How right-wing populists appropriate Christ

15 June 2018

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QUITE the most interesting piece of journalism in recent weeks was a long piece by Tobias Cremer in the New Statesman on the resurgence of Christianity as a marker of ethnic identity in European politics.

The opening paragraphs set out his stall: “In front of secular Dresden’s baroque Frauenkirche, a large crowd has gathered. Many are carrying over­sized crosses; others candles. Occasionally Christ­mas carols and church hymns are intoned. A few hundred kilometres to the west, in Paris, the former capital of laïcité (secularism), thousands of people rally in veneration of a Catholic saint, while in Milan a speaker addresses supporters as ‘apostles’ and swears on the Bible to ‘put the gospel into action’.

“What’s remarkable about these events is that none of them occurred during any kind of religious service or gathering. Instead, they were organised by right-wing populist movements: the first happened during a demonstration by the ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident’ (Pegida) in Dresden, the second during the annual commemoration march for Joan of Arc by the Front National in Paris, [and] the third at a campaign speech of the Lega leader Matteo [Salvini] in Milan.”

Cremer goes on to discuss, with some subtlety, how this style of politics expresses the Christianity of the unchurched. It has little appeal to regular churchgoers, but they are a diminishing minority in all the countries that he discusses. The former East Germany, the home of Pegida and AfD, is, along with the Czech Republic, one of the most secularised regions in Europe.

But then the attachment to Christian symbols comes not from their religious meaning, but from their use as shibboleths, or markers of identity and difference. Rowan Williams, in his book on Dostoevsky, has a long passage on the way in which the sacred can be profaned, and the icon trampled in the mud, in a way that does not diminish its sacredness.

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But the concept of the sacred which seems to be working in Cremer’s piece is actually energised by the possibility of blasphemy. The cross works as a symbol of identity only if there is some other tribe that rejects it. I wonder whether something like this conception of purity does not drive the ferocity of some of the campaigners against interfaith services — the feeling that a service, perhaps even a prayer, cannot be truly Christian if Muslims or Hindus can find their place within it, too.

This use of Christianity is hardly new in a historical perspective. How long has it been since Roman Catholics were forbidden to pray in public with Protestants? But it is, of course, rejected by the hierarchies of mainstream Churches (except perhaps the Orthodox) today.

So Cremer goes on to distinguish between the new irreligious Christianity of the alt-Right, and the somewhat more traditional Christianity of some Catholic right-wingers, although they can be just as hostile to Muslims: “Kaczynski and Rees-Mogg appear to be genu­inely guided by some of the social teach­ing of the church. They are religious populists rather than populists hijacking religion, and their policies are often endorsed by church authorities and enjoy substantial support among religious voters.”

But is hostility to the EU a policy with sub­stantial support among religious voters here? The best evidence I’ve got for that comes, as usual, from Linda Woodhead, who found that self-reporting as an Anglican made you 20 per cent more likely to vote Leave in the referendum than others of the same age, class, and gender. On the other hand, this doesn’t apply to Jacob Rees-Mogg: there is no corresponding hostility to the EU among Roman Catholics. To members of the C of E, however, the func­tional part of the phrase “Church of England” was obviously “England”: see also the diffi­culties that Lord Williams got into with sharia.

THIS brings us to the Archbishop of Canter­bury’s curious claim that “The EU has been the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire (News, 8 June). “It has brought peace, prosperity, compassion for the poor and weak, purpose for the aspirational and hope for all its people.”

This was first spotted by our own Madeleine Davies, and picked up, without attribution, by the Brexit papers as a target for fulmination.

Leo McKinstry, in the Daily Express, gave a masterclass in ethnic Christianism: “This prattling prelate wants us to look to the edicts of the EU for inspiration and guidance. His worship of Brussels is deluded. He shamefully ignores the central role that Christianity has played in building European civilisation over the past 1,500 years, whether it be in the arts, the law or our moral code.

“Sweden used to be one of the most peaceful, egalitarian places on earth, a byword for liberalism. Now, thanks to open borders under EU membership, it is a crime-fuelled land of fear.”

This style of rhetoric proves that it is not enough for Christianism to reject Muslims. Soon it will have to reject all the Christians, too, who disagree with its interpretations. We have seen this happen with sexual questions. Now it is moving into the treatment of refugees and the poor.

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