Religion and the ideology of populism

Authored by: Timothy Peace

The Routledge Handbook of Religion, Politics and Ideology

Print publication date:  August  2021
Online publication date:  August  2021

Print ISBN: 9780367417826
eBook ISBN: 9780367816230
Adobe ISBN:


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On 24th February 2018, Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy's populist right-wing party Lega (formerly Lega Nord, LN), addressed a large crowd in Milan's Piazza del Duomo. Flanked by the imposing presence of the city's immense cathedral, he was taking part in a campaign rally for supporters ahead of the national election the following month. 1 During his speech, he suddenly brandished some rosary beads and told his adoring supporters how this memento had been gifted to him by a downtrodden woman. Citing the Bible, he claimed that ‘the last will be first' and then proceeded to swear on copies of both the Italian Constitution and the gospels that, if elected to government, he would be ‘faithful to his people'. Even in a country like Italy, where religion and politics often combine, this blatant use of Christian symbols and discourse to win an election shocked many observers. Since this moment, Salvini, one of the most prominent populist leaders in Europe, has not ceased to use Christian symbols such as the crucifix to send rather unsubtle messages to his supporters during his subsequent time both in and out of the Italian government, often provoking the ire of senior Catholic figures (Giuffrida 2018). His use of religious imagery and references to garner popular and electoral support has come to symbolize a trend among populist leaders worldwide to demonstrate that they are united with ‘the people'. Indeed, the use of religion by populists is, of course, not limited to the Christian faith. It also finds very clear expression in the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, which also deploys religious belonging to define, promote or exclude people. We can also find parties and leaders in the Muslim world promoting an ‘Islamic populism' (Hadiz 2016) such as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, and the term ‘Jewish populism' (Flic 2010) has equally been applied to parties in Israel including the Likud. Indeed, the leaders of India, Turkey and Israel have been characterized as using ‘a common populist playbook of neoliberal economic policies, the leveraging of ethnoreligious tensions as well as attempts to denigrate independent news media, by portraying it as the “enemy of the people”' (Rogenhofer and Panievsky 2020: 1394). These prominent examples of religion and populism are from societies where it is expected, rightly or wrongly, that religion forms a dominant role in social and political life. In largely secular Europe, where religion's influence has been on the wane for such a long time, the use (and abuse) of the sacred by populists is more curious and deserves closer inspection. To that end, this chapter will largely concentrate on the phenomenon of right-wing populism as it relates to Christianity in Europe, in particular, its main Catholic and Protestant denominations in both Western and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). 2

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