Religion and Populism

[On January 6, 2022, the Council on Foreign Relations held an on-the-record discussion of the relationship between religion and populism, and how this relationship is affecting the politics of Europe and the United States, featuring Jocelyne Cesari, chair of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham, and Tobias Cremer, junior research fellow in religion and the frontier challenges at Pembroke College, Oxford. This is my summary of some highlights of that program.]

Jocelyn Cesari sought to make a distinction between the American and European populist movements based on the fact that the European is Christian in identity only and, unlike the American movement, makes no attempt to impose Christian morality through the state. Tobias Cremer recognized that the fundamentalist Evangelicals are not the only members of the American populist movement.

Cesari argued that America was founded as an inclusivist, rather than exclusivist, Christian country.  I pointed out in the chat that, according to the 1797 treaty of Tripoli, ratified by a Senate that included many of the founding fathers, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Cesari noted that America is the only country that truly separates religion from state, notwithstanding the religious dimensions of its founding. She offered Martin Luther King as an example of a Christian motivated inclusivism. In America, the Christian populists want laws against abortion, while in Europe they want laws against hijab. In Europe populists see Islam as a direct threat to freedom of women. In America people with a high degree of religiosity do not advocate exclusivity.

Cremer argued that white Christian nationalism is not a matter of religious practice, rather, there is an anti-correlation between church attendance and populism. There are people who say they became Evangelicals because of Donald Trump, but they do not attend church.

A Muslim participant mentioned Abu Kalam Azad along with Martin Luther King and Ghandi in the context of  religious political actors whose use of religious texts had an influence on their movements. He recommended Richard Bulliet’s The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. Cesari argued that the divide in America is not only religious but even more an economic and especially a class divide.

In response to a question about the populist appropriation of Christian and pagan symbols, Cremer noted that some see Christianity as a Jewish sect rather than a white European religion and accordingly adopt pagan European symbols. I noted that the Nazis appropriated the swastika. A member of the World Parliament of Religions responded, “The swastika is an ancient sacred and very auspicious symbol of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and those communities are now seeking to correct misperceptions based on 20th century history and to reclaim the symbol.” I suggested that perhaps the anti-correlation between religiosity and populism observed Christians in the West may also apply to Hindus in India.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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