’s keep right-wing populism at bay.

“Is the EU at fault for its right-wing populist problem?”

by: PSjoberg

A populist authoritarian leader and an EU bureaucrat walk into a room and one slaps the other across the face. Who slapped whom? Most would be inclined to assume it was the populist authoritarian who would commit such an egregious act of wanton aggression, but alas! On May 21, 2015, it was the EU bureaucrat who slapped the authoritarian leader.

This event actually happened: at the May 21-22, 2015 Eastern Partnership summit held in Riga, Latvia, European Commission President at the time, Jean-Claude Juncker, greeted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban by calling him a dictator and slapping him across the face on a stage for the whole world to see.

This action, on the part of Juncker, can be taken as generally symbolic of the EU’s typical response to Eurosceptics and populists, and this is a problem. However harmful and ignorant the discourse and actions of right-wing populists are, it is woefully insufficient for the liberal bastion of the EU’s bureaucratic core to simply belittle them. This tendency to dismiss right-wing populism as an illegitimate form of political expression only adds fuel to the fire that is Eurosceptic populism in Europe.

The EU has a democratic deficit and a legitimacy problem – that is, the EU’s complex bureaucratic machine lacks transparency, it fails to reflect democratic values, and therefore it is viewed by most EU citizens as illegitimate and unimportant. This all seems to paint the EU – a self-declared beacon of democracy and liberal values – in a somewhat unsavoury light. It’s no wonder, then, that EU citizens have increasingly begun to voice their dissatisfaction with this arrangement. The strategy turned to by many disgruntled citizens is one which paints itself as a voice for the common people against a corrupt political elite: “populism.”

How has the EU chosen to respond to its citizens’ legitimate worries about the functioning of the EU, and the revelation that EU citizens possess diverse political beliefs and values? By declaring Hungary to be “diseased,” and labeling all right-wing populists racist, sexist, and xenophobic. Does the right-wing populist movement demonstrate sentiments of racism, sexism, and xenophobia? Yes. Is it fruitful to alienate all right-wing populists by labelling them as such? No.

When the EU stands in opposition to the right-wing populist movement, it is essentially demanding EU citizens and member states to reflect the wills of the EU bureaucracy, rather than one where the EU seeks to reflect the views of its citizens. Such a position is problematic for the EU because it directly contradicts one of their primary mandates, and it appears much more akin to a metropole-periphery relationship – or even one of imperial nature – rather than that of an international organization built on cooperation.

Perhaps the EU’s slogan, “United in Diversity,” should be replaced with: “United in Diversity, unless you are too divergent from the EU’s preferred political views.”

By choosing the belittle right-wing populists and not take them seriously – as Juncker treated Viktor Orban in May 2015 – the EU is sadly demonstrating that it has built a liberal echo-chamber for themselves. What is even more dangerous, though, is that through this behaviour they are building one for right-wing populist extremists as well. The EU is essentially giving right-wing populists, who mobilize themselves primarily due to feelings of being disrespected and ignored, more justification to feel disrespected and ignored by the EU

In order to properly address the issue of right-wing populism within the EU, then, I believe there are only two respectable avenues remaining for the EU to take: (1) become more transparent and democratic as an institution while allowing for equal representativeness of all EU member states and populations, regardless of their political leanings, or (2) rebrand itself as an actor which, at its core, upholds and promotes liberal values at all costs, and risk alienating vast portions of the European population which do not espouse these values.

The core issue with the EU seems to be that it wants to make everyone happy, uniting all Europeans around a belief that not all Europeans hold, which is simply not possible. The EU is perceived by many as an example of undemocratic liberalism. As Cas Mudde famously put it, the right-wing populist movement is an illiberal democratic response to the EU’s undemocratic liberalism. The EU simply can’t have it all, and it must change its approach before it fans the flames of right-wing populism into a fire that engulfs the entire continent.


Ágh, Attila. “The Decline of Democracy in East-Central Europe.” Problems of Post-Communism, 63:5-6,  277-287, 2016.

“‘Hello Dictator’: Hungarian prime minister faces barbs at EU summit.” In The Guardian, May 22, 2015. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/22/hello-dictator-hungarian-prime-minister  -faces-barbs-at-eu-summit> [Accessed October 27, 2019].

Mudde, Cas. “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic   Liberalism.” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania. <https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/casmudde-populism-twenty-first-century&gt;

Ruzza, Carlo. “Populism, Migration and Xenophobia in Europe”, in C. de la Torre, ed., Routledge Handbook of Global Populism (London: Routledge, 2019).