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English review - The Flirt between Christianity and Populism

Christianity and right-wing populism seem to be inherently contradictory. Christianity proclaims charity towards our fellow human beings, while right-wing populism tends to divide people into the ‘true’ people and those that do not belong. Yet, there seems to be a connection between being a conservative Christian and adhering to right-wing populist thought. How can this connection be explained? Why is populism attractive to Christians and why do populist politicians use religion symbols, when, often times, they are no believers themselves? In this Radboud Reflects event, these questions were addressed by Mechteld Jansen and Andrej Zaslove. Mechteld Jansen is a theologian and former headmaster of the PThU Amsterdam and Groningen. Andrej Zaslove is a political scientist and an associate professor at the Radboud University. Andrej Zaslove started the evening off with his research on the connection between Christianity and right-wing populism, followed by a presentation on the theological point of view on the topic by Mechteld Jansen. The online event concluded with a discussion and a Q&A led by Liesbeth Jansen.

Populism and the radical right – Andrej Zaslove

Populism has three components: There is a tension between the people and the elite, the relationship between the people and the elite is antagonistic, and the people is homogenous. There is only ‘the’ people, which is good, while the elite is considered corrupt. ‘In order to be populistic,’ Andrej Zaslove explained, ‘it is in all cases, whether it is a political party, a voter or a newspaper, important that all three components are present.’ On top of that, one cannot say that someone is either populistic or not. Instead, populism exists in various degrees. Lastly, populism is a ‘thin’ ideology, as it needs another ideology for substance.

The radical right has two components: It is nationalistic and authoritarian, in the sense that it values a strong support for law and order, endorses conservative morals and traditional values. The nationalism in right-wing populism is a form of nativism, which means that the state should consist of those people that are native to the country. A clear example of nativism is the aversion towards immigrants among populists.

The connection between Christianity and right-wing populism

Why do we expect a connection between Christianity and right-wing populism? Andrej Zaslove: ‘In a lot of countries, we have seen that the populists were successful in regions where Christian Democrats were successful in the past. A lot of right-wing parties try to speak to the voter by invoking religious themes. They tend to talk about the Judeo-Christian roots of Europe, especially in the context of Islam and the European identity.’ Other examples of overlapping themes are the value of the traditional household and being anti-abortus. On the other hand, plenty of Christians show resistance towards right-wing populism, which complicates the relation between populism and Christianity. Research among voters for the radical right shows that there is not a strong connection: ‘The less one goes to church, the more one votes for the radical-right. In some countries you can see that religious believers have a stronger tendency to vote for the radical right, but this is very limited. There is no strong connection, but religion does play a role.’ In Max Weber’s words, there is an elective affinity between Christianity and right-wing populism: there is an overlap between themes concerning identity, but no direct connection.

Fear of losing the Christian faith – Mechteld Jansen

‘From the perspective of Christianity and the Church,’ explained Mechteld Jansen, ‘ right-wing populism has an attractiveness that is grounded in the fear for a demise into secularism as a new ideology. Secondly, there is a fear for losing one’s personal and collective identity.’ Another common theme is the hostility towards that which is foreign, especially in the context of Islam. Within the Church, there is not necessarily an aversion towards immigration, but there is an aversion towards the immigration of Muslims. Right-wing populism, with its focus on nationalism, embraces the cultural baggage of Christianity without embracing the content of Christianity. Populism experiences the change of culture as a loss and wants to return to the Christian country it used to know, which is an ideal shared with some Christian voters. However, being more involved in the content of Christianity, reduces the chances of voting right-wing.

Celebrating together

Whereas left-wing populism has an aversion towards the economic elite, right-wing populism has an aversion towards the cultural elite. At the moment, besides difference in wealth, there is a strong division between higher-educated and lower-educated people: ‘Populism has to be conceived as a moralistic way of practicing politics, driven by the division between the good people and the bad elite. (…) This long-term polarisation leads to anger.’ Mechteld Jansen illustrated this polarisation, using the example of Radio Maria. On this Polish radio station, which claims to represent ‘the’ Catholic voice, nationalistic statements and stories about poor people are alternated with Ave Maria. From a biblical perspective, ‘the people’ always refers to those who are forgotten: those without a name who are unknown and unseen by others. This is illustrated, for example, by the story of the beggar Lazarus. In this story, Lazarus is mentioned by name, while the rich man who ignores him does not even get a name.

Is it possible to overcome the stereotypes and prejudices that come with the terms of ‘people’ and ‘elite’? Yes it is possible!, says Jansen: “God works exactly on the borders between people. Jesus is always situated between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. The Jewish scholar Jonathan Sacks provides three ways of overcoming these borders: Christians can introduce the Judeo-Christian stories that tell us about a God who guides, warns and inspires – but does not take over our work -; they can act more often out of grace and celebrate religious festivities with everyone. The same goes for Jewish and Islamic festivities: Hanukkah and Iftar should be celebrated with ‘foreign people’. Mechteld Jansen ended her presentation with a remark from Pope Francis: ‘Crossing oneself as the populists do is worth nothing to me. What matters is what you actually do for the poor.’

Stephan van der Bijl, Research Master Student Philosophy