Saving the People: How Populists Hijack ReligionThis adapted excerpt is republished with permission of the publishers—Hurst in Europe; OUP in North America—from the upcoming book Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, and Olivier Roy. -Eds.

Right-wing populist parties have become a major player in today’s public and political debates in Europe and the United States. The success of Front National in the 2015 local elections in France, the unexpected nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for US presidential elections, and the unexpected vote in favor of Brexit, show the growing influence of populist parties. In addition to their usual rant against elites and the establishment, these parties have made religion a central element of their repertoire. In the wake of the repeated terror attacks perpetrated by ISIS, they have insistently deplored the so-called threat of Islamization, and emphasized the need to reclaim the West’s Christian identity. This book examines the manner in which right-wing populist parties in a series of Western democracies have used religion in recent decades to define a good “people” whose identity and traditions are alleged to be under siege from liberal elites and dangerous “others.” The most important new populists of the past four decades in established democracies have been almost exclusively right-wing: the Front National in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP; Swiss People’s Party), the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ; Austrian Freedom Party), the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Law and Justice (PiS; Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) in Poland, Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV; Party for Freedom) in the Netherlands, and the Tea Party movement in the United States.

Despite differences among them, all these groups have based their appeal on the claim that a homogenous “good” people is suffering due to the actions, from above, by elites and, from below, by a variety of “others.” Populists portray society in Manichean terms as divided into a good “us” and a bad (even evil) “them.” In defining both of these categories, religious identities often play an important role. The use of religious identity raises the issue of how populists interact with Church authorities—who could, of course, be considered part of the elites within societies—and how Church leaders react to populists and the use they make of religion. This book focuses on the relationship between religion and right-wing populists. We look both at how populists conceive of “the people” and “others” in terms of their religion, and at the relationship between Churches and populists. 

“Us” and “Them”

Following the definition proposed by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, the book envisages right-wing populism as “a thin-centered ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.” The populist use of religion is much more about “belonging” than “belief,” and revolves around two main notions: restoration and battle. This restorationist discourse is based on a particular conception of culture as a set of codes. For populists, culture does not designate complex and historically embedded modes of producing meaning, memories, and social arrangements. Rather, it can be reduced to a simplistic and easily recognizable series of codes of behavior and symbols (for example, the crucifix). Restoration is accompanied by the idea of an essential battle which must be waged. Hence, right-wing populists have actively participated in campaigns to defend local spaces from “alien” religions and to keep native religious symbols in public places (with the consequent reinforcement through such campaigns of who is us and who is them). For example, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Tea Party in the United States, the French Front National, the SVP in Switzerland, the Austrian FPÖ, and the Dutch PVV have all fought against the construction of mosques and/or minarets, arguing that they are a threat to the purity and integrity of the native community’s territory and identity (in addition to mosques being supposed hotbeds of terrorist activity). This understanding of culture and religion, in turn, is inseparable from a conception of “us” that emphasizes a homogeneous ethnos, rather than a pluralist demos.

As for the enemies of the people in right-wing populist discourse, these consist of elites and “others.” For contemporary right-wing populists in Western democracies, the main “others” are almost always immigrants and, in particular since 9/11, Muslims—who allegedly want to impose their religious values and traditions on the people as part of a surreptitious “Islamization” plan. With the specter of Islamization, populists have succeeded in marrying the old Orientalist condemnation of the innate hypocrisy of the Moor with contemporary concerns about immigration, international terrorism, and the circulation of jihadists from Europe to the Levant (and vice versa). An important effect of the success of the notion of Islamization is the normalization of the idea that Muslims are incapable of distinguishing between their political views and their theological beliefs. Conflating religious radicalism and political radicalism, the proponents of the Islamization paradigm contend that Muslims who practice a conservative form of piety will inevitably endorse radical views about domestic and foreign politics.

Populists’ Ambivalent Relationship to Religion and Secularism

While noting the trend of right-wing populist parties to denounce Islam as the evil “other,” the volume also seeks to explore variation among populist discourses and strategies concerning religion. This is why the study of populists in eight European democracies (Italy, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Britain, Hungary, and Poland) is supplemented by the analysis of two non-European, but still Western, cases: the Tea Party in the United States and the Shas Party in Israel. These allow us to explore the extent to which populist arguments regarding religion are circulating beyond Europe. On this point, we find that, despite the important differences among the political contexts and histories from which right-wing populists have emerged, there has been a significant standardization of their approach to religion over the past fifteen years or so.

The relationship of populist movements to religion is far from uniform and has varied considerably over time. In most of the cases examined, the turn to religion—where there has been one—occurred around the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the current century. Before that, some right-wing populist parties included a significant number of representatives and members who opposed traditional faiths and church leaders. For example, neo-pagans, celebrating the strength of pre-Christian Europe, were prominent alongside conservative Catholics in the founding of the French Front National. In Austria, the FPÖ initially had a strong anti-clerical component. In the 1990s, the Lega Nord in Italy even went through a phase of promoting neo-pagan type rituals and in the Netherlands, neither the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF; Pim Fortuyn List) nor the PVV has given precedence to Christian values over libertarian views on ethical, economic, and social issues. Indeed, given that church leaders can be considered part of society’s elites and that they usually advocate charity and acceptance of immigrants, there are many obvious reasons why right-wing populists could come into conflict with Christian churches (while at the same time defending their symbols).

We also find that right-wing populists do not always agree on what exactly comprises the religious identity that the people need to reclaim. Populists may define the people, alternatively, as Christian, Judeo-Christian, or Judeo-Christian-Humanist. In the FPÖ’s 1997 manifesto, for example, Christianity was defined as the “spiritual foundation of Europe” and was equated with Western values. By contrast, Geert Wilders has referred on many occasions to the Christian/Jewish/Humanistic culture of the Netherlands. The case of the French Front National is different again, since it mostly speaks of national identity, rather than Christian identity, and has cast itself as the only remaining guardian of laïcité. Indeed, its attempt in recent years to combine the call to reclaim laïcité with a celebration of the Christian roots of France has resulted in a complex and ambivalent discourse. Meanwhile, in Israel, the call of the Shas Party to restore “the Crown to its Ancient Glory” is essentially a reaction to conflicts about the place and status of Mizrahi Jews in Israeli culture. Shas’s use of religion is designed first and foremost to assert the need of its people for inclusion and for their acceptance by Ashkenazi elites as full partners within a common Jewish political and religious identity.

Populists and Churches: Identity versus Faith

Another important question raised by the analyses in this book concerns the relationship between Christian churches and populist parties. At a very superficial level, they could even be seen as fighting similar battles. Most notably, both populist movements and church authorities describe Europe as Christian and point to the continuing importance of this. However, when we look more closely, we quickly find that they mean quite different things: Populists speak of identity and churches speak of faith. Christian identity for populists is strongly linked to a romanticized idea about how things once were. It promotes an idealized and ahistorical notion of a harmonious community life that existed before the elites and bad “others” began to endanger the prosperity, rights, and wellbeing of the good people. The reference to Christian identity also serves a strategic purpose: it is essentially a means to render Islam foreign and incompatible with integration into the community. In other words, the European right advocates a Christian identity for Europe not because it wants to promote Christianity, but because it wants to prevent what the Front National calls “the Islamization of Europe.” The first goal of this anti-Islam campaign is the reconquering of the public space, and there have been a number of victories in this sense in recent years. There are bans on headscarves and other signs of religious affiliation in schools (in France); there are bans on the burqa and the niqab in the streets (in France and Belgium); there are concerted efforts to block the construction of mosques (throughout Europe) and of minarets (in Switzerland). The pushback against Islam also concerns the human body, for example, through campaigns to prohibit circumcision and halal food in Norway.

De facto, therefore, the populist strategy is to stress both a Christian identity and the secularization of public space. There are two collateral victims of this new push for a forced secularization: Jews and practicing Christians. Jews come under attack, because some of their religious practices are similar to those of Muslims—most notably, circumcision (challenged in Norway and Germany) and ritual slaughter of animals. In this respect, the defense of Europe’s Christian identity has taken on an especially ugly quality; so much for the Judeo-Christian roots of European culture. Once again, the Jews of Europe are made to feel like foreigners. Moreover, many of the arguments deployed against Islam are precisely those that are used against a certain form of conservative Christianity: Feminism and gay rights have never been endorsed by the Catholic Church.

To promote a purely cultural Christian identity for Western societies, and to further secularize the public space in order to contain Islam, is, in the end, going against what the Christian churches are trying to defend: a post-secular society, where religious symbols and values are part of the common society. Or, to put it another way, depriving religious symbols, such as the crucifix, of their spiritual content and turning them into cultural symbols (as the courts and politicians have done), serves to detach them from faith and religious practices. Religion for many politicians—and right-wing populists in particular—has thus transformed into a purely nominal marker of identity, without any positive content, and certainly not concomitant with traditional values based on theology and spirituality (such as charity, to name but one). In the wake of the numerous attacks that have occurred throughout the world and caused the death of hundreds of civilians, the recasting of Christianity as an identity marker that allows for a clear distinction between the West and the Muslim world will likely spread beyond right-wing populists and become more mainstream.