Where does the ‘religion’ end and the ‘populism’ begin? Ben Ryan speaks of the use of Christianity by populists as ‘Christianism’. Here, as with Islamism, theological depth makes way for a radical vision of society where people are divided into two cultural camps. You’re with us or against us. The challenge for Christians is to wrestle back the narrative from the populists.
For many years a number of thinkers have tried to differentiate “Islamism” from “Islam”. The latter, of course, is a religion, while the former is a radical political programme aimed at reshaping society along Islamic (usually fundamentalist) lines. That is an over-simplistic definition of a highly-contested concept – but then in debates over politics, populism and religion we walk in constant danger of falling down a well of definitional despair.
Much ink has been spilt trying to define who counts as a populist; even more has been spilt trying to define what counts as a religion. When it comes to Islamism one of the issues is that the line where religion becomes politics is a decidedly subjective one. It’s also, perhaps subconsciously, an essentially Western distinction. It rests on the idea that faith and politics are divisible spheres; the temporal city of man and the city of God, in St Augustine’s famous model. This is foundational to Western secularism and the idea of the split between the private and the public. There is a question as to how authentic any such distinction is within the Islamic world.
Partly for that reason, though, it does provide a potentially more interesting model for looking at the use of Christianity by populist leaders and parties. The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde defines populism as a movement that looks to split society between “a pure people” and “the corrupt elite.” There are other definitions available, but working with that as a start point, there is an argument that we can begin to conceive of a “Christianism” to go along with Islamism.
In this new Christianism a string of populist leaders (and their intellectual out-riders like Douglas Murray) have taken Christianity as a defining feature of national purity. As with the idea of Islamism this has little, if any, theological depth to it, but it is the application of Christianity to a political ideology, one that establishes the pure people against outsiders.
Erecting cribs at Christmas, and crucifixes at all times in public buildings are becoming classic tropes of this approach. It wasn’t so long ago that the German CSU party was being criticised for abandoning any “Christian” aspect to their politics. Today they are campaigning for crucifixes and cribs in schools – in part to head off the challenge of the far right. In Italy Lega, a right wing populist party that holds the balance of power in the Italian government, has campaigned for crucifixes to be obligatory in all public buildings, including schools, ports and prisons. Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy and the party’s leader has made a point (despite vociferous criticism from the Church) of holding a rosary during speeches. Salvini does, it seems, attend mass (though he was publicly a neo-pagan for many years).
In France the populist right again campaigns for cribs and crucifixes and also for an insistence on pork being served in public schools (in order to force Muslim students to choose between faith and being part of the school community). These have been popular with older, traditionalist Catholic voters, but also carry broader appeal, insofar as they are using Christianity to exclude those who are considered non-Western, particularly Muslims. They tie into what Marion Maréchal Le Pen (Marie Le Pen’s niece, and a senior party figure in her own right) calls “France’s status as the first daughter of the Church”.
The sociologist Rogers Brubaker was among the first to characterise this as “a Christianism—not a substantive Christianity… It’s a secularized Christianity as culture … It’s a matter of belonging rather than believing.” He further describes the attitude as being one in which “We are Christians precisely because they are Muslims. Otherwise, we are not Christian in any substantive sense.”
This is an important observation; the single most important feature of the new Christianism is that it is a negative claim, based on excluding those deemed to be enemies – particularly Muslims. It is a triumph of empty symbolism; fighting for crucifixes and cribs or insisting on applying a religious test to refugees but without much apparent piety or depth of Christian thinking. This is one reason that there is evidence to suggest that active churchgoers are deeply unconvinced by the claims of the populists, and Europe’s churches at an institutional level have tended to be vociferous in their opposition (it is a different story, at least in part, in the USA).
It is in stark contrast to the history of Christian political parties of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. They were started by committed Christians on a Christian basis, and though they struggled (as excellently described here by Bryan McGraw in Comment magazine) to reconcile their identity as Christian parties with realpolitik they at least knew their ground. The new Christianists share with the Islamists only the base and limited religious self-understanding. The challenge facing Christian groups, just as it faced Muslim groups for many years, is to be able to differentiate themselves from those who have been using their religion for a crude political ideology, and to be able to develop a more compelling alternative vision.
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.