28 December 2023

Populism and Religion

An in-depth look at the role religion plays in 'right-wing' populism in Europe. It is much less influential than in the United States which is not surprising, considering the de-Christianisation of Europe.

From The European Conservative

By Tomislav Kardum, PhD

Europe does not share the American 'faith and flag' correlation between religion and politics.

Religiosity often correlates with a preference for right-wing political options and, in a number of countries, right-wing parties explicitly promote the importance of religion for society. ’Faith and flag’ conservatives constitute a significant percentage of American conservatives. According to Pew Research,

More than four-in-ten are white evangelical Protestants, the highest share of any political typology group. Faith and Flag Conservatives are more likely than those in other groups to emphasize the importance of religion in their lives and to hold restrictive attitudes on abortion and same-sex marriage.

The correlation is not as strong in Europe. Many European countries, particularly those in the West, are de-Christianized to such an extent that organized religion (in the form of Christianity) is no longer a political factor. Even some Christian democratic parties—which were an offshoot of the Catholic electorate—espouse views on moral and social issues which are opposed to the official teaching of the Catholic Church. According to the political scientists Stathis N. Kalyvas and Kees van Kersbergen, “Vague formulations such as ‘religious inspiration’ or ‘values of Christian civilization’ are today the sole references to religion in the official discourse of these parties.”

Because of that fact, “it is now perfectly possible to be simultaneously a Christian democrat and an agnostic, atheist, Muslim, or Hindu—and this is not even perceived as a contradiction. (In fact, this ‘contradiction’ fuels one of the main objections that smaller, more orthodox Christian parties, like the Dutch Christian Union, voice against Christian democracy).”

The new wave of right-wing populism cannot be unequivocally linked to the power of religion in society. There have been secularist arguments against immigration from Muslim countries, with examples including the Netherlands (Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders) and Sweden (Swedish Democrats). According to the secularist narrative, migrants—especially those from Muslim countries—are destroying the separation of church and state, endangering women’s rights, and so on. In short, they threaten the ‘customs of society,’ where those ‘customs’ are mainly the liberal values of Western societies.

Political parties are a product of a given society and its conditions and operate within that framework. The umbrella term ‘right-wing populism’ (or, pejoratively, ‘the far right‘) elides important nuances and differences. Although the current period should not be compared with the interwar years, it is enough to recall that, at that time, there were various approaches across the right-wing authoritarian spectrum: from the Portuguese leader Antonio Salazar (who was close to the Catholic Church) to the racist neo-paganism of the National Socialists (which Pope Pius XII condemned in the 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge).

Diversity Across Europe

Today, the Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland is largely supported by the Catholic Church, and its officials talk about the protection of Christian values as a fundamental goal. On the same spectrum is Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who proclaimed in her electoral campaign that, “We will defend God, country, and family.” On the other hand, such rhetoric is unthinkable in secular France. The leader of the National Rally, Marine Le Pen, argued during the 2017 elections that, “The French are of course very attached to their religious beliefs … but the opportunistic use of that faith, to defend a certain political line, I find is contrary to the principle of laïcité and contrary to our (French) values,” before asking, “How can we fight against ghettoisation if we send that signal?” Le Pen, the candidate of the ‘New Right,’ has criticized the mainstream Right over what she perceives to be the interference of religion in politics, claiming that such attempts harm the integration of non-European migrants into French society.

In that regard, Germany’s right-wing populists are closer to Le Pen than Meloni. In Germany, the popularity of Alternative for Germany (AfD) has significantly increased in recent months, and the party can now count upon more than 20% of voter support. Some prominent individuals in the country have called for it to be banned, claiming that it is an extremist party that poses a threat to the country’s constitutional order. Most of the AfD’s support is found in the regions of former East Germany. In the eastern state of Thuringia, AfD is far ahead of the other parties with 34% support.

Yet, at one time, East Germany was the most atheistic country in the world—in fact, it would still be so today if it existed as a separate state. In 2012, The Guardian described East Germany as “the most godless place on Earth,” referring to a large study which found that as many as 52.1% of respondents in East Germany declared themselves to be atheists, in contrast to only 10.3% in West Germany. At the end of June 2023, AfD won a district council election in Sonneberg, in Thuringia, in what was the first governing post obtained by the party. In Sonneberg, almost 70% of the people are irreligious, and the percentage is similar across Thuringia.

It is important to emphasize that the most closely aligned party to the AfD is not the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), but rather the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). According to an INSA survey, as many as 41% of FDP voters do not rule out the possibility of voting for the AfD in the future. Maybe that’s why Maximilian Krah, of the AfD, says that the party is right-wing, not conservative.

Similarly, the global icon of the Nietzschean Right, “Bronze Age Pervert” (or BAP), argued on the Red Scare Podcast that the ‘progressive Right’ (to which he belongs) should be distinguished from the traditional conservative Right. The traditional conservative right emphasizes religion for its own sake, but the progressive right holds that organized religion is important only instrumentally—that is, if it supports the progressive Right’s political program. The populist right moves between alignment with both streams of right-wing thought; although in practice these movements are never so starkly divided.

Christianity is not right-wing

The idea that Christianity can serve the Left as well as the Right has long been acknowledged. The interwar German right-wing philosopher Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West, writes in his 1934 essay, The Hour of Decision, that “There is in Germany a Catholic Bolshevism which is more dangerous than the anti-Christian because it hides behind the mask of a religion.” Spengler also sees the root of communism in certain interpretations of Christianity:

Now, all Communist systems in the West are in fact derived from Christian theological thought: More’s Utopia, the Sun State of the Dominica Campanella, the doctrines of Luther’s disciples Karlstadt and Thomas Münzer, and Fichte’s State Socialism. What Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, Marx, and hundreds of others dreamed and wrote on the ideals of the future reaches back, quite without their knowledge and much against their intention, to priestly-moral indignation and Schoolmen concepts, which had their secret part in economic reasoning and in public opinion on social questions. How much of Thomas Aquinas’ law of nature and conception of State is still to be found in Adam Smith and therefore—with the opposite sign—in the Communist Manifesto! Christian theology is the grandmother of Bolshevism.

The European countries with the largest share of weekly religious attendance are Poland (44%), Slovakia (34%), Cyprus (27%), Ireland (26%), Italy (25%), and Portugal (25%). Ireland is the only one of those countries where the populist Right is not a parliamentary force. Portugal has been dominated by the social democratic party for decades, and only recently has the right-wing populist party, Chega, recorded stronger growth in the polls. In the last Cypriot parliamentary elections in 2011, the far-right National Popular Front won just 6.8% of the vote. In Slovakia, on the other hand, the right-wing populist parties are relatively strong, but they still do not deviate from the European average, nor from the neighboring Czech Republic, which is one of the the most atheistic countries in the world (indeed, according to some calculations, it is the most atheistic).

On the other hand, the national-conservative PiS has been in power in Poland, while in Italy a coalition of right-wing parties together formed a government. Meanwhile, Hungary, where only 8% of the population goes to church every week, is ruled by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. In the last census in Hungary, in 2011, only 54.2% of Hungarians declared themselves Christians, which is a comparatively small percentage for East-Central Europe.

Social issues that cause sharp divisions in the U.S., such as abortion, are not as important in Europe, nor is a country’s legislation on such issues necessarily a good predictor for the country’s overall political leaning. It is well known that Poland has had restrictive laws on abortion since 2020, where abortion is only possible in the case of a threat to the life or health of the mother or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. The Constitutional Tribunal also ruled that it is unconstitutional to permit abortion in the case of fetal defects. But there is a country in the European Union that has an even more restrictive law on abortion than Poland.

Religiosity is irrelevant

Until recently, Malta had a complete abortion ban, and only since this year has abortion been made possible in cases where there is a threat to the mother’s life. Nevertheless, the hallmark of Maltese political life has been moderation and stability. The Maltese system is two-party, with the government alternating between the center-left Labor Party and the center-right Nationalist Party. The Left has been in power for the last ten years, and it supports the abortion ban.

The Maltese situation indicates that the historical development of nations is much more important for the national parties’ attitudes towards religion than any set of normative ideological schemes. The pro-abortion position in Malta is seen by its parties as self-evident, not radical, which is not the case on this issue in other countries. On the other hand, laicism has become a tradition in France, and hence Le Pen promotes it. Such a position would be aligned with the radical Left in Poland.

All parties, including right-wing populists, operate within national contexts that differ greatly. In a de-Christianized or post-Christian society, no party is likely to talk too much about Christianity. After all, parties and movements are a product of society and can never ignore prevailing opinions. Religiosity is neither a friend nor foe of European right-wing populism.

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