Rather than an authentic religious expression, Olivier Roy sees populism as a vehicle which appropriates Christian symbols for political ends while discarding the religion’s core values. Moreover, the rise of such movements has corresponded with the continued decline of church attendance and the widespread support for policies which run contrary to Church teachings. Capitalising on the Roman Catholic Church’s lack of credibility, populists have pushed their own brand of cultural Christianity.
From Great Britain to Hungary, populist leaders are not known for being church-goers (with the exception of Poland). The same is true for the conservative right, which is getting closer and closer to the populists (Silvio Berlusconi, Laurent Wauquiez, Boris Johnson). Most of these leaders don’t care about abortion and same-sex marriage and have not only endorsed, but often enjoy, the sexual freedom inherited from the 60s that has been so vehemently denounced by the Catholic Church, and by the Protestant evangelicals, since the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae in 1968.
The difference between Europe and the USA is that in the latter the populist electorate is largely a Christian one (mainly evangelical Protestants). Nevertheless, Donald Trump is himself closer to Berlusconi, Salvini, Le Pen, Wauquiez and Johnson than he is to the faith communities that mobilize against abortion and same-sex marriage.
When the populists refer to Christianity it is as an identity, with the explicit goal of excluding Islam from Europe. Christianity is for them a cultural factor, not a value system. Their support for the exhibition of Christian symbols (crosses in Bavarian government buildings, nativity scenes in French municipal halls) or for the exclusion of Islamic symbols (minarets in Switzerland) is never connected with a rise of Christian demonstration of faith (church attendance, enrolment in seminaries). Even in Poland, the Law and Justice party increasing state control of schools and the media has correlated with a decrease in enrolment at Church seminaries. The Christian identity defended by the populists has little to do with Christianity: it is a tautology, ‘we are what we are’, and thus ‘we’ should reject Islam. They turn Christianity into some sort of a folkloric set of tribal symbols, not into a culture, and when they contrast European values with Islam it is often the same values that are rejected by the Church and the evangelicals (feminism, sexual freedom etc.).
There is no correlation between the rise of the populists in elections and the rise of Christian and/or conservative values in opinion polls, or even in laws made by the different parliaments. The latest examples are the vote on abortion in Ireland, the massive and deliberate abstention in Romania for a referendum banning same-sex marriage, and the extension of medically assisted procreation in France, despite the strong opposition of the Church.
The alliance in the USA of a populist non-practising leader and the fundamentalist Christian right prompted hopes (or fears) of a backlash on basic women’s rights and gay rights, and sought to confine the #MeToo movement to specific “safe spaces” such as campuses and “progressive” workplaces like the entertainment industry. It is not the case in Europe.
Contrary to the USA, in Europe the populist electorate don’t care about abortion and same-sex marriage. In Protestant countries the populists have endorsed liberal values (but they just want to enjoy those rights between themselves), while in Catholic countries the populist electorate might be more anti-gay rights and anti-feminism (Salvini) but remain cautious on abortion and do not at all follow the call from the Church to be more lenient towards migrants. In Italy, by the way, most of the remnants of the Christian Democrats joined the Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi (himself a church-goer), not the conservative parties.
The Church position is ambiguous. On one hand, it clearly rejects the values defended by the populists (on migrants), but it also rejects liberal, secular views (for instance, on the family). Many bishops see support for the populists and the conservative right as a lesser evil in terms of defending the Church’s values, but are reluctant to openly join the anti-immigrant stance which is the very core of the populist mobilization. For instance, Wojciech Polak, Archbishop of Gniezno and head of the Catholic Church in Poland, decided in October 2017 to suspend any priest who joined an anti-migrant street demonstration.
The Church remains attached to the concept of Europe’s Christian identity, while acknowledging that the culture actually dominant in Europe is secular. The Church hopes that advocating a Christian identity for Europe will lead to a spiritual re-conquest of Europe, as long as it can first defend its “non-negotiable” stance on abortion and same-sex marriage. But the sex abuse scandal has undermined the Church’s legitimacy for professing values and imposing norms.
Moreover, there is absolutely no sign of a ‘return to the sacred’. Church attendance is decreasing in all European countries and secularisation is expanding, as is support for same-sex marriage and women’s rights (the Church does not dare challenge the #MeToo movement).
The ambiguities of the Church about the populist agenda might have a high cost, leading to twin losses on defending conservative norms (on the family and sexuality) and promoting Christian values (love of neighbour).
Due to the Church’s lack of credibility and clarity, Christianity has been taken hostage by the populists and is turning into a kitsch Christianity.
About the author
Olivier Roy is one of the most distinguished analysts of and commentators on political Islam in the Middle East and Central Asia. The author of several highly acclaimed books, four of which are published by Hurst, he is Professor at the European University Institute in Florence.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.