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Evangelicals and nationalism or populism in the changing political landscape in Europe

How can or should churches respond to the upsurge of nationalism in general, and in particular the way in which it plays a key-role in populist movements?

VISTA JOURNAL AUTOR 236/Evert_van_de_Poll 07 DE JUNIO DE 2024 13:07 h
Residents of Amsterdam cast their vote at a polling station in a church. / Photo: [link] European Parliament[/link], Flickr CC.

The upcoming elections for the European Parliament will certainly mark a change in the political landscape across the continent.



Opinion polls predict success for right-wing political movements across the board.



Besides the traditional right-wing parties (conservative, liberal), new political formations and alliances have emerged which are transforming the political landscape and the language we use to describe it.



In the media, these parties are often collectively designated as ‘far-right’ or ‘populist’, ‘patriotic’ or ‘nationalist’. Yet they all have in common a focus on the sovereignty and economic interests of their own nation, and on the security and cultural identity of its native population, over and against immigration, multiculturality, free-trade liberalism, open borders, and globalisation.



This article will seek to explore the dimensions of this new nationalist political landscape and conclude by suggesting how to respond to it from both an Evangelical Christian and a missional perspective.



 



Nationalism



Nationalism is a strong sense of belonging to a certain people in a certain country, an attachment to its history and its national institutions, as well as what it considers to be the collective identity of this people and this country.



This sense of belonging refers primarily to the nation in the sense of a people, an ethnic population, but that is not the same as the modern nation-state.



In the past, a large part of Europe consisted of multi-ethnic and multicultural kingdoms and empires: Holy Roman, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian.



However, during the last centuries there has been a definite trend of each nation (people) striving to be independent and have its own nation-state.



Some states correspond to a single nation, or ethnic people, whilst others may include significant ethnic minorities who may strive for autonomy or even independence.



This is one of the reasons why there is so much apprehension towards the idea of a federal European Union. Nations (peoples) have fought so hard to gain their sovereignty that they are very reluctant, to say the least, to accept a new supranational layer of governance ‘above’ them.



[destacate] Nations (peoples) have fought so hard to gain their sovereignty that they are very reluctant, to say the least, to accept a new supranational layer of governance ‘above’ them [/destacate] So, national identity is a dominant feature of Europe, but what is it precisely? Perhaps the most insightful definition is that of Scottish social scientist Anthony Smith, who says:


The core doctrine of nationalism is a very abstract one. It says that the world is divided into nations, and that each has its character, its destiny, its history. It says that people belong, or should belong to a nation, that nations should be free and express themselves fully, and that a world of peace and justice is the one that’s founded on free nations.



What has happened is that in each case, this doctrine has been married to other ideas of particular nations, particular ethnic communities, particular political communities, which change the tenor and the tone of that core doctrine.



For example, in Poland they had an idea that Poland was a crucified Christ, which had to be resurrected. Nowhere is this part of the doctrine of nationalism. Some nationalisms may be liberal or bourgeois, in Czechia for example.



Other nationalisms may be anti-imperialist, anticolonial, or perhaps working class or peasant nationalisms, depending on the situation of that particular group...’ (1)



Smith’s definition is helpful because it highlights that nationalism is plural in nature and may be fused with diverse and even competing political objectives.



 



Populism and nationalism



Another political concept closely related to nationalism is populism. The term is derived from the Latin populus, ‘people’.



Simply put, this term refers to political leaders who claim to express ‘the will of the people’ and who aim to defend it against opposing forces. In a wider sense, it refers to the movements and parties around such leaders.



It should be noted that ‘populism’, much like ‘nationalism’, is often used pejoratively. The same is also true for the labels ‘far-right’ or ‘extreme right’.



The movements themselves prefer to identify as patriotic, sovereigntist, anti-austerity, illiberal or post-liberal, democrats, ‘freedom party’, etc.



Two oppositions



Populism can be characterised by two oppositions. Firstly a ‘vertical’ opposition of ‘the people’ against elites who do not defend their interests. They might be EU technocrats, or the current government, or financial institutions, or multinational companies, or all of them together.



And secondly, a ‘horizontal’ opposition of the native people against incomers who threaten their economic position and the society to which they are attached; immigrants and the growing immigrant communities, especially the Muslims among them.



Populist movements – left and right



As a result of these oppositions, populist leaders and their voters tend to be…





  • In favour of direct democracy (referenda)




  • Intolerant towards political parties on the other end of the spectrum (saying that they don’t represent ‘the people’)




  • In favour of a strong state, even an authoritarian form of governance




  • Eurosceptic and against the way in which the EU functions currently




  • Against economic globalisation and open borders (the EU is seen as an agent of this)





Although populism is usually related to right-wing movements, there are also left-wing forms of populism, e.g., Sumar (formerly Podemos) in Spain and La France Insoumise in France.



Different and overlapping



What is the relation between populism and nationalism?



In left-wing and progressive circles, as well as in the media, the two are often portrayed as being identical and collectively labelled as ‘ultra’ or ‘extreme’ right-wing, but that is an oversimplification of a much more complicated reality.



Right-wing political parties generally emphasise national identity and strive for a maximum of national economic sovereignty.



However, not all these parties are therefore populist. A ‘my nation-first’ kind of political agenda is not necessarily anti-elite, against representative democracy, and in favour of an autocratic regime.



Being patriotic does not automatically mean that one is against immigration and against allowing non-native communities to express themselves in society.



[destacate]Being patriotic does not automatically mean that one is against immigration; not all patriotic political leaders are against the idea of European integration.  Similarly, populist movements are not by definition nationalistic [/destacate] Similarly, not all patriotic political leaders are against the idea of European integration and even the European Union, as long as national sovereignty is maintained.



Similarly, populist movements are not by definition nationalistic. Left-wing populism has a mainly economic agenda. It is against austerity measures and the borderless free market of neo-liberalism.



It also expresses a sort of economic nationalism versus the supranational policies imposed by the EU and the ECB.



German journalist Matthias Krupa speaks of an emerging ‘left-wing nationalism’ which ‘condemns the EU as the cold-hearted perpetrator of endless neoliberalism’.(2) But these parties are not at all attached to national identity, nor to the traditional culture of the nation.



However, right-wing populist movements are invariably nationalistic. When they talk about the ‘people’ they mean the native population.



Playing on feelings of ‘us’ against ‘them’, calling for protection of the national economy, and depicting the governing elite as well as the immigrant newcomers as threats to the economic and cultural security of ‘the people’, they foster an exclusive, if not a militant nationalism.



 



From Left vs Right to GAL vs TAN



With respect to the changing political landscape, it has now become fashionable to complement the traditional left-right scale with a new scale called GAL-TAN.



The capital letters stand for Green-Alternative-Libertarian and Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist respectively.  The traditional model of right/left is based on different views on social and economic issues.



Following this model, some parties could be called more or less left wing (radical left, or moderate left, or social democratic, or centre-left), while others were labelled more or less right-wing (centre-right, moderate right, liberal right, extreme right).



[destacate]It has now become fashionable to complement the traditional left-right scale with a new scale called GAL-TAN: Green-Alternative-Libertarian and Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist respectively [/destacate]  A new model is helpful for two reasons. First, moderate right-wing and moderate left-wing movements have become more and more like each other with respect to the social and economic issues that divided them in the past, so much so, that it would be better to qualify them together as centrist.



Secondly, new issues are now dominating the political discussion and the intentions of voters, such as the environment, European integration, immigration, bureaucracy, legislation on medical ethics, gender, discrimination, multiculturality, and so on.



We can observe a certain degree of combination of certain issues. On the one hand there is a cluster of ‘Green’ environmental challenges, Alternatives to the consumerist economy and Liberal (if not libertarian) cultural values and ways of life (hence the acronym GAL).



And on the other hand, a cluster of attachment to Traditional values, an emphasis on the Authority of the state and its institutions, in particular the police, often linked with a call for strong political leadership, and a National orientation (hence the acronym TAN).



The principal issue that divides these two types of movements is immigration. TAN-parties are strongly anti-immigration.



As people have rallied around the new issues, new political movements, parties and groupings, have emerged, and certain mainstream parties have changed their policy and position themselves to be more GAL or more TAN (3).



While nationalism is usually linked to parties with a TAN kind of agenda, it can also be present in left-wing populist parties, especially those who are critical of the EU’s economic agenda.



However, nationalism is largely absent from most ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ movements with a GAL type of political agenda.



 



Different understandings of what is a nation



At the heart of the issue are different understandings of what is a nation and what nationality means.



In a recent interview, the Dutch political scientist Eric Hendriks explained this distinction with the examples of Hungary and the Netherlands.



Conservatives, particularly here in Hungary, have a different, more romantic understanding of the nation than left-liberal circles in the Netherlands, in which Dutchness is often reduced to a matter of bureaucratic-legal registration.



In the left-liberal ideal, the nation is an open field of individuals within a ‘neutral’ legal framework. (Here in Hungary) in contrast, there is the romantic notion of nationhood – which grounds the nation within a cultural or ethnohistorical destiny.



This understanding developed in the Romantic period and used to be common throughout Europe. Hungarian conservatives see their nation as consisting of substantial historical units: from the Magyar to several other ethnicities, cultures and religious groups. (4)



Hendriks goes on to explain why left-liberals want to strip the concept of nationhood of its deep grounding in a historical people and a shared culture and reduce it instead to a legal and official category.



Their argument is: if you hold a Dutch passport, you are a Dutch person. This allows new Dutch people to immediately become fully Dutch - to belong completely on an abstract level.



The advantage of the liberal view is that it is completely open and inclusive.



It leaves as much room as possible for religious and (sub)cultural pluralism in society. In this framework, what holds the nation-state together should be no more than what is legally and morally necessary to keep the playing field open and tolerant.



But then Hendriks asks: is Dutch citizenship really just a legal-bureaucratic category, a passport, a formal framework on the left-liberal model? Or is it a civic-republican practice with duties and a shared ethos, an existential unity, a community of destiny that extends through the ages, as conservatives hold?



Hendriks concludes by saying that ‘each of the two models and the various intermediate forms – more or less culturalist, more or less demanding, more substantial or more legal, more romantic or more liberal – all have issues. And none is equally applicable in every country.’(5)



 



Position of Christians



Finally, what is the position of Christians with respect to nationalism, especially the nationalism of populist parties?



Two voices



In the Church at large, we can hear two voices. On the one hand, there is the official discourse of Church leaders.



In Western Europe, they generally denounce nationalism and populist parties, call for hospitality towards immigrants, and emphasise the value of European integration. Christian mission and humanitarian organisations generally take the same approach.



On the other hand, many Church members vote for populist or far-right politicians who take a strong stance against immigration and defend traditional cultural values.



[destacate]In the Church at large, we can hear two voices: the official discourse of Church leaders that generally denounce nationalism and populist parties, and  many Church members who vote for populist or far-right politicians who defend traditional cultural values [/destacate] The Front National (FN) in France is a case in point. Sociologist Pascal Perrineau has shown that the FN has largely penetrated the nominally Catholic population for whom ‘Christianity’ is the same as the traditional culture, but that the category of practicing Catholics has for the time being largely resisted voting for the FN.(6)



The latest indications from surveys are that more and more practicing Christians in France increasingly support the FN or another TAN-type movement. We can assume that other countries show similar trends, as far as Catholics are concerned.



We do not have figures for the Protestant and Evangelical Christians voting for such parties, but there are sufficient indications to suggest that they may be heading in the same direction.



Two motivations



As to the reasons why nominal as well as practicing Christians vote for parties with a TAN-type agenda, be they populist or not, we can observe two motivations. The main one is that they agree with the analysis of the present situation and the solutions proposed by these parties.



Secondly, Christians voting for these parties are attracted by their positive stance towards Christian cultural heritage.



Many Christians are concerned about the decline of Christianity as a religion and the demise of the ‘Christian’ character of the society in which they have grown up.



This explains why they are attracted to political leaders who seem to be defending traditional values based on Christian moral teaching.



Instrumentalisation of ‘Christian cultural identity’



However, it should be noted that while some of these party leaders are church members, many are non-affiliated. Nor do all of them take the same position as Evangelicals and other conservative Christians on ethical issues like abortion, end of life, family, same-sex-marriage, gender, bio-engineering, adoption, and so on. They often find themselves at odds with Church leaders.



Moreover, these leaders and their movements are opposed to signs of Islam in the public sphere such as minarets and calls for prayer, prayer in the workplace, serving halal meat in public schools, wearing dress that shows religious affiliation such as the wearing of a burka or head veils, and so on.



So, the emphasis on the ‘Christian’ cultural identity of the native population is combined with an opposition to the culture and religion of people with a non-European background.



As French sociologist Olivier Roy has pointed out, the leaders of these movements are ‘instrumentalising Christianity for political ends’. For them, ‘religion matters first and foremost as a marker of identity, enabling them to distinguish between the good “us” and the bad “them”.



The claim to defend the Christian identity of a nation has the dual purposes of building nostalgia for a golden national past and rejecting Islam by rendering this religion as an intrinsically foreign culture.’ (7)



 



Response of churches



How can or should Churches respond to the upsurge of nationalism in general, and in particular the way in which it plays a key-role in populist movements?



Here are six points for reflection and action.



1. Emphasise Biblical social values



The dignity of each human being as being created in the image of God, solidarity between rich and poor, hospitality for refugees and asylum seekers, for people fleeing oppression, war, natural catastrophes or ecological disasters, are fundamental Biblical principles.



They must be proclaimed and defended in church and in wider society.



2. Teach Biblical view on nationhood.



There is an urgent need in our Churches for teaching on the Biblical view of nations, and nationhood and how to live together as different neighbouring nations.



The Bible not only affirms that that there is no distinction between people of different ethnic background, as far as their dignity and their salvation is concerned, but also that individual humans are part of a collective people group or nation, each with its specific culture, history, and living space.



The Gospel does not eradicate cultural and ethnic differences. On the contrary, it is ‘translatable’ into every social and cultural context.



According to the vision of Revelation, every nation, tribe, and language shall be represented in the promised new creation. Viewed from this angle, patriotism is a positive attitude.



3. Israel and strangers in the Bible



In OT Israel, ‘strangers’ are welcome to live in the country and participate in the life and the religion of the people of Israel. In so doing, they become part of its national history and its future.



We could translate this principle as the term ‘inclusive patriotism’, which means that there is place for immigrants who want to integrate into our society and contribute to the ongoing story of our nation.



4. Responsible society – love your neighbour nation



An important principle of both Catholic and Reformed Protestant social teaching is that the second great commandment to love our neighbours also applies to the relation between different peoples, and different countries or states.



[destacate] Whilst we are right to be concerned at the resurgence of nationalism across Europe, is this not also a moment for the church to engage creatively with this new political landscape? [/destacate] In the Christian Democratic movement of the 20th century this has been called the principle of the responsible society. That means that ‘our’ people and ‘our’ country have a responsibility towards neighbouring people and countries. The practice of solidarity extends beyond our own borders.



5. Connection with the voters of populist/patriotic parties



We also have a responsibility towards the voters of populist and patriotic parties.



Mainline political parties have lost contact with those who vote for them. And churches too have largely lost contact with them, even though many are cultural Christians.



We encourage the development of multicultural churches, migrant churches, diaspora churches, but what about churches for the lower middle-class Englishman, Frenchman, German or Dutchman?



6. Attachment to Christian heritage, a bridge of communication



What about the attachment of populist leaders and their voters to the Christian cultural heritage? We can indeed say that it has more to do with Christian culture than with Christian faith.



But should we leave it at that? Should we ignore or even refute this attachment? Or should we also be concerned about the preservation of the Christian heritage and make this a common cause?



Moreover, we can then use it as a bridge of communication of what the Christian faith really means.



Whilst we are right to be concerned at the resurgence of nationalism across Europe, is this not also a moment for the church to engage creatively with this new political landscape, to speak prophetically into this contested space, and to point uncompromisingly to the only one who truly brings freedom, liberty, and hope to Europe: Jesus Christ?



Evert van De Poll is co-editor of Vista.



Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the June 2024 edition of Vista Journal.



 



Endnotes



1. Interview with Anthony Smith, in the newspaper The Ukrainian Week about his book The Cultural Foundation of Nations (2007).



2. Matthias Krupa, ‘Nationalism on the Left,’ Die Zeit Online, September 2015. http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2015-09/left-wing-nationalism-europe



3. More about the GAL-TAN scale in Tarik Abou-Chadi, ‘Niche party success and mainstream party policy shifts, how green and radical right parties differ in their impact.’ British Journal of Political Science 46(2), 2016, p. 417–436.



4. ‘Nations in Europe: two views in conflict, conservative and liberal’, interview with Eric Hendriks by Jan Hoogland and Mirjam Kosten, in: Groen, Mr Groen van Prinsterer Foundation, Scientific Institute of the Dutch political party De Christian Unie, December 2023, p. 12-20.



5. Idem.



6. Pascal Perrineau, La France au Front : essai sur l'avenir du Front national. Paris, Fayard, 2014.



7. Roy, O., ‘Beyond Populism: The Conservative Right, the Courts, the Churches and the Concept of a Christian Europe, in N. Marzouki, D. McDonnell and O. Roy, eds., Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, London: Hurst and Publishers, 2016, p. 185–202. Quote p. 186.


 

 


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