Image via Flickr user Quinn DombrowskiThroughout much of the world, religion manifestly—and sometimes markedly—informs everyday understandings, cultural representations, and political and legal definitions of nationhood. The paradox I wish to explore, with reference to developments in Northern and Western Europe, is that religion also informs assertively secular understandings and discourses of nationhood—and not simply as their evident target, but as their putative foundation.

The categories “secular” and “religious” have deeply intertwined histories, and the Christian origins of the category “secular” have been amply discussed. My interest here is in the religious dimension of secularism, as a self-conscious, assertive political stance, and secularity, as a characterization of a culture or way of life.

A new form of assertive secularism has emerged in the last decade or so in Northern and Western Europe. Historically, of course, militant secularism in Europe was directed against the institutional power, political influence, and cultural authority of the Church, and it was generally an ideology of the Left. Today, assertive secularism—and I use the term in a broader and looser sense than Ahmet Kuru—is directed against Muslim immigrants and their descendants. This Islam-focused secularism is increasingly, though not exclusively, an ideology of the Right, while the multiculturalist Left has been more open to accommodating religious difference in the public sphere.

But what is religious about the new secularism of the Right, apart from its target? Why isn’t it simply anti-religious? A first step in the argument is to note the transformation of Europe’s postwar immigrants and their descendants into “Muslims.” This was not a demographic transformation; it was a discursive transformation—a shift in frameworks of identification and analysis. Populations that had previously been identified and labeled using a variety of categories—as Moroccans, North Africans, guest-workers, immigrants, foreigners, or, especially in the United Kingdom, as blacks—have been increasingly identified and labeled as Muslims.

This was partly a response to populations of immigrant origin making claims as Muslims. But it was driven more by a growing civilizational preoccupation with Islam than by local claims-making by European Muslims. This preoccupation emerged well before 9/11, responding to the increasing global visibility of political Islam in the post-Cold War environment. But of course 9/11 and subsequent attacks in Europe gave it an enormous boost. The civilizational preoccupation with Islam has become especially prominent in populist Right discourse. The theme of protecting liberal and Western values against Islam has even been characterized as a potential new “master frame” of the European national-populist Right.

But, again, what’s religious about this assertive secularism? After all, the new secularism presents itself as a defense of Western values against religion. The values that are seen as threatened by Islam are not, it would seem, themselves defined in religious terms: They are the values of freedom of expression, personal autonomy, even gender equality, and, especially in the Netherlands, tolerance of homosexuality. In this perspective, it would seem, the West is defined not by its religious tradition or values, but by its secularity. It is precisely this secularity that makes the religiosity of populations of immigrant origin stand out as problematic.

But just as “their” religiosity emerges from the matrix of Islam, so “our” secularity—in the civilizational perspective of the Right—emerges from the matrix of Christianity (or the “Judeo-Christian tradition”). The definition of the constitutive other in religio-civilizational terms invites a characterization of the self in the same register. The preoccupation with Islam calls forth, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, a concern with Christianity. If “they” are Muslim, then in some sense “we” must be Christian (or Judeo-Christian).

In Northern and Western Europe today, this reactive Christianity (or “Christianism,” to use a term coined by Andrew Sullivan to designate a counterpart to Islamism) presents itself as closely linked with secularity and liberalism. Once understood as antithetical to liberalism, secularism, and modernity, Christianity is increasingly seen as their civilizational matrix, and as the matrix of a whole series of more specific ideas, attitudes, and practices, including human rights, tolerance, gender equality, and support for gay rights.

*   *   *

Struggles over the meaning of Christianity have been a permanent feature of the Christian tradition, and the characterization of Christianity as the matrix of liberalism, human rights, and even secularism has a long history. Various liberal, democratic, and human rights-focused projects have long sought to ground and legitimize themselves in Christian terms. And Christianity has been characterized by Marcel Gauchet as the “religion to exit from religion.”

But the association of Christianity with secularity and secularism in political discourse is new. This transformation in the prevailing political meaning and valence of Christianity is made possible by three interconnected phenomena: the distinctive secularization of Northern and Western Europe; the culturalization of both religion and citizenship; and the increasing salience of the comparative civilizational frame in which Christianity is counterposed to Islam. I’ll say a few words about each of these.

Contemporary Northern and Western Europe is the most secularized region on Earth. Here, classical secularization theory not only describes a striking and unparalleled decline in religiosity but, as Jose Casanova has emphasized, it also informs the self-understanding of many Europeans, who equate modernity with secularity and see religiosity per se as backward.

In this uniquely secularized context, where serious forms of Christian religiosity are marginalized, Christianity is readily available for reinterpretation in cultural or civilizational terms, with no reference to matters of theology, belief, or ritual.

The culturalization of religion is doubly convenient from a nationalist-populist point of view. On the one hand, it allows Christianity to be privileged as culture in a way that it cannot be privileged as religion, given the liberal state’s commitment to neutrality in religious matters. On the other hand, it allows minority religious practices, redefined as cultural, to be restricted in a way that would not otherwise be possible, given the liberal state’s commitment to religious freedom. The most striking example of this is the French legislation banning the full face veil in public.

The culturalization of religion intersects with what has been called the culturalization of citizenship in reference to the increasingly salient role of culture (“emotions, feelings, norms and values, and symbols and traditions”) in debates about access to full citizenship and about “what it means to be a citizen.” Since religion is understood as a key matrix of political culture, the culturalization of citizenship brings religion to the fore in debates about immigration, integration, and citizenship.

The transformation in the political meaning and valence of Christianity has been enabled most decisively by the increasing salience of the comparative civilizational frame in which Christianity is counterposed to Islam. In this perspective—a variation of the orientalism analyzed by Edward Said nearly forty years ago—the distinction between Christianity and Islam is mapped onto a series of normatively charged oppositions: between liberal and illiberal, individualist and collectivist, democratic and authoritarian, modern and backward, and secular and religious.

*   *   *

To make this highly generalized discussion more concrete, I now want to sketch how these developments came together in the Netherlands in the last fifteen years. As Paul Mepschen and colleagues have noted, the Netherlands stands out even in Europe for its degree of secularization and for the relatively uniform progressive moral views of “native” Dutch people on social issues, especially issues of sexual morality. Unease about attacks on homosexuality and homosexuals was skillfully exploited by the charismatic, openly gay populist politician Pim Fortuyn, whose party surged to prominence in 2002. Of course Fortuyn also tapped into other kinds of anxieties about immigration that have fueled populist nationalist parties elsewhere. But he repudiated the “extreme Right” label and emphasized his interest in protecting the liberal culture and permissive lifestyle of the Netherlands (including liberal drug legislation, legalized physician-assisted suicide, and gay marriage) against what he characterized as the “backward” culture of Islam. As he asserted in an interview, “I refuse to start all over again with the emancipation of women and gays.”

The assassination of Fortuyn by an animal rights activist and, two years later, the murder of his friend and fellow provocateur, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, by a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist gave further impetus both to a distinctive kind of nationalist rhetoric, in which gender equality, sexual freedom, and gay rights were elevated to defining characteristics of “Dutch culture,” and to civilizational contrasts between the Christian (or Judeo-Christian) West and Islam.

Of course the culture of sexual liberation, as Peter Van der Veer has observed, was as sharply opposed to the strict sexual morality of the Netherlands’ not so distant Calvinist past as it was to Islam. But the rapid and extreme secularization of Dutch society since the 1960s and the marginalization of serious Christianity made it possible to claim a culturalized Christianity—a “Judeo Christian humanistic culture,” as Fortuyn called it—as the matrix of gender equality, gay rights, and freedom of speech.

The mantle of Pim Fortuyn was assumed after his death by Geert Wilders, who has given the populist anti-Islamic civilizational rhetoric an even cruder and harsher cast. He has characterized Islam as “the greatest threat to the survival of our civilization”; proposed to ban the Quran as a “fascist book” that incites violence; and, in the wake of 2016 terror attacks, called for “de-Islamizing” Europe and refusing entry to Europe for all Muslim immigrants: “We have imported a monster, and this monster is called Islam.” In the run-up to the 2017 parliamentary elections, Wilders’s Party for Freedom is currently polling at over 20%, more than any other party in the fragmented Dutch political landscape.

In broader European perspective, the contours of Dutch anti-immigrant populist politics are atypical, especially with respect to the centrality of the themes of sexual liberation and gay rights. But anti-immigrant populist parties in France, Norway, Denmark, and elsewhere have also been placing more emphasis on gender equality, human rights, freedom of speech, individualism, and gay rights as they seek to expand their electorate and gain mainstream legitimacy by repositioning themselves as defenders of liberal values, grounded in a secularized Judeo-Christian culture, against the threat of Islam.

To the extent that the civilizational contrast between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam becomes the master frame of the national-populist Right, this might signal a shift from a national to a civilizational register, and from nationalism to what one might call “civilizationalism.” Of course, one needs no reminder that more classical forms of nationalism are alive and well in Europe. But the civilizational overlay of nationalist rhetoric in Europe is becoming increasingly salient. This raises the paradoxical possibility that what is often called the “national-populist Right” might not be all that substantively national or nationalist. Of course talk of “the nation” would not disappear, but “the nation” would be re-characterized in civilizational terms, with less emphasis on what distinguishes the nation from other nations (such as language) and more emphasis on what distinguishes the broader civilization to which the nation is seen as belonging from other civilizations.

The story I have sketched is laced with ironies and reversals. Secularism is redefined as an ideology of the Right, and the Right is also appropriating liberal themes like gender equality and tolerance of homosexuality. The most secularized region of the world is being characterized in religio-civilizational terms. Christianity is redefined as the matrix of liberalism, secularity, gender equality, and gay rights. Seemingly nationalist parties may be less nationalist than civilizationist. And even as the European project falters—with the eurozone, Schengen, and the European Union itself in deep crisis—a European identity, defined in religio-civilizational terms, has come to figure more centrally in political rhetoric.