Concilium 2019-2. Populism and religion
Thierry-Marie Courau, Susan Abraham, Mile Babić
The complete translations of this edition are available in print format in the following languages:
English: Populism and Religion, International Journal of Theology – Concilium, 2019/2.
Español: Religiones y populismo, Revista internacional de teología – Concilium, 380, 2019.
Deutsch: Populismus und Religion, Internationale Zeitschrift für Theologie – Concilium, Ausgabe 2/2019.
Italiano: Populismo e religione, Rivista internazionale di teologia – Concilium, 2019-2.
Português: Revista internacional de teologia- Concilium, 2019-2.
Religions and populism
When does populism arise? In an existential sense, it arises when people think they are lost, they have lost or that they are on the way to lose dreams, benefits, statutes, positions, essential dimensions of their life, personal or group interests, often acquired through previous struggles or efforts, or when they feel personally endangered. Populism seems appear when there is a perceived crisis of living together in a pluralist context and/or when specific folks feel ignored by global political or economic systems. A nostalgia for an imagined past can creep in supplanting any effort to work towards a future for all. Groups close ranks defensively instead of opening up and welcoming others. Suffering, frustrations, worries, angers accumulate and intersect, backing one another. A sense of aggrieved injustice takes hold. Complaint becomes the mode of empowerment.
And “saviours” emerge for these folks. Gifted speakers and manipulators of symbol and media systems easily exploit popular sentiments of fear and disempowerment. Pursuing the colonial principle of “divide and rule,” manipulative leaders scapegoat segments of the population as the preferred strategy of social and political control using social media. Their arguments depend on the simplistic manipulations of binary categories of social and political division and simple vocabulary, cast as “plain-speaking” leadership. Nevertheless, they are also prone to grandiose gestures of crudeness and violence, magnified many times, because these gestures are picked up by a sensationalism hungry media, catapulting them to even greater visibility. Consequently, such sensationalist and outrageous behaviour is perceived to belong “to the people” in opposition to an elite, educated or wealthy group. The “elite” are presented as ones who are corrupted and far from the social realities of “the people,” out of touch with the ordinary. In the outrageous and offensive challenge to the elites, a symbolic defeat of the elites is performed as a spectacle for television. Through the performance of outrageous offense, the populist leader presents as a credible alternative to the status quo. They present themselves as saviours of a national and global order by expertly referencing a golden past that can be resurrected and a golden future in which the status quo is unchallenged. Here, identity, religion and cultures become emotional touchstones. Forms of nativism, nationalism and identitarian politics are utilized in order to secure popular sentiment against the easily identified “foreigners” and immigrants.
Religion in the hands of populists thus is of particular interest for theologians. Using religion to structure nativist and nationalist collectivity has been particularly effective in various parts of the world. This political power using religion draws on a traditionalist sense of historical religions as representing tradition, stability, and identity. Populist leaders thus succeed in managing and constructing religion and theological arguments by selectively focusing on specific doctrines, eliminating legitimate and peaceful religious leaders and solutions, sterilizing internal freedom. Religion becomes the tool of the political leader with religious leaders receiving personal benefits.
Why is this issue important for today, for theologians? By analysing what happens in such situations, we can begin to understand how religions and religious systems are manipulated. Theologians need to investigate how religion is easily distorted and how populism co-opts religion. Studies of Christian populism points that it is contrary to faith and doctrine and inimical to the life of communion and community. It also demonstrates how the institutional Church may inadvertently stand in the way of democracy. These complex theological issues, with repercussions for how we live into the vision of Vatican II requires robust theological analyses and arguments to counter the cheap distortions of populist religion.
This issue of Concilium approaches the topic from three broad perspectives. One is historical and descriptive, putting in view the process of using religion by populist leaders, with essays from different parts and religious contexts of the world. The second perspective is from religious sciences. It deepens the understanding of populism through an analysis of politics, economics and gender concerns. The third is a theological perspective, with studies intersecting with Scripture, political theologies, ethics, dogmatics, and ecclesiology to challenge populism.
The issue’s framework and the first part of the description of world situations are opened by the Bosnian Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Sarajevo Franciscan Theologate (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Mile Babić OFM, from his European experience. He addresses the question of populists’ opposition in Europe to pluralism, freedom of thought, and the logic inherent to human rationality, preferring instead, arguments that are either ad hominem or ad populum. In response to them and to their insensitivity, he advocates a focus on the suffering of every other human being in the world as condition for culture and religious belonging. As he argues, articulating that aspect is a precondition of looking for the truth that will set us free.
The Indian Jesuit, Francis Gonsalves SJ, Dean of the Theology Faculty at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth (Pune, India), and Theology and Doctrine Commission’s executive secretary of the Catholic Conference of Bishops of India, analyses the many forms of populism that have mushroomed in India due to its complex diversity and size. He clarifies how current Hindutva religious nationalism and its tactics for manipulating history, symbols, and existential fears, is a populist movement with consequences for India’s Hindu population as well as for its minoritized citizens. Hinduist traditions, poor masses, religious or subaltern minorities are really threatened by such populist politics.
Dilek Sarmis, a researcher at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales and Centre d’études turques, ottomanes, balkaniques et centrasiatiques/CNRS (Paris), provides a reflection on the use of religion by populist politics in Turkey. She first presents a historical analysis of the initial republican decades which did not employ religious arguments or sentiments. In the present political context, however, she shows how religious identity is used for a massive remobilisation of Islam for cultural and identitarian motives by the current ruling party and country’s president, and how with a such populist perspective, Turkish political values are being deeply transformed.
The second part of this issue, which focuses on social and religious analyses, begins with an essay by François Mabille, who is a Professor in Social Sciences, researcher with the French Group Religions, Sociétés, Laïcités (CNRS & EPHE, Paris), and general secretary of the International Federation of Catholic Universities. In the current world marked by deep social inequalities, crisis of political representation and questions of sovereignty, political parties proclaiming strong cultural and religious references recreate hard national identities bounded by rigid borders. The focus of Professor Mabille’s essay hence, is the unexpected return of antiquated religious strategies in public and political spaces, in societies that formerly embraced secularism.
Professor of Theology and Postcolonial Cultures and Dean of Faculty at Pacific School of Religion (California, USA), Susan Abraham, explores the scholarly literature on Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric that has been extremely successful with white Evangelical and Catholic American Christians. She argues that Trump’s rhetoric subtly deploys the anxieties of white Christians and their sense of loss of privilege and power to reassert traditional and idealized views of masculinity and American citizenship. White Christians ignore Trump’s outrageous public behavior as satire because his displays of outrageous behavior secures political power within the United States for them. Trump provides white American Christians with a believable figure of muscular masculinity, leaving them to express a specific form of patriotic and muscular Christianity.
The third and last part of the issue modestly challenges populism with theological arguments. Beginning with scriptural narratives, the first essay by Marida Nicolaci, teaching New Testament exegesis at Facoltà Teologica di Sicilia (Italia), shows how the modern phenomenon of populism can find parallels of the dynamics of identity building of the People of God in scripture. Questions of pluralism, alterity and differences, appear in these processes and in a constructive rereading of Christian scriptural materials. Such a way of reading scripture provides the way forward for an inclusive human society, fruitful for both individuals and communities, in contrast to the divisive promises of populist leaders.
Andreas Lob-Hüdepohl, Professor of Theological Ethics and Director of Berliner Institut für Christliche Ethik und Politik(Germany), provides perspectives from the Christian hope for building bridges and not walls. As Lob-Hüdepohl argues, such hope must arise from the concerns of the “other” in any community. Populist behavior, in contrast, tries by many ways to exclude those who are contesting such selective and divisive views of society, denying the fundamental equality of all peoples. As is well known, scare tactics using theologies of destruction and ending are manipulated to create fear and anxiety. Against these apocalyptical scenarios, Christian theologies of hope provide constructive theologies of community and relationship that are able to overcome the mental and social barriers standing in the way of a vision of a united planet.
The Austrian Professor Franz Gmainer-Pranzl, of Katholisch-Theologischen Fakultät der Universität Salzburg(Österreich), whose research focuses on intercultural philosphy and theology, specifically between Africa and Europe, wonders about the concepts of “right populism” and “catholicity” in a reading of Lumen Gentium. He argues that when a current populist religious argument conflates “the true folk” to a “Christian society”, it functions as a strategy of myth production for political uses. His conviction is to create an alternative creativity to rightwing populist strategies, by appealing to a new “courage to catholicity”, i.e. for an optimistic orientation to the Gospel’s force of liberation and realization in a world of diversities.
The Dean of Facoltà di Missiologia (Pontificia Università Urbaniana, Roma, Italia), Carmelo Dotolo, starts from the distortion engendered by and in our democracies which is manifested by a socio-political and cultural fundamental fracture propagated by populism. Facing this hermeneutical conflict and populism’s intentionality in reforming the social framework on a local level, she looks to retrieve Church commitments able to stimulate democratic forces to neutralize populist and authoritarian leaderships. She promotes her public responsibility as “People of God”, through her care of an ethic of the community, of the relationship between rights and duties of members in serving their communities, of the praxis for dialogue between multiple cultures and religions, and of an economic framework attentive to integral ecology.
The theological forum addresses two contemporary events. The first paper goes back to last summer’s revelations of sexual abuses in the US Church by the ethicist and Professor of Law and Theology, Kathleen Kaveny (Boston College, Boston, USA). The second from the Master of the Dominican Order, Bruno Cadoré OP (Roma, Italia), offers a reflection on the works of the last Bishops’ Synod on Young People, their Faith and Vocational Discernment, where he was the moderator of a francophone group.
 Cas Mudde & Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2017.
 Stefan Orth & Volker Resing (eds), AfD, Pegida und Co. Angriff auf die Religion?, Herder, 2017.
 Walter Lesch (ed), Christentum und Populismus, Herder, 2017.
Editorial: Religions and pluralism
1. World Situations
3. Challenging populism by theology
Mile Babić – « Populism and Religion in Bosnia and Herzegovina ». Clearly, populism may be said to be inherent to representative democracy, not least because populists are not opposed to the principle of political representation. Populists are opposed to pluralism, freedom of thought, and the logic inherent to human rationality, preferring arguments that are either ad hominem or ad populum. A theological response to populism would stress that there is no suffering in the world that is not of our concern. Respect for the suffering of others is a precondition of culture. Articulating that respect is a precondition of looking for the truth that will set us free.
Francis Gonsalves – « Populism and Religious Nationalism in India ». Given its immense size and complex diversity, many forms of populism have mushroomed in India. Today, the populism of Hindutva religious nationalism is assuming virulent avatars that not only threaten democratic processes, but are also an affront to true Hinduism and an obstacle to the integral development of India’s poor masses. By resorting to tactics like historicizing myths, mythicizing history, manipulation of symbols, labelling of its imagined enemies, and with support from the corporate world, the media and musclemen, the Hindutva lobby is striving to usher in a Hindu Rashtra, which can spell doom for the religious minorities and subaltern communities. Here, ultimate victory lies with the common wo/man whose wisdom has unfailingly seen through anti-people policies and will hopefully choose democracy over narrow religious nationalism.
Dilek Sarmis – « De la centralité du référent islamique à sa nationalisation : islam et populisme dans l’histoire de la Turquie ». Cet article propose une réflexion sur l’exploitation de la religion par les politiques populistes en Turquie à travers l’éclairage historique des premières décennies républicaines, couramment associées à une laïcité et à une distance marquée avec le religieux. Cette approche permet d’analyser des filiations entre les reconfigurations du religieux dans divers champs d’action intellectuelle et politique de la jeune république de Turquie, et les expérimentations actuelles du parti au pouvoir ; celles-ci témoignent d’une remobilisation massive de l’islam comme signifiant culturel et identitaire, modifiant dans une perspective populiste la topologie des grandes valeurs politiques turques.
François Mabille – « Le populisme religieux, nouvel avatar de la crise du politique ». La période politique contemporaine est marquée par un retour inédit du religieux dans la sphère publique et les arènes politiques. Alors que la sécularisation et le progrès semblaient éloigner tant les acteurs confessionnels que les imaginaires religieux, on assiste à des formes nouvelles d’articulation entre le politique et le religieux. Des partis politiques se référant à une culture religieuse ont émergé, dans un contexte de réveil des nationalismes. Cet article tente de comprendre les motifs de cette émergence, dans une configuration marquée par des inégalités sociales profondes, une crise de la représentativité politique et une remise en cause de la souveraineté étatique.
Susan Abraham – « Masculinist Populism and Toxic Christianity in the United States ». This essay explores scholarly literature on Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric that has been extremely successful with white American Christians. I argue that Trump’s rhetoric subtly deploys the anxieties of white Christians and their sense of loss of privilege and power to reassert traditional and idealized views of masculinity. White Christians ignore Trump’s public behavior as satire even as his behavior secures political power within the United States for them. Trump, as I argue, provides white American Christians with a believable figure of muscular masculinity, leaving them to express a specific form of patriotic and muscular Christianity.
Marida Nicolaci – « Il ‘popolo’ di Dio e i suoi idoli nell’Uno e l’Altro Testamento. Come la Sacra Scrittura sfida la retorica populista ». Se, dal punto di vista storiografico, il populismo si può considerare un fenomeno moderno, il carattere ‘tribale’ della concezione di popolo che esso sottende consente di valutare non anacronisticamente la retorica populista alla luce del messaggio biblico e di accostare il modo populista di concepire, raccontare e vivere l’identità nelle società post-democratiche al modo ‘religioso’ e, soprattutto, profetico di rappresentare e comprendere le dinamiche di costruzione dell’identità da parte del «popolo di Dio» che parla di sé nelle Scritture. La lotta inesausta contro i feticci posti a salvaguardia di una identità di popolo monoliticamente concepita, irrispettosa dell’alterità e intollerante della differenza e della pluralità, caratterizza infatti la rilettura profetica del processo di costruzione identitaria del popolo di Dio nell’Uno e l’Altro Testamento e traccia un solco nel quale è possibile inserirsi per pensare, raccontare e attuare una costruzione fraterna e inclusiva dell’umana società, realmente feconda per i singoli e per le comunità.
Andreas Lob-Hüdepohl – « „Brücken statt Barrieren“. Potentiale christlicher Hoffnung gegen den Populismus von rechts ». Rechtspopulistische Einstellungen wenden sich aggressiv gegen das Establishment wie insbesondere gegen Alle, die sie aufgrund ihrer Herkunft, Religion oder sexueller Orientierung als nicht dazugehörig abqualifizieren und ausgrenzen. Solche Einstellungen haben sich bis tief in die Mitte der Gesellschaft und der Kirchen eingefressen. Sie leugnen die Fundamentalgleichheit aller Menschen – ein Versprechen moderner Demokratien ebenso wie die christliche Grundüberzeugung von der gleichen Gottebenbildlichkeit aller Menschen. Gegen die angstbesetzten Untergangsszenarien rechtspopulistischer Einstellungen muss es Christ*innen und Kirchen darum gehen, das Potential christlicher Hoffnung in der zivilgesellschaftlichen Alltagspraxis des Bridging als ‚gottesdienstliche Pontifikalhandlungen des Alltags‘ (Röm 12,2) zu bekennen, zu bewähren und damit zu bewahrheiten.
Franz Gmainer-Pranzl – « Rechtspopulismus und Katholizität: Eine ekklesiologische Besinnung ». Die Auseinandersetzung christlicher Kirchen mit rechtspopulistischer Politik setzt eine ekklesiologische Besinnung voraus. Die dogmatische Konstitution Lumen gentium expliziert in ihrem 13. Kapitel ihr Verständnis von Katholizität, das sich von identitären Konzepten durch folgende Merkmale grundlegend unterscheidet: den Bezug auf die Einheit der gesamten Menschheit, die Konstitution des „Volkes Gottes“ durch Berufung und nicht durch „Geburt“, die Lernbereitschaft gegenüber Fremden und Fremdem, die innere Pluralität der Kirche, das Verständnis von Sakramentalität als „Relativität“, die Sorge um das Heil aller Menschen („Rekapitulation“) sowie ein auf Zukunft gerichtetes Verständnis von „Heimat“. Von daher kann ein neuer „Mut zur Katholizität“ eine kreative Alternative zu rechtspopulistischen Haltungen bieten.
Carmelo Dotolo – « I paradossi del populismo e il contributo della Chiesa alla democrazia. Ipotesi di percorso ». Il conflitto ermeneutico avviato dal “populismo” affonda le sue radici in una crisi di democrazia, con effetti ambivalenti quali: la difesa dei confini nazionali; una chiusura selettiva degli spazi politici e culturali; l’emarginazione dell’altro in quanto straniero-migrante; una prudente revisione della way of life liberista e occidentale; la riemersione di identità “confessionali” connotative di una precisa appartenenza popolare e nazionale. In questo quadro di riferimento, si colloca la responsabilità pubblica della Chiesa quale “popolo di Dio” attraverso la cura dell’ethos della comunità; la relazione diritti-doveri al servizio della fraternità; l’esercizio dialogico tra le culture e le religioni; un’economia attenta all’ecologia integrale.