The populist right is forging an unholy alliance with religion
From Salvini to Orbán, ethno-nationalists are hijacking religious themes to fuel their agenda. Progressives need to fight back
Why are so many religious citizens drawn to the rhetoric of authoritarian leaders such as Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi? Even in countries with a strong secular tradition, such as France and the Netherlands, rightwing populists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders are quick to resort to language that presents “Judeo-Christianity” as the pillar of western European civilisation.
In Belgium, the Flemish nationalist party N-VA has made a name for itself defending institutions “abandoned” by the Christian-Democrats, such as the Catholic schooling system and church services. In Italy, Salvini ostentatiously brandished a Catholic rosary as results from the European elections came in. In Hungary, Orbán has turned a defence of “Christian civilisation” into official state doctrine. Making a speech in Warsaw, where the ruling Law and Justice party has presented itself as the political wing of conservative Catholicism, Donald Trump echoed John Paul II’s old invocation: “We want God.”
Clearly there is a key link between populism and religion. But there seems to have been relatively little academic interest in the connection. Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism? (2016), for example, spends no time discussing the relationship at all. This is all the stranger, given that the movement that launched the term “populism” – the original “big P” Populists in the late 19th-century US – was fiercely churchgoing. As a coalition of anti-capitalist radical agrarians and workers, the Populists drew on previous Methodist networks (mainly in the south) and sources in the American evangelical tradition. They called their movement the “cooperative crusade”.