Populism and Christianity: The Tale of Two Continents

By: Olivier Roy

December 18, 2019

The Culture Wars Today

American populist activists have played a big role in bolstering European populism: Let’s mention the creation of the European Center for Law and Justice, the rooting of the World Congress of Families (2019 meeting in Verona), and the endeavor of Steve Bannon to set up a training center at the Dignitatis Humanae Institute in Italy.

These militants are trying to shape the European populism along the same lines as in the United States: merging conservative Christian values (defending traditional family, opposing abortion and same sex marriage) and rejecting immigration, liberal elites, supra-nationalism (which means opposition to the European Union). Elites are supposed to betray the people by selling the nations to globalization, destroying borders, bringing in migrants, and adopting a complacent approach to Islam at the expense of Christianity.

The problem is that most of the European populists are not promoting conservative Christian values at all. Or, if they are, their electoral constituency does not buy it.

In Europe, the key debate is about Islam because the bulk of the labor migrants who settled in Europe during the sixties are Muslims. This fault line has been of course exacerbated by the radicalization of a fringe of the Muslim youth in Europe. However, the main issue is to define European opposition to Islam. They oppose two quite different sets of references: 1) “European values,” which refer usually to the liberal values of the sixties (feminism, gay rights, democracy) and 2) the Christian identity of Europe. The two are contradictory: Since the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI (1968), the Catholic Church has strongly opposed the liberal values that are nowadays at the basis of the dominant European culture, as shown by the steady embodiment of liberal secular values in the national legal systems (abortion, women’s and gays’ rights).

Populists in Northern Europe are liberal in terms of social values (usually endorsing feminism, gay rights, and sexual freedom) and sovereigntist in political terms. That is the exact opposite of the Catholic Church who is conservative in terms of values and “universalist” (the meaning of the term “catholic”) in its political vision (with the exception of the Polish Church): Devout Catholics like Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, and Robert Schuman played a key role in the construction of the European Union. 

In France, the main populist leader, Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National), has endorsed laïcité, the strict French version of political secularism, which she opposed to Islam as the quintessence of French “identity” without referring to Christianity.

But even in Southern Europe the populist leaders, who stress reference to the “Christian identity” of Europe, do not endorse at all what is considered as “Christian values” by the Church, both on sexual mores and on “love of the neighbor”: They are very soft on sexual freedom and abortion, they don’t exemplify the values of a “Christian family” in their own lives, and they reject the “other.” And if they are quite homophobic and sexist, it is not by reference to the Bible or the teachings of the Church; it is just because they are homophobic and sexist.

Although the Church does not reject the concept of the “Christian identity” of Europe, it has stressed, since Pope John Paul II, that this identity should go along with faith and Christian values and norms. These tensions came to a peak when Matteo Salvini became the leading figure of the Italian populist government. His constant exhibition of Catholic symbols (crucifix, rosary, invocation of Virgin Mary) drew a strong rebuke from many bishops, who are not specifically “liberal” or progressive. The same rebuke took place in Austria, when the populists put crosses on anti-migrant leaflets, and in Bavaria, when the local government decided to put crosses in all public buildings.

Consequently, the struggle in Europe is based on a triangle: contemporary liberal values; Christian norms and values; populist sovereigntist, anti-migrant, and anti-Islam stances. This leads to multifront conflicts: The Manif Pour Tous movement in France, which is the only structured movement fighting against abortion and same sex marriage, is almost exclusively made of conservative Catholics, who are certainly anti-Islam but tried to enlist Muslim leaders in their “crusade.” Similarly, the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen, who is vigorously opposed to Islam, stated publicly that it will not rescind the laws on abortion and same sex marriage. In the meantime, the French left strongly opposes the “Islamization” of the public space as do the populists (but without expressing the open racism of many populists). In most of the European countries (with the exception of the British Labour Party), the left has given up the concept of multiculturalism and is promoting liberal and secular values against all religions. 

Moreover, the religious landscape in Europe is different from the United States. Church attending believers are in a small minority (under 10%), traditional Protestant churches have almost “self-secularized” themselves (faith is not a requirement for belonging), and, by consequence, the Catholic Church is the only public defender of traditional Christian values. (The growing European evangelical communities keep aloof from the public debate, at least for the time being, because they recruit largely among migrants and cannot endorse the anti-migrant stance of their American cousins.)

The exportation of the American “culture wars” in Europe is thus doomed to fail. The tensions inside the Catholic Church between the U.S. bishops and Pope Francis—who is de facto supported by the European bishops, whatever their own misgivings—is a clear indicator of the growing discrepancy between Europe and America on what is at stake in the “culture war.”

Nevertheless, while the populists have little qualms to live with their sexual freedom and their attachment to the Christian identity of Europe, the Catholic Church has a problem to find a way to reconcile its claim for universality with its sentimental attachment to the same “Christian identity” of Europe.

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