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The pulpit and the soapbox

11 November 2016

Nick Spencer looks at populists’ use of both religion and liberalism

artur widak sipa usa/PA

Tribute: members of the public arrive for a concert in Krakow, “It’s Worth Being a Pole”, attended by leading members of the Law and Justice Party and dedicated to the deceased President Lech Kaczynski last June

Tribute: members of the public arrive for a concert in Krakow, “It’s Worth Being a Pole”, attended by leading members of the Law and...

Saving the People: How populists hijack religion
Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell and Olivier Roy, editors
Hurst £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


POPULIST parties have been on the rise for a generation now. From the Northern League in Italy, the Front National in France, and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, through the Austrian Freedom Party and the Swiss People’s Party, to Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, Pim Fortuyn’s and Geert Wilders’s 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, gaining only 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 that has now been plugged by this collection of essays, published (if overpriced) by Hurst.

Twelve chapters cover all the cases above, as well as the United States 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”. The ways in which they have done so, however, have differed subtly according to cultural context.

The Northern League and the Law and Justice Party have been able play a great deal on the deeply Roman Catholic culture of their countries, as has, to a lesser extent, the 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 been invoking Christian identity only very half-heartedly, liberally mixing it with other invocations, whether that be to France’s much-treasured laïcité, or the 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 which lie at the heart of this populism and its hijacking of religion.

The Dutch and French examples show that there is nothing intrinsic to Christianity which serves this populist agenda: any ideology will do. More important, 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 other targets, it is 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 have often provided 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 noire.

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 the best antidote to this bad religion is probably not no religion, but real faith.


Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.

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