Saving the People

How Populists Hijack Religion

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Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, Olivier Roy
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This edited volume explores how religion is used by contemporary radical right populist parties in wealthy democracies. In a series of case studies, it answers three central questions: How does religion (primarily Christianity) shape these parties’s sense of who “the people” are and what their values should be? How does religion shape their view of their enemies (mostly Muslim immigrants)? And how do these parties relate to church authorities? 

Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, and Oliver Roy, argues that among radical right populist parties, religion is used primarily as an identity, rather than a set of beliefs. The populist parties in most of these countries—Italy (Lega Nord), Austria (Austrian Freedom Party), Switzerland (Swiss Peoples Party), Netherlands (Party for Freedom), France (National Front), United Kingdom (Respect, British National Party, and United Kingdom Independence Party), and Hungary (Jobbik and Fidesz)—reflect highly secularized societies and define themselves as defenders of a Christian culture, not a Christian faith. These parties do not incorporate core beliefs of Christianity concerning the existence and nature of God, the need for worship, treatment of one’s neighbor, or gender and family roles. Furthermore, while these parties increasingly define their enemy as Islam, they view it as more of a political ideology than a religion, a kind of global movement dedicated to the violent overthrow of Western civilization. To the degree that radical right parties mention Muslim beliefs, they focus on their supposed opposition to liberal values (gender equality, pro-LGBTQ, separation of church and state) rather than to Christian tenets. 

Unsurprisingly, the secular stance of these radical right populist parties creates tensions with leaders of formal churches, who view a populist defense of Christianity as false and self-serving, and condemn right populist treatment of non-Christian minorities. Not every cleric is opposed to populist views of Islam or other minorities, and occasionally church authorities cooperate with populists who adopt Christian stances or who win so many votes that the party cannot be ignored. But generally, church leaders are seen by radical right populists as members of an elite that cannot be trusted, and the mistrust is mutual. 

Exceptions to this pattern are the radical right populists in three other countries covered in this book—Poland (Law and Justice), the US (Tea Party), and Israel (Shas). These groups represent much more religious populations, and they defend both a national religious identity and traditional values that include conservative stances on social issues and (less so in the United States) progressive stances on the welfare state. Parties in these countries by no means represent all religious voters or churches, but they have stronger organizational linkages to organized religion, with some clerics serving as party leaders or allies who mobilize church members around the parties’ electoral concerns. These parties’s relationships with immigrant or minority religious communities are also more ambivalent, as concerns for defending the national religious community are tempered by beliefs about religious freedom and charitable outreach. 

This volume is a welcome resource for scholars of populism as well as scholars of politics and religion, focusing on an important new party family in OECD countries. I am not aware of any other volume that systematically addresses the relationship of religion to any form of populism, let alone that of the radical right. Furthermore, the volume is well-written. Substantive chapters are compact and rich in qualitative data (one or two also analyze survey data). The introduction does an excellent job of presenting key definitions and framing questions, while summarizing the findings of individual chapters. Moreover, the conclusion explores the roots of these parties’ secularized defense of Christianity, while hinting at the anti-religious direction that populist thinking may eventually take. 

Ultimately, no book can cover every aspect of populism’s relationship to religion, and this volume misses at least two important aspects. First, the book is not an exploration of how religion leads to or undergirds populism, but of how it is used by populist parties that form for other reasons. This leaves some  pertinent questions unanswered regarding how religion relates to populism. Populism asserts that the voice of the common people is the embodiment of political virtue. Yet reconciling the voice of the people with the voice of God is problematic, especially in countries outside of Europe where traditional religions may be more deeply ingrained and there is unease with accepting the majority will as the final measure of right and wrong. Different religious traditions may create different spaces for defining a legitimate popular voice. Does an Evangelical Christian “voice of the people” look different from that of a mainstream Protestant? Is it as easy for Muslim communities to conceive of a legitimate popular voice as it is for Christians? The book largely skirts the question of religion’s impact on populism, although the strong (and distinct) religious traditions in the Polish, US, and Israeli case studies provide opportunity for further exploration, and similar studies of populism in other regions could also be productive. 

The book’s other shortcoming is that it deals exclusively with populist parties of the radical right; this makes it difficult to discern whether these parties’ combination of secularized Christian imagery and anti-Islam/anti-immigrant attitudes is a product of their populism or their more specific ideologies. Populism is defined here as a discourse that frames politics as a cosmic struggle between the putative will of the common people and an evil, conspiring elite. While, by definition, every populist party engages this discourse, who it identifies as the people and the elite (and whether there are “dangerous others” that also threaten the community) is contingent upon historical context and ideological debate. Thus, populist radical right parties are defined by two ideas—populism and radical right ideologies—which do not inherently interconnect. To understand this concept one could examine left populist parties in Europe and Latin America. In Europe, parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece question the notion of a Christian European identity and are more welcoming to immigrants and other minorities. In Latin America, recent populist movements such as Chavismo in Venezuela have combined a more open attitude towards immigrants and minorities with an expressly Christian imagery. Ultimately, the book raises a number of questions that call for additional research. Some of these can be answered with broader comparisons of different types of populism, while others would benefit from further explorations beyond Europe. Either way, this volume will be an important reference for scholars of politics and religion hoping to understand the current rise of the populist radical right.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kirk A. Hawkins is Associate Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nadia Marzouki is a research fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. Her work examines public controversies about Islam in the U.S. and secularisation and democratisation in North Africa.

Duncan McDonnell is a senior lecturer in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University, Brisbane. He has published widely on right-wing populism. His current work focuses on radical right populist alliances in Europe and political party organisations.

Olivier Roy is one of the most distinguished analysts of and commentators on political Islam in the Middle East and Central Asia. The author of several highly acclaimed books, four of which are published by Hurst, he is Professor at the European University Institute in Florence.


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