Religion and Populism: A Blind Spot for Social Sciences by Slavica Jakelić

July 9, 2018

The Trump phenomenon has scholars feverishly adding to the already burgeoning literature on populism. Yet, the relationship between populism and religion has not yet garnered the attention it deserves. If only for that reason, the new volume Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, contributes significantly to populism studies and is likely to become an indispensable item on any reading list about this topic.

The volume editors (Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, Olivier Roy) and their collaborators analyze the place of religion in the construction of populist platforms with a set of important questions:  How do populists express the conception of religious identities? How do they define their politics against religiously-defined others? And, how to understand the changing nature of the relationship between populists and representatives of religious communities?

Moreover, the volume contributors ask those questions in a range of cases—Austria, Northern Italy, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Poland, Britain, Hungary, USA, and Israel. This ensures attention to variations. With its primary focus on Europe, the book also identifies two important features of contemporary European populisms: The paradoxical ways in which populists bring together the forms of political secularism and Christianity; and the manner in which they define themselves not simply against “Islam” but against “Islamisation.”

Notwithstanding such important insights, this is a book that shows religion is still a blind spot for social sciences, and it will not satisfy those interested in a reflexive understanding of “the religious” component of populist politics. The volume entails a theory of religion that is never explicitly articulated or reflected on, but has profound implications for how the authors approach religion-populism connections. This implicit theory of religion, just as is the case with so much of the social scientific studies of nationalism and religion, is modernist in character and skewed against religious identitarianism. It emerges in the binary distinctions between “believing & belonging”,” theology & culture”,” universal & particular forms of religiosity.

The above mentioned binaries are posited a priori and as if merely descriptive in character, while they are, in fact, profoundly theological in origins and normative in implications. Consider the following sections in Olivier Roy’s concluding chapter: It “seems to be the case,” he writes, “that the more the individual insists on ‘faith’ versus ‘identity,’ the less likely he or she is to vote for populists.” In political life, he continues, “religion…has …been transformed into a purely nominal marker of identity, without any positive content, and certainly not concomitant with traditional values based on theology and spirituality.”  

No religion, Christianity including, is ever only about identity. But if Christianity is approached as not only a matter of theological ideas but also a lived, historically embedded and culturally embodied tradition, then Christianity, just like any other religion, is also about identity and it is certainly also about particular group identities. The populist take on identitarian Christianity, in other words, is only the last iteration in a long history of narratives about Christianity as a civilizational or identity marker (something that sociologist Rogers Brubaker notes in his recent work on European populism and ‘civilizational Christianism’).

With this in mind, the notion that identitarian Christianity associated with European populisms signifies secularization because of some purported new shift from ‘faith’ to ‘identity’ ought not to be assumed. Instead it should be framed as a question to be empirically examined, and placed in a longer historical perspective of multiple European Christianities rather than only in relation to the (short) populist moment.

The interpretation of identitarian Christianity also requires reflexivity with regard to the bigger question about how those who write about religion theorize “religion.” As religious studies scholars have long shown, the “scientific” study of religion is a field that had Christian origins and distinctly theological stakes. Here, the task of defining the “substantive” or “essential” aspect of religion has been intertwined with the ultimate question of what “true” religion is.  (It mirrors, among other things, differences between Protestant and Catholic perspectives as they encountered each other and in how they encountered non-Christian traditions).

Thus, when a social scientist writes of the “substantive” and “positive” content of Christianity and gives “beliefs” and “faith” priority over “belonging” and “culture,” he or she is making a theological move. The latter is not a problem in itself but it is a problem if presented as an objective sociological or historical observation.

Aside from the theoretical, there is another, political problem arising from attempts to understand the links between religion and populism within the binaries adopted in this volume. In stating that it is the believing, theological, and universal parts of religion that counter the populist anti-pluralism or its xenophobic nationalism, one is not only assessing the cultural, particular, and identity elements of religious experience as not being essential to religion, one is also suggesting that they are irredeemable when it comes to pluralism and toleration.

The question here is not whether religions shaping particular group attachments exclude—they certainly do. But so do the universal claims of religious traditions, with their ideas and in their practices. Which is why, if one wants to understand the links between religion and populism, or if one is concerned with sustaining pluralism against the populist forms of intolerance and the hegemony of “the people,” religiously shaped particular attachments should not be dismissed a priori as intolerant by virtue of their particularity. They sometimes are and sometimes are not.

Identitarian religions can, in fact, subvert exclusivist nationalisms to provide different and localized ways of thinking about the practices of pluralism. As is the case with most human experience, the perils and promises of such religions do not reveal themselves in binaries but in the details.

Slavica Jakelić is Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College, The Honors College of Valparaiso University. She is the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity.