Theologizing Brexit, by Anthony G. Reddie, and Religion and the Rise of Populism, edited by Daniel Nilsson DeHanas and Marat Shterin

31 January 2020

Alexander Faludy looks at academic studies of religion and populism

RELIGION and populism now go together, if not like “Love and marriage”, then perhaps like “horse and carriage” — the former providing motive power to the latter. The relationship is, however, surprisingly little investigated by academic researchers, especially in relation to Brexit.

The two volumes reviewed seek to bridge that gap. Both involve the re-presentation in book form of earlier work: pieces penned by Anthony Reddie across the past decade, and a themed issue of the journal Religion, State and Society (September 2018), edited by Daniel Nilsson-DeHanas and Marat Shterin.

Reddie emphatically announces his “positionality”, stating “that ‘my theologising’ … makes no pretence to be scholarly neutral, objective or universal”. Polemic has a value, but its dominance here makes Theologising Brexit anomalous in Routledge’s New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies series. Academic “critical rigour” is elusive.

Heterogeneous material relating to the development of Black theology in Britain appears more repurposed than reworked. The topics are as various as “Mind Games: Decolonising mission Christianity” (chapter 3) and “Rastafari and Black Theology” (chapter 8). In most chapters, contact points with the titular theme are superficial: Brexit references often crowd into concluding paragraphs with little organic connection to foregoing text.

Chapter 10, “Telling the truth and shaming the devil”, is a welcome exception. Here, Reddie reflects on synergies between biblical and Afro-Caribbean parable-telling. He suggests credibly that such earthed wisdom might cut through Brexit bluster.

The volume is careless on chronology. Reddie alleges that “Conservative government policy of creating a hostile climate against illegal forms of immigration” arose “on the back of tacit permission given . . . by the electorate post Brexit”. Theresa May launched her hostile-environment policy in 2012, four years before the Brexit referendum. The footnotes cite both the author’s own work and Wikipedia with remarkable enthusiasm.

Most problematic is Reddie’s own tendency towards unrecognised forms of appropriation: he uses the term “Black” not only for people of African descent, but for “all people in the United Kingdom not perceived or recognised as White”. Given that Leave EU’s signature referendum-campaign poster featured a 2015 image of Middle Eastern refugees crossing the Hungarian border, this is questionable. Engagement with Edward Said’s landmark 1978 volume Orientalism is absent. In chapter 2, the author repeatedly invokes “the Judeo-Christian tradition” in a homogenising manner now sometimes problematised by Jewish participants in interfaith dialogue.

Linda Woodhead and Greg Smith’s joint research on “religion and Brexit” constitutes (chapter 3) of Religion and the Rise of Populism. It provides interesting statistical input focused on England rather than the UK as a whole.

The fact that, in spring 2016, 55 per cent of self-identifying English Roman Catholics signalled “Leave” voter intention while 51 per cent of Evangelicals as a whole (rising to 57 per cent of Anglican Evangelicals) did the same for “Remain” significantly destabilises simplistic claims about Brexit as “the Reformation reloaded”.

The authors’ argument, however, runs against the grain of their own survey results, concluding: “The religious vote played a significant role . . . in the Brexit vote,” and that “support came from Protestant Christians”. This claim is also questionable for reasons other than the “Protestant” label. Woodhead and Smith show that a majority of Anglicans voted for Brexit: they do not establish that it was because of their Anglicanism and not other variables (age, economic status, etc.).

A more sophisticated statistical approach, informed by social psychology, to exploring faith as a driver of political decision-making is modelled (chapter 6) by Konstaninos Papastathis and Anastasia Litina in discussing interaction between Orthodoxy and populism in Greece. I hope that someone will soon apply it to UK Brexit data. Other thought-provoking contributions include those of David Levy (chapter 5) on the hostility of “illiberal democracy” or creeping authoritarianism to religious pluralism and Bilge Yabanci and Dane Taleski (chapter 7) on how populist engagement with religion evolves across electoral cycles.

The price tags of both these books touching on the Brexit referendum will probably place them beyond the reach of most people who voted in it.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing studies in law.

Theologizing Brexit: A liberationist and postcolonial critique
Anthony G. Reddie
Routledge £120
Church Times Bookshop £108

Religion and the Rise of Populism
Daniel Nilsson DeHanas and Marat Shterin, editors
Routledge £120

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