Faith-based populism is an abuse of religion

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by Hans Dembowski

We must choose between the SDGs and a world of bloodshed

Late last week, I listened to a radio interview that is still on my mind. The interviewee was Alexander Görlach, a German intellectual who is currently teaching as a visiting professor at Harvard University. The topic was how populist leaders are abusing faith affiliations for their authoritarian politics.

A transcript (in German) is available on the public broadcaster’s website. Görlach made several points that I agree with, as well as some I profoundly disagree with. Let’s start with the first.

Görlach argued that many authoritarian leaders claim to be representing their nation’s religious faith. Examples included the PIS government in Poland, the BJP government in India as well as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Donald Trump in the USA. He added that right wing and centre-right groups in other countries too are reclaiming religious identities, including in Britain or Germany, where the Christian churches do not have much impact on people’s daily lives anymore. This is certainly true.

He added that manipulating feelings this way is not based on deep religious sentiment, but merely about identity politics. They rally people who believe they belong to an endangered group that deserves special rights. Poland was a striking example of politics clashing with religious principles. The PIS government never tires of emphasising the Catholic faith, but does not at all go along with what Pope Francis says about the need to welcome refugees. This Catholic government is constantly denouncing the Vatican.

Görlach similarly mentioned that Trump enjoys the support of evangelical Christians in the USA even though he has never lived according to their moral principles, and for many decades didn’t even pretend he did. It is true, of course, that the Evangelicals, who were always upset about former President Bill Clinton’s philandering and even want to impeach him because of an affair with an intern, turn a blind eye to Trumps alleged sexual excesses today. They don’t want them to be discussed, so they don’t want them to be investigated either.

Görlach also mentioned that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim to represent the Hindu nation in a country with 200 million Muslims is deeply divisive. That is correct, but the scenario actually is even more peculiar. The term Hindu was invented by the British colonial power. It struggled to understand the vast complexity of Indian religions, and coined a single word for all the different strains of belief that are rooted in Vedas and Upanishads, ancient religious scriptures. However, only Brahmins knew these writings, and their belief system blended into a multitude of regional traditions and rituals. Brahmin theology helped to divide society into a hierarchical order of many segmented casts. Modi’s propaganda according to which Hindu culture is finally reasserting itself to play a role in the world stage is actually a modern-day ideology that lacks roots in ancient history.

These facts bear repetition. It needs to be set again and again that populist manipulations of religious identities is not an expression of true religious faith. I agree with Görlach, whose blog is called “save liberal democracy” that agitation of their kind is irresponsible and dangerous. To judge by what he said in the interview, however, I fear that he makes them look more powerful than they actually are.

Görlach argues populists’ rise to prominence marks a sea change in global affairs. In his eyes, it reflects many people’s growing fear that earth may not be room enough for everyone, so nations cannot pursue anything like the global common good but must give priority to their own needs. He said, the idea of human kind sharing joint interests was brought about by photos of our planet made by US astronauts on lunar missions. This idea of our species being one family, however, no longer looks convincing in view of scarce resources and growing problems 50 years later, he argued, so we are now living in an era of nationalism.

For several reasons, this idea is misleading.

  • First of all, the order of multilateral institutions that are managed to prevent a third world war was not the result of hippie-trippy exuberance in the late 60s. It was built after the 2nd world war, and the goal was to prevent the kind of devastating destruction that it had brought about.
  • Nonetheless, the 1960s were not a decade of global unity. It was marked by the Cold War, which actually sparked hot war in Vietnam.The Apollo programme itself was designed to reassert the USA’s technological – and thus military – supremacy.
  • The governments that use religious symbolism today to boost nationalist feelings mostly lack convincing democratic mandates. In the presidential election, Trump got almost 3 million fewer votes than his opponent Hillary Clinton. Due to legal quirks, he nonetheless won the electoral college. Modi’s BJP won almost 52 % of the seats in parliament with not quite one third of the votes. The scenario is similar in Poland where not quite 38 % of the vote gave the PIS 51 % of the seats. Populist governments, moreover, keep trying to change the constitutional order because they lack the popular support to enforce what they want to do.
  • So far, populist governments have been using aggressive rhetoric, but none of them is taking a coherent stance of opposition towards the multilateral order. Trump has backtracked from his most abrasive campaign language and keeps turning to the UN Security Council. The Polish government likes to lambast the EU, but is still keen on getting EU funding. While it is true that policy incoherence will in the long term undermine international institutions, it is not true that we have moved from an era in which they mattered to one which they have become obsolete.

The most important thing Görlach failed to spell out in the interview, however, was that the idea of humanity sharing one world is not a romantic vision that can easily be replaced with the nationalist agitation. Nationalist agitation puts us on the road to war. Yes, earth’s resources are limited and the world population is growing. But that does not mean that nations will prosper by staking radical claims. We will either be able to reach compromises that serve everyone, or we will face escalating violence of genocidal portions. As a species, we have the choice of either achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or leaving to our children a world of bloodshed.

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