National Populism and Christian Symbolism: A Conversation with Tobias Cremer

By: Tobias Cremer

January 27, 2020

National Populism and Christian Symbolism: A Conversation with Tobias Cremer

National populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic—such as the presidency of Donald Trump and the Front National of Marine Le Pen—invoke Christianity in a myriad of ways, from incorporating Christian symbolism in political rallies to developing a rhetoric of defending the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. Some observers have considered the role of religion in right-wing populist movements as evidence of a new sort of “clash of civilizations,” whereas others have suggested the emergence of a “post-Christian” culture war. The relationship between Christianity and Western populism will continue to shape political, religious, and social life in Europe and the United States, especially with the fast-approaching 2020 U.S. presidential election.

This week the Berkley Forum sat down with Tobias Cremer, a visiting researcher at the Berkley Center, to discuss the ambiguous relationship between Christianity and national populist movements in the United States and Western Europe. Cremer, who will consider these themes as part of a lecture in late January 2020, also reflected on his time at the center. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

Berkley Forum: What are the sources of the recent surge of populism in Western societies? Why are we seeing a rise in populism now? 

Tobias Cremer: The recent surge of national populism is more than just a protest vote. Its cause is a very deep societal change: the emergence of a new social cleavage that is centered around identity.

Social cleavages are the main social divides in society that define and shape the political landscape and the parties that populate it. Historically, we had two main social cleavages. On the one hand, you had the economic cleavage between free marketeers and those who wanted a command economy. On the other, you had the divide between social conservatives and social liberals, a cultural wall of sorts. 

There are a lot of people who try to interpret the current surge of national populism both in Europe and the United States in terms of these traditional cleavages. But if you look a bit deeper at the numbers, economic and social concerns were not the driving factors in national populist movements. 

What we see is that more and more people who vote for these national populist movements say that their main concern is identity, citing issues such as immigration and race relations. Issues of identity often trump others such as taxation, free trade, abortion, and gay marriage. 

At the moment, we might be witnessing the emergence—maybe even reemergence—of a third cleavage that is really about national identity, about who are we and who are the others. The nation is the us, and the nation is defined primarily in terms of ethnic and cultural identifiers. 

BF: Religion has often been closely tied to traditional conservative movements. Is the relationship between Christianity and right-wing populism different? If so, how?

TC: There seems to be quite a strong difference in how religion fits into this new identity cleavage. Traditionally, if you look at Christian democratic parties in Europe, the focus is really on Christian values. They have the whole idea in German in the christliche Menschenbild: the idea of a Christian vision of man that informs your politics, very much on the traditional moral cleavage line.

New national populist movements care comparatively less about Christian values and Christian beliefs. What is interesting is how Christianity in these movements really becomes not just a belief, but a form of a cultural identity—it’s often more about cultural belonging than theological beliefs. 

One question I ask many of the religious and political leaders I interview for my research: What do you actually mean when you talk about Christian identity? It is really striking that if you ask mainstream politicians and clergy, they start talking about theology: the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and Bible verses. 

Most national populists, however, start talking about history, tradition, and culture. Almost all of them also reference Islam in their definition of Christian identity. They say, “We are Christian because we have days off on Sunday not Friday. We are Christian because we have a church in the middle of the village and not a mosque. We are Christian because we are not Muslim.” 

The focus on Islam is new. The people who were most supportive of Trump early on—and who were most hostile towards immigration and Islam—were actually those white evangelicals who don’t go to church. White evangelicals who to go to church more frequently were significantly more open towards immigration, more open towards Islam. 

BF: Why is the appropriation of Christianity more appealing to a non-churchgoing audience? 

TC: There seem to be two factors that help to explain why churchgoing audiences do not find appeals to Christendom as compelling as non-churchgoers do. One factor is the ever-availability of a Christian alternative, which we see in Europe. If you have a Christian democratic party that focuses not just on Christian identity but also on Christian values, church-attending Christians will remain attached to these parties.

You saw this quite strongly, for instance, in the French presidential election of 2017. In the first round of voting, Marine Le Pen strongly under-performed among churchgoing Catholics and Catholics overall. I think she did about almost double as well among French atheists as she did among French churchgoing Catholics.

You can actually see similar tendencies in the United States. In the primaries, churchgoing white evangelicals were actually most likely to support people like Ben Carson or Ted Cruz. That of course changed once there was no Christian alternative. So, when confronted with the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the churchgoing Christians fell in line and started to support the Trump campaign. 

Another important factor is the role of churches themselves. You see in countries like Germany and France that churches do speak out very, very strongly—at times even comparing the struggle against national populism to the “Kirchenkampf” of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. They seem to be able to create something of a social taboo in particular among those who do go to church very often, of saying it is not Christian to vote for party A or B, for a rising populist party. 

This is true for the Catholic Church in particular, but it is also true for hierarchical Protestant churches. If a protestant bishop or president of bishops says that voting for a certain party is unacceptable, they can create something of a social firewall.

Church authority seems to be less important in the United States, first of all because American Christianity is less hierarchical. There is nobody who can claim to speak for Christianity because you have thousands of denominations and actually a growing group of Christians who are nondenominational. 

BF: How has the Berkley Center contributed to your work on populism and religion? What kind of research activities have you conducted during your time here? 

TC: My time at the Berkley Center has been absolutely fantastic. It was an absolute privilege to come here. I conduct a lot of interviews with political and religious elite—about 100 already—because my research really focuses on the qualitative side of things. For that you have to be on the ground, so I wanted to go to the United States and ideally Washington, DC. The Berkeley Center has just been perfect because it is probably the foremost institution in the United States where you really manage to study politics and religion in a productive way. 

It has also been helpful because Georgetown is so plugged into both academic research and political and religious networks. A lot of people I interviewed, I met at Georgetown events or through common contacts in the Berkeley Center. Being here has really been instrumental in getting access to many political and religious leaders. 

BF: What are your plans after leaving the center? 

TC: I have to go back to Cambridge to finish my Ph.D. I have already done the German and French case studies. The American case study was the last one because it is the most complicated with so many nuances and so many faith leaders. 

In addition to another book project with David Elcott at NYU on religious awakening, I hope to turn my dissertation research into a book that helps to understand what white populists actually mean when they talk about religion. What are the nuances? How do these movements work internally? How do Christian communities react to national populism? 

I do hope that this can contribute to academic debates, but I also notice that when I speak to high-level politicians and church leaders, there is a real demand to understand national populist movements because the problem in both Europe and the United States is one of polarization. Members of the elite know liberals, mainstream conservatives, and mainstream Christians. No one knows people from national populist movements. 

It is very easy to do the same othering that some people accuse national populists of doing if you don’t understand their movements. Trying to understand national populist movements is, I think, a big step.

related event | Defenders of the Faith? National Populism and Religion in Western Europe and the United States

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