Religion and Populism in the United States and Europe
The University of Birmingham's Jocelyne Cesari and Pembroke College, Oxford's Tobias Cremer discuss the relationship between religion and populism, and how this relationship is affecting the politics of Europe and the United States.
This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Happy new year to all of you.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Jocelyne Cesari and Tobias Cremer with us to talk about religion and populism in the United States and Europe. We’ve shared their bios with you, so I will give you a few highlights.
Jocelyne Cesari holds the chair of religion and politics and is director of research at the Edward Cadbury Centre for Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham. She’s also a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, and teaches religion in the Department of Government. Since 2018, she has been the T.J. Dermot Dunphy visiting professor of religion, violence and peace building at Harvard Divinity School, and served as the president-elect of the European Academy of Religion from 2018 to 2019. She’s written several books, including When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States. She also has a forthcoming book entitled We God’s Nations: Political Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations (sic; We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations). So, Jocelyne, we’ll have to have you back when that’s out.
Tobias Cremer is a junior research fellow in the Religion and the Frontier Challenges Programme at Pembroke College, Oxford. He was a visiting research fellow at the Berkley Center from October 2019 to January 2020 and was a McCloy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Dr. Cremer’s doctoral research focused on the role of religion in national populist movements in Western Europe and North America in order to understand the ways in which these movements employed Christianity as a cultural identity marker, and how believers and church authorities react to this. He is also the assistant director for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy.
So thank you both for being here.
Jocelyne, I thought we could begin with you to talk about—give us a historical context on the ways religion and populism are combining to shape society and politics in the United States and countries in Europe today.
CESARI: Thank you. Thank you, Irina. And thank you all for joining on this very symbolic day, which is the anniversary of the attacks on the Capitol. And I would like to start here with the difference in approach between the U.S. and Europe. Everything I read about the attacks or the Trump followers in the U.S. is qualified as white Christian nationalism and very rarely as populism. And in Europe, all the extreme right-wing movements are, indeed, called populist. And I would like to make here a disclaimer and pushback on the non-discriminatory qualification of Christian nationalism to define the specific group that is more than that, in the case of the U.S. And that’s why a huge difference emerged between Europe and America.
Indeed, if I—if I may give you a very succinct approach of what is populism. (Laughs.) There is no consensus on the definition. To make it simple and shorter, I would say that usually we look at two different axes of populism. First of all the horizontal one, which is conception of the people as a unified group. Most of the time it’s anti-plural or antagonistic to either internal or external enemies. And on the vertical act, it’s also willingness, desire to destroy the traditional political elite and to have a direct relationship with the leader. So this is, again, a very simplified approach, but when it comes to religion I think to keep in mind these two axes, the horizontal and the vertical, is a good way to understand where religion plays a role.
And most of the work that has been done, including in the U.S., looks only at the conception of the people. Meaning we know now that populists in Europe and populists in the U.S. tend to define the people, the population by one qualifying marker or trait. And in Europe, it’s the Christians against the Muslims internally and externally. And in the U.S., it’s a little more complicated, I would say—(laughs)—than the Christians against Muslims. It’s also against liberal, against people with different sexual orientation, against religious diversity at large. So we agree that this is shared on both sides.
What we do not pay attention enough—and I think it will come clear in the trials that are going to come from the riots of a year ago—is that unlike the European, the American populists have also a clear project on the political elite, which is not the case of the European. The Europeans are presenting symbolic conception of the people and are calling for a unified, purified population. But they are not calling for religious motivated political elite. And I think that’s a major difference we are not paying attention enough. And it shows clearly in a few markers or indicators I would like to highlight with you.
The first one, of course, is [the] march, [on the] 6th. We all look at when the march committed full amplitude and attacked the Capitol. But before that there is a whole gathering where the Florida televangelist, the White House advisor at the time Paula White, called on God to give us holy boldness in this hour. And crucifix were on the same level as American flags. So this is a vision that is not only the people, but also what kind of political leaders do we want? That is very strong in the American case. It came also very clearly in the continuous attack during the Trump administration against the media and the liberal establishment. It was not only the media. It was the fact that the political establishment was seen as too liberal and too secular. Again, a critique which has not been articulated this way in Europe.
The second influence of religion, and it’s even more deeper and worrisome, it concerns a moralization of politics. And this goes beyond rhetoric. It is not only rhetoric. It is a deliberate effort to change the law to create what I call this moral policing of the public space and of the behaviors of citizens—again, something that is very far from what the, I would say, average person in Europe would expect from a political system—in fact, far from it. They would be horrified by what the populists in America asked to their political elite or public figure. And in this sense also, this approach of the moral politics in concrete acts, and legislations, and initiative is possible because of the support of a segment of religious groups and organizations in America that does not exist in Europe.
The religious elite in Europe doesn’t, for most of—especially in continental Europe—doesn’t support the populist movement. In America, you have a segment of religious organization that supports this kind of political approach and conception. Of course, it’s part of the Evangelical. I would not say it’s all of them. I mean, let’s also be nuanced here. And actually, you see lots of discussion among Evangelicals on this issue. But it’s clear that the Christian nation is not only the symbolic identification, it is to be implemented in laws. And we know it’s laws against abortion, against sexual minorities, against contraception, against something that would not be possible today by the European populist group.
And this support of key religious figures is the major discriminatory element between Europe and the U.S. It is also a sign or an indicator that this kind of anti-pluralist, anti-tolerant or intolerant approach is more ingrained in American society than it is in Europe. And it is a threat to democracy. And we are not addressing it properly, including now. We are just looking at this as a bunch of white nationalists. And I don’t think it’s the right term, because the data show that you can be nationalist or religiously nationalist in America without wanting religiously based political elite and a discriminatory politics put in place.
And that’s this difference that is not made that I think is worrisome because it does have political consequences. And lots of work, including mine that you just mentioned, Irina, show that there are forms of religious nationalism that are not intolerant. But religious populism, when it combines the horizontal and the vertical dimension, is very intolerant and discriminatory. And one element, also, we do not pay enough attention to is that this vision of the right and virtuous people is also transnational. We have not looked into the foreign policy of Trump.
Of course, he didn’t invent the religious freedom agenda. This was created under the Clinton administration. But the rhetoric has become more and more traditional and conservative under Trump, to the point that he created a commission for the preservation of traditional values that echo exactly what Putin is doing with the Orthodox Church, or even with lots of Muslim organizations. His defense of traditional values was an Islamic specificity. It is not anymore. And this is also something we are not paying attention and are forgetting because we are ensconced in the national agenda. And that’s legitimate, but there is also a global project. And the white supremacy is about bringing this vision of a pure, religious-based elite and politics also beyond America.
But the work is to be done in America. There are steps here. There is also a kind of apocalyptic vision that I don’t have time to unfold. And I think I have already exceeded my time. So my point here was to make the awareness of these different aspects, and that the terms are not the same. Religious nationalism is not populism, as I just described it, or religious populism as I just described it. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. And you point out how the nuance of language—we need to be more nuanced in how we speak about these things, and really define them, in order to talk about them and contextualize them.
Tobias, over to you. One year ago, as Jocelyne mentioned, insurrectionists were storming the Capitol Building in Washington. And many of them were carrying signs and shirts with religious iconography or language, not to mention the Confederate flag. Can you talk about the links between the religious imagery and the activities that day and what you see as—going forward?
CREMER: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. And thank you, first of all, Irina, for having me. And in particular, for having me with Jocelyne. It’s always a pleasure to be together and discuss that. And thank you also for setting me up with this question because, I mean, as Jocelyne just mentioned, I mean, today is a very, very symbolic day. And it was really there where it was really in your face, this reference to religious symbolism that we see in the U.S. by the far right, but also in Europe. And in response to that question, I want to in my remarks really focus on some of the similarities but also some of the variations we see between the use of religious iconography in Europe and the U.S., and really some of the drivers behind them.
And I want to in particular focus on—basically approach this question in four sub-questions, first really looking at the origins of right-wing populism—and, again, based on what Jocelyne was saying—but really trying to think where is this coming from, where is this push coming from, how is this comparable in the U.S. and in Europe? And second, really looking at how religion fits into this. What do right-wing populists and what do far-right demonstrators, for instance, actually mean when they talk about religious identity or Christian identity? And third, at looking how this works out in practice. Again, here the difference between Europe and the U.S. is actually quite striking, because in the U.S. you obviously see incredible support among Christian leaders for Donald Trump, for instance, whereas in Europe we actually see in some ways the contrary. And then, fourth and finally, I want to very briefly look at what does this mean for the role of religious institutions—for the church, and of religion and politics going forward.
But first things first, what are the social origins of right-wing populism? And here there is a lot of movement at the moment in the literature. But in my own research I found as well that the surge of this right-wing populism that we see on both sides of the Atlantic, in some ways—and Jocelyne is right to distinguish in some ways between the Christian right and the very moralistic Christian right, and then a populist right on the other hand. And the populist right is different, in that it is really a consequence and a reaction to the emergence of a new social cleavage, a new cleavage around identity and identity politics that is much more concerned with issues like immigration, culture, race relations, than with traditional social or moral issues. And it really in some ways pits two visions of identity against one another. It’s about the question of who belongs and—who belongs to the “us,” and who does not.
And there are really these two visions of that. One hand, a clearly defined idea of national identity based on inherited group identity markers, such as ethnicity, culture, history, and authority. And then on the other hand, a much more globalist idea of universalism, diversity, et cetera, that embraced group identities primarily for minorities, but favors much more individualist identities for the majority population. And what right-wing populists do in many ways, is that they try to capitalize on a crisis of identity, and also sense of social isolation in parts of the majority population through their own vision of right-wing or white identity politics that, in some ways, mirrors or perverts the idea of identity politics on the left by claiming to defend the group rights of the ethnic majority with claims of also cultural hegemony.
And in the context of this shift, in some ways, from a faith-driven religious culture war that is much more about morality, to a much more race-driven identity politics, we see that right-wing populists employ Christian iconography, Christian symbols primarily as a cultural identity marker. It’s an identity mark of the “us.” They use Christian symbols, they use Christian language, for instance, but it’s interesting that they often remain distanced from Christian values, beliefs, and institutions.
That’s particularly true in Europe, but in some ways also in the U.S. So what we are seeing here is in some ways not necessarily a return of religiosity in populist politics, but in some ways a culturalization of the concept of religion itself. Religion primarily as a way of identifying the pure national community against the secular elite on the one hand, and the Islamic “other” on the other hand. What this is is then really, in some ways, a disassociation of belief and belonging of religion as a faith from religion as a cultural identifier.
And it’s really interesting, if you then think about, for instance, January 6 in some ways, because, yes, we had all this Christian reference—the oversized crosses, the “Jesus saves” flags, the—(inaudible)—prayers and all of this thing—all of these things—but they came along with a lot of also neopagan imagery. We all remember the QAnon Shaman. We also saw a lot—just more broadly, anything that is white, the Confederate flag, Viking veneer, everything that is white, in some ways, is a symbol of this white identity politics. But that is different in some ways from traditionally the idea of the Christian right. It’s really much more about national identity than it is about faith, in some ways.
And the question is now, of course, how does this work out in practice? And that’s the third point. And there I think is really the big variation that we see, because we see on the one hand, of course, the overwhelming support of white Christians for Donald Trump in the U.S. But in Europe we can actually see that—often we see the contrary. That right-wing populists identitarian references to religion are often most successful among irreligious voters or non-practicing, so to speak, cultural Christians, whereas practicing Christians remain comparatively “immune” to such a degree some scholars even speak of a religious vaccination effect against right-wing populism in Europe. So if you look, for instance, my own country, in Germany, the AfD there, the far-right party, scores on average about double the size among irreligious voters than they do among Protestants and Catholics. And we see similar developments in countries like France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, and other countries.
And then, of course, that leads us to the fourth and final point that I want to talk about, and that is the role of religious institutions. Because we kind of want to understand which factors determine whether religion works as a fuel for right-wing populism or as a barrier to it. And there, I think I want to just briefly touch on two main actors here that I think play really outsized roles that we often miss. On the one hand, we have the behavior of mainstream political parties, and specifically the idea, the question of whether there is a Christian alternative for the Christian right, so to speak. And here’s the logic that Christian voters usually are already bound to traditional conservative or Christian democratic parties.
And that if such an electoral alternative is available, then these voters often tend to be unavailable for the, in some ways, more secular populist right. However, if such an alternative is lacking, for instance, because you have only two-party system, then in some ways these two movements merge much more together. And it is then we have what Jocelyne talked about, a merging of the secular populist right and the traditional Christian right. The second factor, however, that is even more often overlooked, behind this—where there’s a religion gap in Europe—is the behavior of institutional churches themselves, and specifically their willingness and ability to create and maintain social taboos around the populist right.
So for instance, in many European countries by openly and vehemently speaking out against the populist right, churches have really significantly raised the social costs of association with these parties among church members, and thereby contributed to the social—to the religious vaccination effect, by really making it somewhat socially unacceptable to vote for these parties. Whereas, conversely, if you have faith leaders that for whatever reason—and I’m very happy to talk about why that may be in the U.S.—are unable or unwilling to create such taboo, to speak out in the same ways, we see this vaccination effect disappearing or even reversing. Because in a way it’s legitimized this coalition between the religious right and then, on the other hand, the identitarian right.
I’m aware that I’m also already running out of time here, so I’ll leave it at that. But I’m really looking forward to the discussion.
FASKIANOS: Thank you both. Obviously, this is a big and complicated topic, so we appreciate getting into it. And hopefully the questions from the group will allow you to go even deeper than you’ve already gone. So this is—we’re going to move to all of you now for your questions and comments. You can either raise your hand by clicking on the “raise hand” icon or you can type a question in the Q&A box. If you do that, please do include your affiliation so that I can announce that as well. And I’m just looking for—we have the first raised hand is Lester Kurtz. Please identify yourself and unmute yourself.
KURTZ: Hello. Good afternoon or whatever it is wherever you are. This is really an excellent discussion and I appreciate it a lot. Thank you so much to all of you.
I’m wondering about—maybe this is a little tangential. Maybe this shouldn’t be the first question. But I’ve done a lot of work on nonviolent movements. And I’m thinking Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were populists. They were religious populists. And I’m wondering, what’s the difference between their kind of religious populism and this sort of right-wing populism you’re talking about today?
CESARI: I’m happy to take this on if I can briefly respond to that. The vision of Gandhi and Luther King was an inclusive vision of the people. It was, indeed, based on some belief coming from their religious tradition, but it was not exclusive. It was the opposite. And that’s the whole difference, because the religious populists of today are operating on an exclusive conception of the people. And that’s why I think we need to make a difference between religious nationalism and religious populism. And I’m a little bothered by the fact that everybody talks about Christian nationalism. America was a Christian democracy based on inclusiveness, at least until World War II. Things have changed dramatically since then, but it was inclusive.
So the more we think that religious nationalism is only this space of exclusiveness and intolerance, we are also making a political mistake in the sense that we are putting a lot of religious groups in the position of being defensive. And that’s not what we want to do on this particular topic. So, yeah. Inclusive versus exclusive, if I can summarize. (Laughs.)
FASKIANOS: Tobias, do you want to add to that?
CREMER: Yeah. No, I think Jocelyne put this very, very well and clearly. And I mean, Jocelyne has the two-by-two metrics with the axes. I usually think of it as a triangular relationship. But it goes—it ends up with the same—with the same result, in a way, is that if you think about—it helps to think about the right-wing populists broadly, basically, as a triangular relationship between on the one hand the good, the pure, the homogenous “us;” and then the set of two others, on the one hand the liberal sort of political elite and on the other hand the external “other”—and that external “other” being often now identified as—in Europe in particular—as Islam. And it is often by—against this external “other” that you then create this religious “us.”
But exactly what Jocelyne was saying, in some ways the difference between, for instance, right-wing populism and left-wing populism is that this external “other” in left-wing populism or even in inclusive religious populism falls away, and then we only have the people-elite divide rather than the people-elite-and external “other” divide. And I think that’s quite important to recognize. In a way this is a triangular relationship, whereas if you have a more inclusive way it’s much more of a binary relationship.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take a written question from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, who’s at the Center for American Progress.
Do you know of any good examples from Europe of religious leaders having an impact defending democracy?
CREMER: Yeah. And I’m very happy to take that one because it’s, in Europe it’s a bit of a question—we have a bit of an Eastern Europe-Western Europe divide. But we see very, very clearly in Western Europe that most—almost all faith leaders are almost in unison in their condemnation of far-right movements/far-right parties, ranging from the pope, who has been very, very outspoken about that, to most of the Catholic bishop conferences in that—in Germany, for instance, again, just going there because I was just working on that with—I also was invited to—by a German Protestant Church group who are now running a whole training camp for that clergy about how to fight right-wing populism.
They have been probably the most outspoken opponents of the far-right in Germany, by shouldering, for instance, most of the refugee help and really speaking out in favor of liberal democracy. And so much so that the far-right often calls them—calls churches, just the system churches, or they call them “government spokesmen” because they’re really perceived as these main defenders of the—of traditional liberal democracy, as we currently see that. So very, very opposed to some of the dynamics we see in the U.S. And empirically we see the result of that. Empirically we really see that because they speak out in that way it—the people in the congregations, many Christians, really feel like, OK, it’s just not socially acceptable, in some ways. And it’s not a Christian thing to do to vote for these far-right parties.
And the result is on the one hand there is a really interesting study—I forgot what the title is now—but, for instance, there’s a Pope Francis effect that you can see whenever the pope speaks out in favor of refugees and against far-right politics. You can see that among church-attending Catholics in France. The support for the Front Nationale goes down and the support for refugees goes up. And it’s quite interesting to see that. But it even has impact on the behavior of far-right parties themselves.
So for instance, if you look at the AfD in Germany, initially they really went out, we are the real defenders of the Christian West. We are the real defenders of Christian Germany, et cetera, et cetera. But because the Catholic churches have been so outspoken against the far-right, they’ve been demonstrating against—at their party conferences with slogans like “our cross is no swastika.” They have been disinviting far-right politicians from all sorts of church events, even kicked them out of church councils, et cetera. And what the far-right’s reaction then was, for instance, to say: We are not a Christian party. And actually, being very, very outspoken and anti-church, and very open about that.
So in some ways they’ve given up on trying to assume this label of being the defender of the Christian West. And I think that’s a very interesting dynamic that the far-right, or at least the secular populist right that we see in Europe—they do that as long as it’s easy. But if they actually meet some resistance, they’re relatively ready to object. For instance, Jocelyne’s last point, I think, Éric Zemmour recently said, “oh yeah, I’m super Catholic. I’m for Catholic France.” But then he also said, “yeah, but I’m for Catholic France, but I’m against Jesus. I’m for Christendom but I’m against Christ.” And I think making this distinction, pushing right-wing populists to that distinction, can be done by church leaders reflectively.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to James Gilchrist.
GILCHRIST: Hi. Jim Gilchrist, Carnegie Mellon University.
For many people, loyalty to God and country are all sort of woven together. That’s certainly true for a lot of Americans. After World War II, a great deal was written about the German church, right, during the rise of the Nazis. And the historiography is generally—is critical of the so-called German church, largely Protestant, in contrast to, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sort of a hero. Catholic Church gets sort of mixed reviews. Some people say they stood up against Hitler, others didn’t.
So my question is twofold: Do you think the inoculating or vaccinating effect of much of the mainstream church in Europe, particularly Germany, is in a significant degree a learning from the sort of catastrophic experience of the 1930s and ’40s, where the alliance of the church uncritically with the government led to rather catastrophic results? That’s the first question. And related to that is, in the absence of any sort of catastrophic reckoning in the United States, do you—what do you see as a way in which God and country might become decoupled in the negative way in which that’s played out in Christian nationalism in America?
CREMER: Mmm hmm. Should I—I’ve been talking—I’ll address that very quickly. I think excellent question. Of course, the German case is quite particular. I mean, my own great-great grandfather was actually in the—in the Confessing Church and was sentenced to death by the Nazis because of his connections to Bonhoeffer. So the place—and it’s very, very important to the German Protestant today. It’s very, very important in there, and this historical image is always there. And actually, if you talk to German faith leaders, they will often reference the Confessing Church as an example of why they can’t have a repetition of 1933, where the Churches would be too supportive of the far-right.
But that whole narrative, that the church quite likes, but actually if you look a bit more closely, if we look beyond Germany, we can still see that in many other European countries we still have similar dynamics. And in some ways, there are a couple of recent studies that actually suggested that it’s less about the historical exceptionalism of, for instance, the effect of Nazism on specific—national specificities, and that it’s much more about the institutional settlement of church-state relations that has a big impact on how churches at the moment behave towards the populist right.
And that specifically we can see that, for instance, if a church is much more closely institutionally set up as a state church—for instance, the German churches or many European churches just have this tradition of being a state church—that they then tend to defend whatever current arrangement the state has. Meaning that if the state is a Nazi state, these traditional state churches often end up saying, OK, well, then in that case we defend that. But conversely, if the state is a liberal democracy, these churches then often end up saying, oh, OK, then we are defenders of liberal democracy. And they do that very sophisticatedly. It’s not—it’s not as simple as just saying they follow the political mainstream, because there are very deep theological debates about that. It’s really deeply theologically grounded if you read the justifications for that.
But we still see this correlation, that traditional state churches tend to defend more whatever the current arrangement is. And if that’s liberal democracy then they’re liberal democratic. Whereas if you have a situation where you have a very strict separation or historical separation between church and state, that’s not necessarily the case. So, for instance, because in the U.S. we have a much more liberal and dissociated relationship, and a very open religious marketplace in some ways, especially Evangelical churches often present themselves as anti-system. They’re not part of the establishment, even if they might effectively actually be so. The narrative is always: We are anti-establishment, we are anti-system. And as a result, they will be much less likely to defend whatever current state the—whichever current arrangement, democratic arrangement, the state has.
And that’s just an empirical observation, but I think a very interesting one, that can help us understand why so many European churches see themselves as part of the liberal establishment, and therefore defended against populist onslaught. Whereas, in countries where you have a stricter separation, they might see themselves on the same line—or easier to identify with the populist opposition to the establishment.
CESARI: Can I add something to that, because—
CESARI: Yeah. It’s interesting that the question was formulated around God and country. Actually, the irony in most of European countries you have cooperation between state and different religious organizations. So what is God and country? But the society is very secular. And again, you cannot look at secularity only at the institutional level. And that’s the difference with the U.S. I think the comment that of course America’s not really founded on Christian religion, but the people who founded America never forget that they were escaping religious prosecution in Europe. And there is a whole narrative on the new Zion. If this is not religious, I don’t know what it is, you know? (Laughs.)
But the institutional level has been ferociously defended as a complete separation. And I would say that America is the only country that really separates. Even France, that is supposedly—you have lots of intermingling between state and religious organization. Just look at the way that the state controls, regulates everything about Islam. This is not secular. So we have to be clear, where is God and country operating? And that’s why we have to look at the religious dimension of American nationalism that is there. But it doesn’t mean that it has always been exclusive. And that’s something that is important politically, because I see lots of questions on where do we go from there?
If we do not bring all religious voices in this debate, we are missing something. And I know that there is a tendency of secular academics, and observers, and think tanks, but the ones that can change the balance here are the ones that do not identify as populists but still consider that the Christian references make sense in the U.S., OK? And again, I invite you to look more deeply into religion and nationalism, and not to think that because it’s God and country it’s automatically exclusive. And again, the example of Gandhi is a good example. The example of Luther King is a good example. So that’s the difference here. Not to think only of the institutional but also the social level. And I think that’s why Evangelicals have an advantage that no religious group can have in the European context, because of this different history of secularization. And I stop here.
Oh, may I say something here, Irina?
CESARI: There is question on the hijab.
FASKIANOS: Yes. I was going to go that next, from Sana Tayyen. Please do respond to that.
CESARI: But that’s exactly the point. In America, the religious populists want laws against abortion, against contraception, and want a conservative public space. In Europe, the secular establishment is ferociously against any kind of religious distinction. So again, religion doesn’t mean you—even ignoring or combatting religion is a position on religion. And it is unthinkable in Europe to have today even a debate—I’m talking about continental Europe, not Eastern Europe, where the parameters are different. But it would be unthinkable to have the same debate on abortion and contraception.
And you have very secular women that are part of this right-wing populist movement against Islam, for the reason that they see Islam as a direct threat to the secular freedom that women have gotten or gained in the last few decades. So to say, again, that to look at religion space and believe it’s far, far too limiting, and that most of what you are discussing here is not about faith. Actually, the studies show that the more religious a person, the less inclined [they are]to follow this populist movement. So there is something in there we have to pay more attention to. And I’ll stop here.
FASKIANOS: Just as a point of clarification, is that in both—in the U.S. and Europe, the more religious?
CESARI: Yeah, so—
FASKIANOS: Or is it—I thought Tobias said it was in—
CESARI: In America, we have clear data that show that the people who have a high level of personal religiosity do not identify with this religious populism. I think because what they put before—it’s the country, not God, to go back to the tension here between God and country. They have associated God with the American nation, while that’s not the traditional, I would say, position of people with religious observance. So there is something in there that we have to pay attention. And instead of looking at the level of religiosity of the people who follow this movement, they are not the indicator of any trend. What is a trend? Is what is the status of religion in the national political culture? What is the status of the political elite? And that’s something that can tell you how much religion can be a tool for the populist movement.
CREMER: Can I very briefly just add on that and say a lot of you would be familiar with Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry’s book on white Christian nationalism. And I think this is where a lot of the—also theological confusion comes from. But even Whitehead and Perry make quite clear, and show quite clearly, that white Christian nationalism isn’t really—just as Jocelyne was saying—it’s not about religious practice. So they actually see a very strong negative correlation between white Christian nationalist attitudes and church attendance. So, again, this is why I also emphasize this difference between religion as a faith and religion as a national identity marker.
And we can see, for instance—and this—a big debate among a lot of Evangelical churches in the U.S. at the moment, and a lot of traditional Evangelical establishment, if you think about people like Russell Moore, et cetera. It’s the question of what does, actually, Evangelicalism mean? Because in some ways we are seeing in the U.S. now that we have the emergence of cultural Evangelicalism that is more about politics and culture than about personal belief. And that’s really interesting because you had that with Judaism before, we had that with Catholicism before, but traditionally you wouldn’t necessarily associate that with Evangelicalism.
But we can actually see that we have a lot of people in the last Pew study, very interesting of that. People said, oh, they became Evangelicals. And then when they were asked why they were Evangelicals they said, oh, because of Donald Trump. That’s a white conservative political thing to do. But this was—and then they would say, well, I don’t go to church. I don’t go to church, and I don’t really know whether I believe in God, or anything. But I’m Evangelical because I’m white, and I’m conservative, and I support Donald Trump. And that idea of Evangelicalism being this political concept rather than a question of personal belief is a very interesting, very recent development that has caused a lot of debate within the Evangelical community at the moment.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Syed Sayeed. If you can unmute yourself, Syed. I see you’re still muted. There you go.
SAYEED: Good afternoon. And thank you for your organizing this Zoom conference. I just wanted to go back to the names of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. For this matter, I want to add another name from India, Abul Kalam Azad. He was a Muslim scholar who joined the political process of Indian freedom. And he was appointed as a minister for education in the first Cabinet of the Indian national whatever you want to call it. The thing is that we are talking about this idea of religion, but religion is—as an institution has been in existence for centuries. And these institutions of religion have been sort of influenced by the individual characters of people who are going back to Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and Abul Kalam Azad. They started talking about the sacred texts in such a way that they had tremendous influence on the population.
So the individual person who is talking about the religion, that person’s approach becomes extremely significant. And I think we have to sort of look at the role how individual scholars, individual politicians, individual culturalists play a significant role in terms of their personal approach to the same principles called, Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. And as I am talking about this, I have a book in front of me. This was written by a scholar, professor from Columbia University. His name is Richard W. Bulliet. And he has written a book called The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. This is an amazing thing that, I mean, while we’re talking about narrowing religion to verysort of limited issues, there are people who are trying to go beyond that and they see the prospects of combining religious approaches in a way that the world can become a different place to live in.
I can just keep going but I don’t want to—(laughs)—take too much of the time of the audience. So I just wanted to point out how the individual’s approach—the scholar or politician—can make a tremendous difference.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Syed. Appreciate it.
I will go on to Anuttama Dasa has a—“I’m a Vaishnava Hindu, but have many friends in the traditional Christian communities who see religion, especially Christianity, is under attack in the U.S. and around the world. This has driven many to accept or tolerate the extremes of the far-right/Trump. Do you see some way in which a middle ground can be found to overcome such divisiveness in our two-party system?” So you can also comment on Syed’s—the comment that he made, and if you could also address this question. We have several hands raised so I’m trying to bundle. (Laughs.)
CESARI: Can you repeat the question? I’m not sure what was the point made here.
FASKIANOS: It was, do you see some way in which a middle ground can be found to overcome such divisiveness in our two-party system?
CESARI: Oh, but this is beyond even—religion is part of the divide, but it’s only one—(laughs)—among multiple others. And I agree that you cannot reassess the role of religion if we don’t work on the deep divide in America. And it’s an economic divide. It’s a class divide. Even more than religion the class concept is taboo in American politics. But the middle class doesn’t exist anymore. There is no more middle class. So how do you build a democracy with two segments that are going away from each other more and more instead of coming together, just economically?
And the second big issue is that we are still on the—sorry to say it like that—the curse of Fukuyama. When the Cold War ended, Fukuyama said that it was the end of history. We know that it was not the end of history. But the American political narrative lost its enemy. So Americans have won. There is no more need to fight, because there is no more ontological enemy. And what we see is that 9/11 has completely shaken this confidence that there was no more conflict. And there is this very—in my opinion, it’s an unhealthy conception of democracy that is only consensus. By definition, democracy is not consensus. We have eradicated everywhere the parameters for healthy contradiction or disagreement.
These are all signs that for me, putting the question of religious populism in America in a broader landscape that show lots of signs of erosion of democracy—economic, cultural, post-communist. And we are not addressing it. And not only political actors don’t address it, but even the academic elite in such a way doesn’t address it. And for me, this is all very, very worrisome.
FASKIANOS: OK. I agree. (Laughs.) I’m just looking to see if there are no more raised hands. So I’m going to go into the Q&A section.
David Greenhaw wanted to know from you, Tobias, “I’m intrigued by the appropriation of pagan and Christian iconography/symbolism. I’m wondering how these icons have entered the symbolic repertoire. One would think that Christian symbols have been promulgated by the churches, but where do the pagan symbols come from?”
CREMER: Yeah. And that’s really interesting. This is basically where, again, I want to talk about this—what we see on both sides of the Atlantic—that the populist right really comes up with this identitarian movement. And that’s really a movement that started taking off in the 1980s in France, and that is basically around what is called ethnopluralism, that is basically saying, well, ethnic groups have the right to exist—co-exist, but they shouldn’t mingle, they shouldn’t interact. And that is a lot of where the new right thinking is coming from in Europe. And what is interesting is that this school of thinking, this nouvelle droite, this identitarian right is also becoming more influential in the United States.
And this are—and that was very interesting when I did a lot of my research and I talked with a lot of—to people around Steve Bannon, Steve Miller, and of the Trump campaign. And it was very interesting that if you talked to these people they would actually not necessarily reference traditional Christian writers, but they would often reference these French nouvelle droite, identitarian writers. And a lot of these people are also neopagan, because they were saying, well, actually, in many ways Christianity isn’t really white European. Christianity is a Jewish sect from the Middle East that, in their words, doesn’t belong into Christian Europe. It’s a very Nietzschean idea of Christianity as the slave religion of the weak that came from the Middle East.
And a lot of that thinking is now taking root in the United States. And you actually have the right within the Republican Party, it’s not as powerful as the Christian right, but you do have a post-religious right that really takes up a lot of this symbolism. And they will then take also the neopagan symbolism. They will take up a lot of this Viking veneer. Some of them might even take up the secular—what Jocelyne talked about—actually saying the idea of we are the real defenders of gay rights, we are the real defenders of LGBT rights against this culturally “other,” Islam. And because Islam is conservative in terms of not being very progressive, or seen as very progressive, in many of these social matters, therefore we are the real defenders of these things.
But that is really—it’s an ex negativo. So in a way, it’s everything that is against the external “other.” But I think we often tend to think that what we’re seeing at the moment is—with the references in religion in European right-wing populist movements, if you listen to European news or if you listen to the academy in Europe, you often think, oh, this is an Americanization of European politics, these, culture wars—religious culture wars are coming to Europe. And I’ve actually in some ways argued it’s the contrary. We’re actually seeing in many ways a Europeanization of the American right. We are seeing this—instead of religion-based, faith-driven, religious culture wars, we are seeing a much more race-driven identitarian identity politics, or identity politics that has been around in Europe for a long time, and that is now also more influential in the United States.
Again, it’s not as powerful as the religious right yet, but it’s a current that’s becoming more important. And this current is much more the QAnon, Proud Boys force rather than the traditional base of the Republican Party. And there this neopagan symbolism is very, very popular.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. OK. So we have many questions. I’d just invite everybody to look at the chat, because there are resources. People are dropping resources into the chat and adding their commentary. So please go there.
I guess I would end—we have about four minutes left. And as you’ve studied this, what would you leave this group with, what they should be doing in their community, with their congregants, at their—either through universities, et cetera, to slow this down and help—(laughs)—with these meddlesome problems that we are seeing, both here and in Europe?
CESARI: Well—(laughs)—I would say that there are lots of things that religious communities are facing now. They’ve been at the forefront of the social psychological consequences of the—of the COVID crisis. But what—and I think we are not acknowledging that. What I’m observing through my research now is the thinking—the momentum of these religious communities—Muslim, Christian, Jewish—about looking not only at what you would call welfare, but also thinking of re-founding the social contract. And it’s much more ambitious. And it’s not meant as campaigning for election or trying to be part of the institutional politics. It’s about changing the parameters in which we define the community. And all we have said here is that religion populism thrives on very restricted approach to the national community overlapping certain religious communities.
So I think lots of religious leaders and figures have a role here. And to—and I know how difficult it can be to get away from defensive. No religion is not that. But there are lots of other things that are going on that can be put into the public discussion beyond, again, looking at religion as a negative aspect of intolerance and erosion of democracy. And that’s what I would say for people who are in charge. And young people are very much behind this new approach. And it is beyond the institutional and it is long term, and it is across religious tradition. The other thing is looking beyond the parochial to a more—I’m not talking—that’s not interfaith. (Laughs.) It is about looking together at the responsibility of the citizen that is not only an individual vis-à-vis the state, but the responsibility of the civil community. And religions have lots of things to say about that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Tobias.
CREMER: Yeah. And I can only build on that. And I think, especially for interfaith leaders, I think they can really play a role on two levels. On the one hand, by, so to speak, fighting the symptoms of right-wing populism. And that—I think that can really do. And I think it’s really important not to underestimate the role of faith leaders here in the idea of this social taboo, and in the idea of—in a way, where we are heading at the moment is a discussion of what actually is Christianity, and what actually is religion. Is religion about national identity, God and country, and all these things? Is it about that? Is it a national identity marker, or is religion about personal faith and religious practice? And right-wing populists have their view of that and the churches have their view of that.
And I think what faith leaders can do is actually—and we see that it’s very effective—they can be very self-confident and engage in that discussion. And say, well, our idea of Christianity is maybe slightly different from that of an Éric Zemmour, or even perhaps a Steve Bannon, where it’s much more about the contents of a faith rather than its history and cultural dimension. And I think being very self-confident in that debate—maybe you’re doing some public theology—can be very effective. And having this conversation of what we actually mean by Christianity here. But that’s more about the symptoms in a way, challenging right-wing populists’ claim over Christian symbols and reclaiming them in some way.
But the other, and I think more important, thing is really what Jocelyne was saying, is also fighting the roots. Because in many ways this—what I mentioned—what I mentioned at the early beginning, this right-wing populism as a result—as a response to this new identity cleavage, this new identity cleavage is largely a result of the disintegration of traditional identities, of the erosion of traditional group identities. And then ethnicity and nationalism is a different form of identity. But I think if you actually say religion can be a source of an inclusive and transcendent identity that cuts across races, for instance, that could be incredibly powerful and, in many ways, a real ally against this right-wing populist movement.
But it can also give people a source of identity that might then make them less socially isolated and less prone to focusing on the race, or ethnicity, or nationality as the only other source of identity. Usually when we see—the more identities there are, the less likely people are to be really polarized in one way or the other, because these identities are overlapping and bring them in contact with people from other backgrounds.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. I apologize to all the questions in the chat and in the Q&A box that we did not get to. We needed more time for this conversation, and we will have to revisit it. So thank you very much to both of you for this illuminating discussion. We really appreciate your taking the time to be with us.
We encourage you to follow Jocelyne Cesari’s work on Twitter at @jocelyne_cesari and Tobias’s work at @cremer_tobias. As I said, we will send out a link to this webinar. We’ll do a roundup of some of the materials that were dropped in the chat to share with all of you so that you can revisit it and share with your colleagues. And I hope you will follow the Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements and upcoming events. As always, reach out to us at [email protected] with ideas, feedback, topics, et cetera. We’re here. We want to continue to put forward topics of interest and we welcome your suggestions.
So, Jocelyne and Tobias, thank you again. We really appreciate it.
CESARI: Thank you for having us. Thank you. It was nice. Thank you.
CREMER: Thank you. Yeah, thank you.
FASKIANOS: Take care.