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Book review: Alternatives to Populism from a Human Rights Perspective, edited by Elizabeta Kitanovic, Patrick Roger Schnabel and Sofia Caseiro

12 April 2024

Alexander Faludy looks at church reflections on the political climate

SYNERGIES between some branches of Christianity in Europe and populist-Right political actors is a topic that increasingly concerns political scientists (Books, 15 March). Why this convergence is theologically problematic, and how Churches might contribute to bettering public discourse, has, until now, received less attention. This essay collection, an initiative of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), is a commendable first step in opening that discussion.

The editors’ choice of title (“. . . from a Human Rights Perspective”) sounds surprisingly secular, given both the work’s orientation and some of its contents. Yet, a human-rights lens highlights an important problem. As the editors’ introduction reminds us, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is also a human right. Populists’ unitary conception of “the people” and consequent impatience with minorities pose a “clear and present danger” for many faith groups.

A human-rights perspective also makes it easier for the volume to include welcome contributions from Jewish and Muslim voices — represented here, respectively, through chapters by Leon Saltiel and Mohammed Jamouchi. It may, likewise, open dialogue with secular readers on common ground.

The work is divided into four parts. The first focuses on the conceptual framework for understanding populism, and explores the phenomenon’s fraught relationship with liberal democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Parts two and three focus thematically on how populism affects both FoRB and freedom of expression. Part four offers national case studies — balancing the foregoing theoretical reflections with factual “texture”.

Interesting insights emerge from attempts to situate populism using biblical referents.

In “Populism, Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law”, Jónatas E. M. Machado argues that there are strong grounds for seeing King David’s son Absalom as an archetypal populist. After all, Absalom’s bid for power rested on “characterising his father David as an incompetent King, distant from the people and oblivious to their problems”.

Not only Absalom’s critique, but also the alternative that he, ostensibly, presented to ancient Israel, seems to have been framed along lines that would be familiar to Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro in the United States and Brazil today. Absalom, Machado notes, pursued a “calculated populist strategy, distributing handshakes and kisses to a naive and enthusiastic population, making easy and generous promises of greater effectiveness”.

Chillingly, Machado observes that “we find traces of populism in Pontius Pilate” when “presiding at the most important trial in universal history”. Pilate decided to crucify Jesus, “despite seeing no harm in him”, in order to please the crowd. Thus, Pilate prioritised the political instinct that “led him to try to capture the essence of the people’s spirit” and follow the “most primitive and irrational impulses”. Scripture thereby warns us about the danger of dreadful injustice when populism subverts the rule of law.

A difficulty in this book is a lopsided adoption of the political scientist Cas Mudde’s work. Multiple contributors quote Mudde’s famous analysis of populism as “A thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale [general will] of the people.”

Missing is any explicit attention to what Mudde says about the fundamental cause of populism in his maxim describing it as “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”. Europe today really does suffer from a problem with regard to elite disconnection with popular sentiment. The serious dangers of “populism” cannot be averted simply by condemning the concerns of people whose anxieties demagogues seek to exploit.

Implicit acknowledgment of these points is, however, made in Dietrich Werner’s case study on Germany. Experience has shown, Werner argues, that the Church is at its most effective when it balances prophetic critiques of demagogues with a pastoral stance of active listening to ordinary people in the communities that it serves and responsibly mediates their concerns to those in power. This is important ecclesiologically, as it preserves a needful symmetry between two “marks of the Church”: holiness and apostolicity.

That an electronic version of the book is available from CEC’s website may likewise encourage wider engagement with its contents.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.

Alternatives to Populism from a Human Rights Perspective
Elizabeta Kitanovic, Patrick Roger Schnabel, and Sofia Caseiro, editors
Conference of European Churches/Globe Ethics £21.66*

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