A New Paradigm in Political Religion? Global Right-Wing Populism as the Great Leveler

By: Nora Fisher Onar

March 30, 2022

Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective

A hallmark of the new, global right-wing populisms has been the bid to capture religious constituencies. The strategy is one of harnessing the emotive solidarities and conservative values which often characterize religious communities to the steed of ethno-religious nationalism. This pattern is evident from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro’s engagement of evangelicals in the Americas, to the vilification of religious “others” by populists from Poland and Hungary to Turkey and India. And while the leaders of populist movements arguably act out of opportunism as much as conviction, their conjuring of ethno-religious passions has culminated in exclusionary legislation and pogroms against religious, ethnic, and gender minorities.

But even as right-wing populism relies on demonizing dualisms, its global scope undermines the binary frames we all too often use to read world politics. After all, scholars and policymakers alike tend to presume that pluralist democracy is to be found in the Global North and West, while illiberal and authoritarian regimes are situated in the Global South and East. 

Yet, anti-pluralist populism is percolating in every world region. And its champions learn from—and support each other—in their attempts to downgrade democracy. 

They share tactics, like electoral majoritarianism, court stacking, and demonization of the political opposition and critical media. They also show solidarity via diplomatic and social media engagement of populist incumbents and candidates across the globe. 

This cross-cutting salience suggests that we are confronted with a new paradigm in the study and practice of political religion. Jocelyne Cesari’s conceptually ambitious, empirically drenched, comparative study of the intersections of religion, nationalism, and statecraft offers rich resources for making sense of right-wing populism on the global scale. Inspired by Cesari’s toolkit, I offer below three fields of analysis which populism, for all its perils, can help us to rethink. 

First, populism demands that we confront a Eurocentric assumption which has long structured academic and policy analysis: the view that religion is or ought to be private vis-à-vis a presumptively secular public sphere. This view is rooted in Christian notions of the sacred/profane which were transmuted via the Enlightenment into the religious/secular divide that Western analysts assume structures politics everywhere. As a result, we tend to label as reactionary those political systems, especially in the Global South, where separation of church and state is less institutionalized or operates differently. In the process, we ignore the enduring resonance of religiously-inflected habits in Western political culture and practice (like nonchalant accommodation of Christian symbolism in public life, but the oftentimes allergic reaction to non-Christian, especially Muslim, semiotics like the veil). The upshot, I argue, is a failure to grasp the power of religious referents in mobilizing support for political programs across the West and “the rest” alike. 

Second, the global ascendance of right-wing populism challenges the secularization thesis—a reading of the relationship between religion and politics which dominated twentieth century analysis. According to the thesis’s linear logic, even private religiosity will eventually disappear as states and societies in the Global North, but eventually also in the Global South, become increasingly modern and hence disenchanted. Yet, the picture we are confronted with today is far more checkered. In much of Western Europe, and among younger demographics everywhere, people are indeed leaving their churches. 

Across the globe, including North America, declining formal affiliation has been offset by the political mobilization of significant swathes of religious society

In some contexts, these highly motivated constituencies have captured key institutions. A case in point is the backing which Texan legislators recently received from religiously conservative state Supreme Court justices for radical re-regulation of women’s reproductive rights in sync with conservative religious values. Similarly, religious anxieties at transnational attempts to mainstream the rights of lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans, and queer (LBGTQ) peoples are grist to the mill of global right-wing populisms. 

A third, key area where global populist ascendance compels us to question prevailing assumptions is our preoccupation—since at least 9/11 and arguably since the 1979 Iranian revolution—with radical religious violence as the site, par excellence, where religion meets politics. But if the ensuing decades have taught us anything, it is that religious extremism is a many-headed hydra. Consider the allegedly exceptional salience of violence in Islamist radicalism(s). Yet, numerically, extremists have proven diminutive, situated at the fringe of both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority polities. And even radicalism comes in myriad forms with more and less, passive and active, moderate and hardliner strands. Time and again, we have witnessed these complexities translate into a wide range of political behavior driven by existential but also sundry practical goals, all of which are mediated by case-specific circumstances. As a result, Islamist—like other—forms of religious violence may be an endemic, but is hardly a systemic, challenge, as attested to by both the worldly ambitions which animated ISIS mobilization in the mid-2010s and the swift subduing of the organization which followed. Further evidence of the marginal rather than central relationship between religion and extremism is the fact that despite decades of being wooed by Islamist radicals and stigmatized by mainstream state and society, Muslims minorities in the United States today—especially youth—are as likely to skew liberal or progressive as (ultra-)conservative. 

Meanwhile, as we lean into the 2020s, extremist violence has become the stamp not of religious minorities, but of radicals moved by the majoritarian platforms of right-wing populists who define national belonging in opposition to ethno-religious “others.” 

Tragic evidence for this claim can be found in the violence perpetrated by white/Christian and Hindu extremists from Christchurch and Pittsburgh to New Delhi. 

Ultimately, by honing in on right-wing populism as an anti-pluralist attempt to politicize religion everywhere, we also open our minds to prospects for interfaith coalitions for pluralism (alignments which can, and often do, cooperate with secular pluralists). There is simply no a priori reason why the religiously informed political mobilization that runs through all our societies should be exclusionary. From Daoist and Hindu notions of relationality to the Jesuit principle of radical hospitality, all faiths endorse a variant of the golden rule: empathetic reciprocity towards vulnerable counterparts. In practice, moreover, inclusive political movements have long drawn spiritual sustenance and organizational capacity from religious sources. From Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and its reverberations in the emancipatory theology of much Black activism across the United States, to indigenous resistance steeped in the search for planetary justice, we can counter the populist “us versus them” by pluralizing “us.” 

The task then, as we survey our newly leveled playing field when it comes to political religion in world politics, is to foster alliances of (non-)believers across camps for religious, ethnic, and gender pluralism. 

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