Monk in saffron robes reading a newspaper in a crowd of co-religionists

FEATURE

Religion and Populism Are Critical Challenges for Media Worldwide, Scholar John Fea and Journalist Kalpana Jain Say

By: Krysia Sikora

March 10, 2021

John Fea, a scholar of Christian nationalism, and investigative journalist Kalpana Jain discussed religion, populism, and media worldwide as part of a Berkley Center panel on March 5.

“The complex relationship between media, religion, and populism grows ever-more complicated and pronounced with the propagation of social media, new forms of religious extremism, and national populism,” said panel moderator Ann Peters, university and community outreach director at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Pulitzer Center, which has partnered with the Berkley Center since 2017 to bring leading journalists to campus and support reporting projects by Georgetown students as part of its Campus Consortium initiative.

America: A “Christian Nation” Under Threat?

Fea introduced the history of Christian nationalism in the United States by recounting the story of Tyler Ethridge, a youth pastor involved in the U.S. Capitol violence on January 6, 2021. 

“His story shows the connection between this notion of Christian nationalism, the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed, renewed, or restored as a Christian nation,” said Fea, professor and chair of history at Messiah College. 

Fea drew a line from the very founding of the United States to recent attempts to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. 

“Much of what you saw in the most recent manifestation of Christian nationalism at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was rooted in a specific understanding of what the American project was, what the American Revolution was,” the professor said. “If you believe the founding was a Christian event, you are going to fight like hell to restore it.” 

The type of Christian nationalism on display at the U.S. Capitol is part of a broader trend of faith-based opposition to cultural changes like shifts in immigration, as Fea commented: 

Backlash is usually led by evangelical Christians who are concerned about what social and economic changes are doing to their Christian nation.

Gender and Hindu Nationalism

Much as Christian nationalism is a critical challenge in the United States, Hindu nationalism is a cause for serious concern in India. Jain introduced the history of the ideology, founded in the early twentieth century to oppose British rule. 

“It was V. Savarkar, a former anti-colonial revolutionary, who translated this idea of Hindu unity, and he made it a more potent symbol: that of the Indian state,” she explained. “He saw religious boundaries as national ones, and he considered Islamic and Christian traditions as illegitimate, foreign influences.” 

Jain, a senior editor at The Conversation US and a Pulitzer Center grantee, has reported extensively on Hindu nationalism in contemporary India, with a focus on the women’s organization Durga Vahini. 

Members of Durga Vahini are ordinary women from across India who seek greater agency in their everyday lives through the organization, Jain explained. 

“They have grown up under very strong patriarchal control,” she said. “They have never been able to go out in the public and be seen as having a voice.” 

Durga Vahini educates women and girls about Hindu culture, but the organization stresses a particular—and exclusionary—interpretation of Hinduism. According to Jain,

In that training of Hindu culture, there is misrepresentation of history, there is misrepresentation of facts, and there is also this otherness created about the outsider: the Muslim.

Reporting Matters

Religious populism in both India and the United States is also connected to disinformation and media suppression, the panelists say. 

“We are in a kind of unique moment where conspiracy theories and Christian nationalist ideas that have been around for a long time are now getting much more of a mainstream voice than they had been in the past,” said Fea. 

The panelists emphasized how populist leaders often aim to manipulate or even circumvent the traditional media. Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are similar in this regard, according to Jain. 

“Modi, until 2019, had not held a single news conference—he only communicated through Twitter,” she explained. “He targets media simply for doing reporting.” 

The situation for journalists in India is growing more and more critical, as the government is using sedition laws to jail independent reporters. But Jain concluded with optimism, commenting, 

Journalists have to know that the change will happen. It is happening. Their writing, their words, and their reporting matters.

This event was co-sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It complemented a closed-door session, also sponsored by the two centers, with journalists and scholars who explored religion and populism in comparative perspective.