Is Religion the Cure for the Populist Authoritarian Temptation?
Growing secularism has coincided with the rise of extremism, polarization and social breakdown in democracies
In 1964 the prominent German constitutional lawyer Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde defended Germany’s pro-religious constitutional settlement of church-state relations by stressing that “the liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself.” The state needed, he argued, to rely on religion as a unifying ethos and source of social capital.
Today we are once again confronted with the question of what faith can contribute to the functioning of liberal democracy in contemporary multicultural societies. Yet, if one reads recent editorial pages on both sides of the Atlantic, one might now be tempted to think that today the answer is: Not much.
In the United States, cross-carrying supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on January 6 to forcibly halt the confirmation of the democratically elected president. Many observers diagnosed this as “white Christian nationalism,” an ideology incompatible, as they saw it, with liberal democracy.
Right-wing populists parading oversized crosses and referencing the West’s Judeo-Christian identity in order to advance illiberal policies are also a common sight in Europe, as David Elcott, Colt Anderson, Volker Haarmann, and I discuss in our new book. However, on the old continent things are complicated by concern over the “threat” of Islam, which in some ways parallels concerns over the threat of some forms of Christianity, with even moderate voices questioning whether “backward” Islamic ideas of public worship, politics, and gender roles are at all compatible with contemporary liberal society.
Fifty-seven years after Böckenförde’s statement, and after centuries in which religious movements like the Protestant Reformation have been credited with triggering the rise of the Enlightenment, the Protestant work ethic with laying the foundations of modern capitalism, and Catholic social doctrine with inspiring the rise of welfare states, more and more observers seem to wonder: Has religion exhausted its positive potential, and wouldn’t liberal democracy be better served through a complete absence of religion from the public sphere? The voices answering this question with a resounding yes are becoming louder. And they are no longer restricted to the media, academia, and other secular progressive circles. Instead, survey data suggests that the majority of French and Britons now favor further restrictions of religious expression in the public sphere. And even notoriously-religion-friendly Americans are becoming more skeptical of religion. For instance, the share of Americans who think that churches or other religious institutions have little or nothing at all to contribute to solving social problems has almost doubled from 21 percent in 2001 to 39 percent in 2016. In fact, 63 percent of Americans would now prefer that religious figures stay out of political matters all together (up from 49 percent in 2016).
Has religion exhausted its positive potential, and wouldn’t liberal democracy be better served through a complete absence of religion from the public sphere? The voices answering this question with a resounding yes are becoming louder.
Yet while the view that a more secular politics would be a desirable antidote to populism, nationalism, extremism, and religious bigotry is gaining sway, and while cross-carrying Capitol rioters and Islamic terrorists seem to be making the progressives’ case for them, as a political scientist who spends most of his time researching the relationship between religion, populism, and nationalism, I am less optimistic about the alleged virtues of secularization for political culture.
For one, although we have seen unprecedented and accelerating levels of secularization in Europe and the United States over the last few decades, this has not produced any less virulent, aggressive, or polarized political cultures. On the contrary, in Britain the number of people identifying as Christian has fallen from 66 percent in 1983 to 33 percent in 2018, and today just 2 percent of those eighteen to twenty-four years old still identify with the nation’s official Church of England. Yet, in the same time frame, studies show that the country has become increasingly polarized, and that the Brexit vote has given voice to a powerful illiberal sentiment in the population, which has led to repeated constitutional and democratic crises, and produced abiding social divisions and stereotyping.
As a political scientist who spends most of his time researching the relationship between religion, populism, and nationalism, I am less optimistic about the alleged virtues of secularization for political culture.
Similarly, in France an unparalleled drop in the share of Catholics in the population, from 80 percent of the population in 1980 to 48 percent in 2019, has coincided with the rise of Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen’s right-wing populist and anti-immigrationist Rassemblement National (RN, formerly FN) party from the margins of French society to the top of the polls.
In Germany, the eastern provinces of the former GDR are perhaps the most secularized region in the world, with over three-quarters of the population identifying as irreligious or atheist. Yet this region of Germany is also the heartland of the radical Right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. And even in the United States, trends of burgeoning social polarization and hyper-partisanship, which culminated in Donald Trump’s presidency and his supporters’ riot at the Capitol, did not coincide with another religious reawakening. Instead, it ran in parallel with an unprecedented decline of religious affiliation and practice among Americans (including within the Republican electorate) as the share of Christians dropped from 80 percent of the population in 2008 to less than 65 percent in 2019. In contradiction to what secular progressives had hoped for, rapid secularization has not correlated with more stable and harmonious politics, but rather with the rise of populism, identity politics, social polarization, and hyper-partisanship.
Now, correlation need of course not imply causation, and it would be wrong to simply blame secularization for the ills of liberal democracies based on these observations. After all, populism, nationalism, and illiberal politics are also features of highly religious societies, and it suffices to look to India’s Hindu nationalism or right-wing populism in Catholic Poland to recognize the potential nexus between religious traditionalism and populist authoritarianism. Yet the prominence or even exacerbation of nationalist populism, hyper-partisanship, and social polarization in rapidly secularizing societies suggests that the demise of religion is not a silver bullet for the beast of partisanship and extremism, nor a tonic that will lead to a more rational, moderate, and compassionate politics either. Instead, there is reason to believe that while the retreat of religion may assuage some social conflicts, it is likely to exacerbate others. Thus, in lieu of the old religious culture wars we may find ourselves confronted with a new secular identity politics that is no less virulent, divisive, or judgmental but lacks religion’s potential to become a source of social capital, prophetic criticism, and self-reflection. Two recent developments illustrate this risk.
First, the rise and nature of new postreligious political movements on the left and the right, which are more secular but often also ideologically much more radical and which increasingly supplant religiously motivated movements as agenda-setters in their coalitions. At first glance, this may appear counterintuitive, in particular to many observers of right-wing politics. After all, Donald Trump’s overwhelming success among white evangelicals or European populists’ explicit use of Christian symbols seem to suggest that right-wing populism really is driven by white Christian nationalism. Moreover, one could argue that claims about the rise of a religiously fueled populist right do not necessarily stand in contradiction to the demographic weakening of the religious right, since the very decline of religion may have led to a “siege mentality” and reactionary “cultural backlash.” However, while such a mentality may indeed have led many religious conservatives to jump on the right-wing populist bandwagon, there is good reason to believe that the latter’s engine is primarily fueled by the rise of a new secular right.
This is particularly obvious in Europe, where closer scrutiny reveals not only that right-wing populist supporters there are disproportionately irreligious but also that underneath right-wing populists’ superficial commitment to Europe’s “Judeo-Christian identity,” these parties often pursue highly secular policy agendas. The French RN, for instance, has made a hardline secularist interpretation of Laïcité a centerpiece of their agenda and now promotes increasingly far-reaching bans of religious expression from the public sphere. Meanwhile, Germany’s AfD has called for its party members to leave the churches, for clergy to be prohibited from intervening in political debates, for religious education in schools to be abolished, for theology faculties to be defunded, and for the church-friendly settlement of “benevolent neutrality,” which Böckenförde sought to defend, to be abolished in favor of a stricter separation of church and state. In addition, right-wing populists across the board clash with church doctrines not only on questions around race relations and immigration but also on social issues like gay marriage or abortion, as Europe’s far-right groups have embraced more socially liberal positions in an attempt to present themselves as defenders of a “modern Western lifestyle” against “backward” Islam.
Within the European electorate this political divergence is mirrored by a growing schism between the old religious right and the new secular right. The former is largely composed of the churchgoing and more educated middle classes, committed to socially conservative church teachings on abortion and gay marriage, but also with more openness toward immigration, and attached to conservative or Christian Democratic parties. By contrast, the new secular right typically consists of disenchanted working-class voters, who combine more “progressive” attitudes on social issues with cultural nativism and authoritarian tendencies. Its supporters tend to have less allegiance to church teachings and look more favorably on right-wing populist policies. In Europe, this schism expresses itself empirically through an electoral “religion gap” in support for right-wing populist parties, whereby church attendance is often one of the strongest empirical predictors for not voting for right-wing populist parties.
In the United States, by contrast, there is no such clear divide between the old religious and the new secular right, as both have rallied behind Donald Trump. However, a closer analysis of Trump’s campaign and early core supporters still reveals a significant shift in the balance of power within the Republican coalition toward a more secular brand of conservatism. For instance, GOP grassroots supporters under Trump have become less and less characterized by “suburban mothers” who organize themselves in church halls to defend their children’s rights to a Christian education or push for higher moral standards in politics. Instead, fringe movements like the alt-right, groups like the Proud Boys, and ill-defined conspiracy theories like QAnon, all of which are much more secular in outlook, have become increasingly influential. (In some cases, particularly among alt-right movements, there has been a shift not so much to secularism as to attempts to revive the pre-Christian religious traditions of European paganism.) Similarly, the Republican electorate has gradually shifted from affluent (and largely religious) suburbs to the (increasingly secularized) white working class.
While there is still significant overlap between America’s old religious and new post-religious right, survey data also shows important differences between the two in terms of attitudes, suggesting a steady rapprochement between the situations in Europe and the United States. For instance, while conservative Christians have remained strongly opposed to gay marriage and abortion, but have become increasingly more open toward immigration (increasing, for instance, their support for citizenship for undocumented immigrants from 28 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2018), Trump’s secular supporters have moved in the opposite direction. They have hardened their views on race and immigration but show comparatively less concern about LGBT rights or abortion. Alt-right figures openly discuss their frustration over the “problem” of religious conservatives’ refusal to countenance abortion for nonwhite infants. With scholars stressing that among conservatives “religious participation may have a moderating effect on politics, particularly on matters of race, immigration, and identity,” the secularization of the right may be heralding a more virulent form of racial or identitarian politics.
This trend has also been amplified by the further secularization of the left, which has led to a similar focus on identitarian issues, albeit in the opposite direction. As the Economist’s Lexington column recently pointed out:
The most avowedly secular Democrats — well-educated “woke” liberals — are also the likeliest to moralize. Their Puritanical racial and gender politics sit in a long tradition of progressive Utopianism. . . . Yet these new Puritans of the left, though (or perhaps because) they are more secular than earlier progressives, are far more extreme. Their view of social justice has no place for forgiveness or grace.
While perhaps counterintuitive, this observation is supported by recent electoral data as well as by my own research findings from over 130 interviews with political and religious leaders in the United States, Germany, and France. For instance, during my conversations with Democratic officials in the United States, many senior figures stated that the most radical voices in favor of “wokism,” “cancel culture,” or race- and gender-focused identity politics came from white, secular, upper-middle-class liberals. By contrast, interviewees argued that, for instance, African Americans—who also happen to be by far the most religious part of the democratic coalition—were often much less concerned with cultural tribalism and “woke” activism than with a pragmatic espousal of social justice, health care, and better wages. Emblematically, just 3 percent of Hispanic Americans use the “woke” term “Latinx” to describe themselves. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that the moderate and pious Catholic Joe Biden rode to the Democratic nomination on the support of African Americans, while being often vehemently opposed by many secular white liberals.
These trends on the American left seem to be mirrored in Europe. Here, traditional working-class parties have largely abandoned not only connections to unions and references to class solidarity but also to the influences of Christian social doctrine, in favor of a focus on multiculturalism, environmentalism, and woke social activism, with racial discourse that often seems imported from America. The picture is complicated by the fact that English and Continental working-class parties had their origins not just in Christian social teaching but also in explicitly atheistic communist ideas; nevertheless, the overall trend is clear. As in America, this shift has coincided with a fundamental remaking of these parties’ demographic outlook: traditional constituencies of blue-collar and union voters and even immigrant communities have gradually been replaced by well-educated, white, upper-middle-class liberals. A 2017 survey in Britain showed, for instance, that 77 percent of Labour Party members were middle class, nearly half lived in London or affluent southern England, and 57 percent were college graduates. Similarly in France, sociologists like Pascal Perrineau have observed the social and cultural gentrification—embourgeoisement—of the French Left. That embourgeoisement was, again, paralleled by the end of religious influence on the left; of course the French Left had anticlerical origins, but especially in the second half of the twentieth century it had a very powerful Catholic wing (cathos de gauche) centered on figures like Jacques Delors or even François Mitterand himself. But no more. Secularization, and the subsequent rise of new post-religious political movements, has hence fundamentally reshaped the focus, strategy, and policy agendas of both the political right and left.
A second and perhaps even more profound way in which secularization may have inadvertently contributed to a more polarized political culture and the rise of illiberal nationalism is through the erosion of religion as a source of social capital, prophetic criticism, and self-reflection. Sociologists like Harvard’s Robert Putnam have long emphasized the importance of religion as a key source of social capital, especially among disadvantaged parts of the population. In the United States, for instance, nearly half of all associational membership has traditionally been church-related, half of all personal philanthropy has been religious in character, and half of all volunteering has occurred in a religious context. This has been particularly important for otherwise disadvantaged working-class communities as, unlike many other sources of social glue, religious communities are freely accessible and have historically facilitated social cohesion and mobility by cutting across class divides and political parties.
Unlike many other sources of social glue, religious communities are freely accessible and have historically facilitated social cohesion and mobility by cutting across class divides and political parties.
Moreover, in the form of what has come to be known as civil religion, at least a vague form of quasi-Protestant belief has also provided a shared sense of belonging, common symbols, and a source of prophetic criticism for America’s religiously, politically, and racially diverse society. Civil religion of some sort has historically been prevalent in most societies, from Athena’s patronship of Athens to the United Kingdom’s established church, but it has received particular attention in the American case because it has proved so successful in forging unity out of diversity. US presidents and civil-society leaders alike have routinely appealed to America’s civil-religious tradition in order to bridge social divides and hold the nation accountable to its own higher principles. Joe Biden’s inauguration speech, in which he praised the healing power of faith for a divided nation, cited St. Augustine, appealed to Americans to hold true to the nation’s higher ideals, and led the nation in silent prayer, was only the most recent prominent expression of this tradition.
However, as secularization rapidly advances in the United States and other Western nations, religion’s ability to serve as a source of inclusive collective identity, social capital, and prophetic criticism is faltering. Biden’s references to faith in his campaign and inauguration speech drew criticism from the secular left, which perceived it as being too religious. At the same time, it largely failed to reach Trump supporters, many of whom seemed to set greater store by the neo-pagan “QAnon Shaman” with his Viking helmet than by Biden’s invocation of the Christian saint. Recent scholarship also suggests that the much-lamented malaise of America’s white working class may be tightly linked to the steep decline of social connectedness, employment, marital stability, and cultural conservatism in the wake of rapid secularization. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Tim Carney argues, “The woes of the white working-class are best understood not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches.”
Combined with the rise of more secular and more radical left-wing and right-wing movements, this crisis of civil religion (or civilly effective religion) and social connectedness returns Western societies to the profound predicament Böckenförde diagnosed almost six decades ago. Namely, the question of how a liberal society can define community and the common good over profound differences and build a unifying political culture in the increasing absence of shared narratives, symbols, institutions, and values. To be sure, secularization and the decline of religion are only a part of this puzzle. Globalization, rapid ethnic change, the technological transformation of work, and the economy have equally undermined traditional pillars of civil society, eroded senses of belonging and identity, bred division and resentment, and led to new political schisms and reconfigurations.
However, historically, faith communities and a shared (civil-)religious tradition have served as a social buffer, cultural lubricant, and political bridge-builder in such periods of upheaval. Without them Böckenförde’s dilemma reemerges more powerfully than ever. The post-religious politics of the left and right have shown limited promise in healing a fragmented culture, providing social capital, or facilitating critical self-reflection.
Democracy after God appears to be in for a rough ride.