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Political populism and a theological response

2016 was quite a year. Its enduring images include the mass sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen with the horrific images coming out of Aleppo, the ongoing refugee crisis, ISIS and the terror attacks happening throughout the Middle-East, Europe, and America. Combined with ongoing consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, the general distrust of globalisation and neo-liberalism, the new experience for many within Western societies of religious pluralism, and the threat posed for many by the sexuality and gender debates, these events have proven to be fertile ground for the rise of political populism.

Trump and Brexit drew the greatest media attention, but similar directions are evident in the rise of the right throughout Europe and political figures like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

Populism is also a factor in the Australian political scene. One might point to the return of Pauline Hanson, but the concern is more general and evident in the government’s stance on refugees.

There is political capital in fear and rejection of the other and in the notion of safeguarding one’s own identity and purity.

What is populism? To follow the definition offered by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, populism “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice’. I would like to draw our attention to three elements within this definition.

First, populism creates and trades upon the idea of ‘a virtuous and homogeneous people’. Nothing of Trump’s own character might be described as virtuous. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. The point is more that amid all the complexity and feelings of being out of control, a simple ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary develops. The rhetoric is about returning power to the ‘people’. The people hold the virtue, which permits wide latitude for the individual whose own character may not meet this ideal standard.

Second, the ‘them’ which opposes the ‘us’ takes a twofold shape. On the one hand, we have an ‘other’ which somehow intrudes upon both our homogeneity and our virtue: our purity. This other, as it has played out in the US, includes the religious other (Muslims), migrants, the LGBTI community, and even people of colour.

On the other hand, we have the ‘elites’. Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric took aim at professional politicians with the idea that the elites have forced this ‘other’ upon the ‘us’. Without this force, the ‘other’ would not be part of the community.

Third, the ‘them’ stands guilty of depriving ‘the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice’. It is both an issue of power and identity. The ‘us’ owns the context. The laws of the land do not exist to govern relationships between people, but to reinforce the particular dominant identity. Dominance becomes the arbiter of value, identity and voice.

While this definition might provide some clues as to how 80 per cent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, it is important to recognise that theology has played its part. Cultural accommodation of the Gospel message is one important aspect of the problem, but so is the idea that the faith expects some form of homogeneity. A certain people rightly interpret the message and its embodied expression – and this concern applies as much to the more progressive as to the more conservative side of the scale.

What is the theological response? In my opinion, insofar as populism hangs on a self-referential purity, the response begins with proper Christian difference and learning from the diversity of world Christianity. Entering the political concerns through this lens helps us to envision the formation of identity in relation to the other. This is not to destroy difference, or to turn the other into us, but to find our identity in Christ in this living together of difference, in reconciliation with one another.

Much of this might feel too big for us, the movement of political forces beyond our control, but it is not so. The first step is to meet, discuss and understand some of the forces in play. The second step is to find theological resources which might direct our response within our congregations and inform our discussions with our friends and neighbours.

To this end, Pilgrim Theological College is offering an interdisciplinary course titled ‘Conversations’, with the specific theme of ‘political populism and theological discourse’. This takes place over three Friday and Saturdays in March and April, and draws on social science and theological voices. It will outline the range of issues shaping these significant political movements, including those of religion and policy formation, racism, secularisation, migration, identity politics, terrorism, and living in a ‘post-truth’ age. Each of these issues will be informed by theological reflections from diverse voices. I hope that you will be able to join us for this most important of discussions.

For more information on ‘Conversations’ and how to enrol, please contact
[email protected]

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    John Flett

    John Flett is Associate Professor for Intercultural Theology and Mission Studies, at Pilgrim Theological College. He is interested in intercultural difference and its significance for the Christian faith and the formation of community.

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