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How Christians should respond to populism

18 January 2019

They are called to resist those who seek to polarise and to reduce complexity to simple slogans, argues Nick Baines

IT IS hard to open a journal or newspaper these days without coming across the word “populism”. But, although frequently cited, it is rarely defined. The lack of definition means that it is a weapon that can be wielded by anyone on any side of any political debate, to describe pejoratively those with whom one disagrees.

But, why the revival of “populism” now — as a term, concept, or phenomenon?

In brief, the current world order is perceived to be changing, with a rapidity that leaves people feeling out of control. Like “post-modernism”, we know what we are “post”: what we are leaving behind; but we do not know what we are “pre”: what sort of an order (or disorder) we are creating. This uncertainty creates fear, and fear is not the best motivator for individual or collective behaviour.

What is being fundamentally challenged in the West is the root assumption that (a) post-war liberalism is self-evidently right and obvious; (b) that the rules-based international order that grew out of half a century of global conflict is worth preserving; and (c) that globalisation and the pulling down of national borders benefits everyone.

THE important thing to note is the sense of impotence which all this has evoked in entire communities: we cannot even control our own lives; our society is being overrun by foreigners; we are victims of decisions and priorities set by people who are unaccountable and act with impunity; we have been left behind.

Enter Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán, and the AfD (Comment, 21 September, 5 October). What they and others have in common is an ability to reduce complexity to simple slogans, and to answer complex questions with simplistic solutions: “Take back control”; “Drain the swamp”; “Islam or freedom?”; “Make America great again.” Language is key, fear is fundamental, and hope is reduced to instant gratification of visceral demand.

In a recent book, Confronting Religious Violence, the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks writes that, to gain traction, “populism has to identify an enemy” (News, 12 October). It then amplifies its claims of victimhood at the hands of the enemy, using language to dehumanise or disrupt.

Years before the onset of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke recognised that abstract terms such as “liberty” or “equality” had the power to move people without enlightening them. Words shape actions — and populists assert by slogan, use street language instead of careful and polite analysis, and corrupt the public discourse with language that defies definition, but hits at the heart of popular emotion.

The disruptive language of the populists deliberately generates distrust of authorities — especially politicians, the media, and experts — but feels no need to justify its own assumptions. Reality or rationality are dispensed with on the altar of visceral emotion, as the populists set themselves up against those whom they decry. They are “the people”; their opponents are — what? Identity politics is not neutral here.

A CHRISTIAN response to populism must begin with a clear theological anthropology: human beings are made in the image of God and must not be categorised, dehumanised, or relativised by language that leads to violence or rejection. But Christian discipleship goes further, as I will illustrate briefly.

It is easy to ask people to imitate Jesus and to love their enemy as well as their friend. It is just that it is quite hard to do. But, unless we are to be like the German Christians (Deutsche Christen), seduced into an elision of the Kingdom of God and the Reich of Adolf Hitler, we have to learn to pay attention to those things in our society which need to be encouraged (kindness, generosity, justice, and humaneness), and to identify and challenge those that are destructive.

Christians are called to be realists, not fantasists — loving truth (even when it is hard to discern, but important to plug away at), and resisting lies, misrepresentation, manipulation, and subterfuge. We are called to be lovers of light, not colluders with darkness.

This means resisting the dualisms that are being propagated, whereby you have to be on one side of a debate or the other, but from which any nuance or subtlety or complexity is expunged. It means creating space for encounter and conversation, when it seems that everyone is lobbing grenades from the trenches. It means refusing to accept the polarising premises that the ideologues represent as the only options.

Practically, and as a priority, however, we can pay attention to the language that we use in shaping the discourse in a collapsing society.

But, in these current dangerous circumstances of division, insecurity, and growing fear, the Christian tradition has something more to offer: hope.

The book of Proverbs is often quoted: “Without a vision the people perish.” So, what is the vision being offered to the people of our islands, for example, as we prepare to leave the European Union? (Or not: who knows?) And, if we do have a vision, how is it to be expressed? For, if the devil has all the good music, the populists have all the good slogans.

The Brexit debate is not about political vision or substance; it is not rational or about reality — just look at the actual consequences already; it is visceral and emotional. Poor people might well get considerably poorer, but many would still vote to leave anyway.

But Christians are not driven by fear; we are drawn by hope. It is a hope that comes to us from the future: resurrection. It is a hope that should not be confused with fantasy. It is committed to the life of the present — in all its complexity and muckiness — but refuses to see the present reality as the end or the ultimate.

There is a desperate need for a younger generation to find the language for a new narrative for our politics and our common life, here and in the world — a new narrative rooted in the old story: of God and his people, of the apparent bloody failure of a cross planted in a rubbish tip, and of the haunting whisper of a song of resurrection. It might take some time, and we might fail a million times; but we know that there is more to be said before the conversation ends.

Christians should question the dualistic language that is being used to perpetuate a common sense of crisis, and to divide people according to notions of who is in and who is out. We need to listen for the voices of those who are silent or have no voice. We must resist those who offer simplistic (but emotionally appealing) solutions to complex questions — even if the complexity is boggling to us.

We must question what we are being fed through the media, and question which values are being driven by which people, especially when charismatic leaders are involved. We must insist on integrity, on consistency within clear moral frameworks, and on the place of head over heart when making decisions that have consequences for many people. (Can we think of a single Brexiteer who will suffer personally from a disastrous Brexit?

I WANT to conclude with what might sound like an odd appeal. Politics is a rough old game, but Christians should not be afraid of rough politics. I don’t mean to encourage the ad hominem bitchiness that targets individuals, questions their motives at every turn, and abuses them with language that dehumanises. I don’t mean to invite slanging matches between firmly convinced opinionators, whose ignorance is exposed by a couple of sharp questions.

I do mean to encourage engagement with the detail of political decision-making at every level. Those who represent us in our parliamentary (and local) democracy need our prayers and our encouragement. They need to know that they can trust Christians to listen and to tell the truth (as they see it).

They also need to know that we can argue a case on the grounds of that case, without resorting to an easy slogan or dismissive attack. Yes, we can call out inconsistency between articulated policy and delivered reality; but we can also offer encouragement where hard and costly decisions are made, often with limited foresight and contested will.

Christians must love the light by looking at the world — and our politics, and our media — in the light of the Christ who is the light of the world. Don’t just look at Jesus: look at the world through his eyes, say what you see — always with the humility that we might be myopic or wilfully blind — and be trustworthy and faithful.

Viktor Frankl addresses where “freedom threatens to degenerate into mere licence and arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness”, and suggests that the Statue of Liberty on the east coast of the United States should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast. It is unlikely to happen, but Christians should be at the forefront of holding these together, at a time when there are powerful moves to drive them apart.

My last word refers to two book titles by the American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann: Hopeful Imagination and The Prophetic Imagination. Christians are called — in whatever time and place they live — to be people of hope, to imagine a different way, and to live it.

Prophetic living is not gazing into a crystal ball and guessing what the future might hold. Rather, it is looking at the present in the light of the past, and resolving to be faithful to God and his call — whatever the future might hold.

The Rt Revd Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds. He leads on Europe for the Lords Spiritual.

This is an edited extract of a lecture delivered on 6 January at Bradford Cathedral. The full text can be read at nickbaines.wordpress.com.

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