Church mural featuring Mary Theotokos and Baby Jesus raising hands to offer a blessing


Religious Symbols for Political Mobilization

November 16, 2018

Berkley Center Research Fellow Eric Patterson spoke on “Religion and Populism” in Europe at a conference at Sciences-Po University in Paris, France. Patterson, an expert on the intersection of religion and international affairs, was the closing keynote speaker on a day that featured major European intellectuals such as Olivier Roy.

A major conference theme was the intersection of religion, populism, and nationalism in Europe and abroad. Patterson focused his remarks on how political entrepreneurs may use religious symbols and religiocultural identities to mobilize the public. 

Patterson considers this to be the instrumentalization of religion: the secular appropriation of religious motifs devoid of spiritual, doctrinal, or transcendent content. He has written about this at length in previous articles and in his book Politics in a Religious World: Toward a Religiously Literature U.S. Foreign Policy (2011). 

Understanding the Instrumentalization of Religion

A notorious example of such instrumentalization of religion from the 1990s was the use by Serbian nationalists of the “three-fingered salute.” One often sees in historic Christian art the use of a three-fingered hand gesture for blessing, emphasizing the Trinity. During the twentieth century this gesture became emblematic for Serbian nationalists as a symbol of their Orthodox heritage, particularly in distinction to their bitter rivals during much of the century, Croatian Catholics. 

As the Yugoslav state was falling apart in the early 1990s, Serbian nationalists recovered the three-fingered salute in rallies of thousands in Belgrade. Those political voices were actually secularists—many of whom were old Communist party apparatchiks—bellowing about Greater Serbia, the glorious history of the Serbs, the terrible loss to the Muslims at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the link of Catholic Croats to the Nazis during World War II, and the like. 

So, religious symbols (places, emblems, hymns, colors) and religiocultural identity (as in Northern Ireland or Lebanon) can be used by political entrepreneurs for a secular purpose: to mobilize citizens to their political agenda. But, this typically has nothing to do with the actual faith of real people and their lived religion in their churches and communities. 

Consequently, Patterson discussed some of the places where this secular appropriation of religious symbols is happening today, most notably in the case of Vladimir Putin, Russian nationalism, and the Orthodox Church.