Essays & exchanges, The Election of Donald Trump:

Religion and the new populism

posted by Paul Silas Peterson

Light trailReligion is playing an important role in the various expressions of new populism across the Western world today. In some cases, it seems that the diverse religious heritage of the Western world has been swallowed up by the fish of populism. While some religious communities are backing some of the new populism, others are exercising their prophetic office, and still other religious communities are trying to maintain an objective neutrality in these moving times. As Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, and Olivier Roy remark, there is an important distinction to be drawn between the churches and the populist movements: “populists speak of identity and churches speak of faith.” Democracies will always bring forth populist movements when a broad cross-section of the democratic order feels, correctly or incorrectly, that their concerns are not being recognized by the establishment. For good or ill, these movements provide a corrective to the ruling order and call for reforms.

The new populism today is probably best understood in the plural form: populisms. Some versions of the new populism want the integration of immigrants to fail (such as the radical Identitarian Movement); others want it to succeed. It would be an error to lump all of these groups together. Most expressions of the zeitgeist are, however, essentially unified in their anti-establishment agenda. They are calling for an end to the politics of multiculturalism and demanding protections from the detrimental effects of globalization. They want to strengthen cultural, political, and economic borders, regulative powers, and national identities. One of the strongest antecedent conditions of these new movements was, among many others, the Financial Crisis of 2007–2008 and its negative impact on income and employment levels. President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign leader and White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has drawn attention to this economic dimension in the formation of a “mainstream center-right populist movement.”

The push for stronger cultural identities and political borders is inseparable from the general concern about Islam and immigration. Most of the new populists are promoting a one-sided criticism of Islam. This is connected to the public fears of terrorism, angst about Sharia, the status of women in Muslim communities, demographic tensions (aging European populations with lower birth rates and younger immigrant populations with higher birthrates), and issues surrounding the social integration of immigrants. In this context, talk about the Jewish and Christian heritage of the West has reemerged in secular Europe and in the United States as an alternative identity-forming heritage. This is the case even in a very secular place like former East Germany.

This trend can be identified in many of the new populist parties but also in some of the larger traditional parties. The largest party in Germany, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the traditional center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is now moving to the right on issues of immigration in preparation for the coming parliamentary elections in 2017. Merkel’s earlier promotion of a Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) has received a strong rebuke from a large portion of the party, and also from the sister-party, the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union. France’s traditional center-right party candidate for the 2017 elections, François Fillon, also plans to slow immigration and control Islam. He has called radical Islam “totalitarianism like the Nazis,” and claims that “we’ve got to reduce immigration to its strict minimum.” France “is not a sum of communities, it is an identity!”

In this broad discourse, talk about the religious heritage of the West has reemerged. Steve Bannon wants to advance a “Judeo-Christian traditionalism” for economic reasons, among others. During his campaign, Donald Trump sought the endorsement of religious communities and emphasized America’s Christian heritage. Fifty-two percent of Catholics as a whole, and sixty percent of white Catholics, voted for Trump. Fifty-eight percent of Protestants supported the Republican candidate. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals supported Trump, yet fifty-one percent of these were actually voting against Hillary Clinton, “rather than for Trump.” This number is probably similar in the Catholic electorate. Many conservative Christian voters backed Trump not because they approved of him as a moral role model, but because they could not endorse Hillary Clinton’s stance on late-term abortion. This was a major issue in the third presidential debate. More generally, many conservative Christians were worried about the future Supreme Court appointments. Trump’s charming midwestern Vice President-elect Mike Pence certainly helped his campaign secure a majority of the Christian vote (which makes up seventy-five percent of the total electorate). Pence, who once worked as a Catholic youth minister and who “wanted to be a priest,” has charted new territory in ecumenism by describing himself as an “evangelical Catholic.”

In light of this religious and political discourse today across the Western world, there is a need to have an open discussion about this idea of the Jewish and Christian heritage of the Western world. While some are using this concept to exclude others, the religious heritage of the West can actually be a positive resource for multiculturalism, peaceful social integration, and humanitarian aid. Anyone who wants to promote the Jewish and Christian heritage of the Western world would certainly want to ensure that “the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” is not perverted but upheld (Deuteronomy 27:19). In the same regard, they would want to guarantee that a person in distress is brought “to an inn” where those who are “moved with pity” and show “mercy” say “take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend” (Luke 10:33-37). Those seeking to preserve this heritage should remember the historical tradition of Christian hospitality, hospitals, education, and care for the weak and vulnerable, as well as the strong moral message about compassion (“do to others as you would have them do to you,” Luke 6:31).

Rather than trying to avoid any talk about the Jewish and Christian heritage, there is a need today to address it in its plurality and with all of its positive and negative sides. This heritage has its ultimate point of symbolic reference in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Christian Bible is a classic example of multiculturalism: It is full of different cultures and languages, religious traditions, interpretive disputes, and theological conflicts. It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Furthermore, other languages were also influential, such as ancient Semitic languages, Egyptian, Old Persian, and even Latin. The Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Greek cultural worlds are all represented in the Bible.

The early Jewish and Christian debates about theology are also examples of the fundamental religious tensions in the history of the Western world—one that is sadly filled with a parallel history of the violent persecution of minority groups, and especially the persecution of the Jews. The integration of Greek and Roman religious and philosophical traditions in Jewish and Christian theology is another example of the patchwork-style of the Western world’s religious heritage. Surely, anyone who wants to promote the religious heritage of the Western world would seek to affirm this fundamental diversity as a positive characteristic of the Western tradition.

In this regard, there is also a need today to include Islam in our understanding of the history of Western civilization. As Islam emerged in late antiquity on the edges of the Roman Empire on the Arabian Peninsula it became a unique expression of religious sentiment within an intercultural and interreligious context of Arab, Jewish, and Christian theological debate. Some rightwing populists today want to present Islam as a radical alterity that has nothing to do with Western civilization. From the perspective of Jewish and Christian religious history, however, Islam is better understood as a proximate-other. As historical-critical exegesis of the Quran and scientific historical research of the emergence of Islam have shown, the genesis of the religion was deeply related to Jewish and Christian traditions and the theological debates of late antiquity in the Arab context.

Among the many painful stories of persecution, violence, and inhumanity, there are a handful of positive shimmers of hope spread out in the diverse and complicated religious heritage of the Western world, a heritage which is best understood in its plurality. These should not be forgotten today. It is true that some intellectuals think that we need to liberate ourselves from these religious traditions and embrace a fully post-religious discourse of secularism in order to achieve peaceful coexistence. While understandable—as religion has been, in some cases, a source of violence—this stance ultimately fails to acknowledge the positive moments in religious traditions that can be drawn upon to support multiculturalism, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence. The secularist view also fails to acknowledge the orientating power of religion and the fact that religious modes of thought are not going away. While liberal traditions of established religion are in dramatic decline today in the Western world, conservative forms of non-established or less-established religion are thriving.

Intellectual discourses that draw upon religious paradigms continue to be very influential in much of the Western world. The way we talk about religion and our religious heritage will have a significant impact on our shared life together. But how can we address the religious heritage without falling into an exclusionary paradigm? Can we think about it from a historically and theologically informed perspective that is, at the same time, broad enough to include the traditions of the Enlightenment and even secular thought?

Perhaps there is a way to join these contrasting rationalities—the rationality of the religious heritage, of the Enlightenment heritage, and of the secular heritage—into a dynamic conversation that will be productive, inclusive, and pragmatic. Of course, this would be a kind of dialogical rationality in the tradition of Jürgen Habermas. In this scenario, paths might open up to a generous orthodoxy, a generous Enlightenment, and even a generous secularism. In terms of the Enlightenment tradition and secular thought, the target here would not be the radicalism of the French Revolution but the moderate Enlightenment tradition with its “gentle light of Enlightenment,” as Steffen Martus describes it. In times of insecurity, intellectuals have the opportunity to show the promising hope of moderation.

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