Populist Right using Religion to give their Politics Soul

By Christopher Lamb

Nationalist politics are gaining ground across Europe, the United States and parts of Latin America and many of the leaders of the populist right are using religion to consolidate their power.

In a new book, Dio? In Fonda a Destra (God? Down on the Right), Italian journalist Iacopo Scaramuzzi examines this growing phenomenon. My conversation with him is on the Religion Media Centre You Tube channel here.

Scaramuzzi sets out how politicians such as Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and President Donald Trump in the USA, make use of Christian iconography to give a sense of “soul” to their politics.

Many of the leaders of the populist right, he points out, do not hold religious convictions, nor do they follow Christian teachings on social or bioethical issues.

“Matteo Salvini [leader of the Lega Nord] was never interested in religion or Christianity before 2018, but then suddenly he began to kiss the crucifix during electoral meetings, to swear on the gospel,” Scaramuzzi explained. “It was very sudden and very marked.”

He added that several other leaders decided to adopt Christian symbols at about the same time, “using more or less the same kind of words and rhetoric”.

The politicians, he argued, find universally recognised symbols such as a cross or crucifix help create a sense of nostalgia among portions of the electorate, and show that things could “go back” to the past.

This message is more potent given the changes brought by globalisation, the economic crisis and the arrival of migrants, and that all the countries where religious imagery has been used by politicians have “suffered a decline” or lost something. In the United States, for example, the phrase “God bless America” has shifted to “God defend America.”

The net result, Scaramuzzi argues, is to reduce Christianity to a form of identity politics or moral values in a global cultural battle and has “nothing to do with the Christian faith.” But he adds that politicians using religion are being challenged by Pope Francis, whose geopolitical vision – openness to migrants, dialogue with other faiths, and concern for the environment – is opposed to the nationalist position.

Scaramuzzi, who has lived in the United States, Germany and Brussels, writes for the Askanews agency and is a regular contributor to La Stampa.