The Defenders of Europe’s Christianity
In Western Europe, increasingly fewer people are attending Church. Secularisation has been shaping Europe’s identity since the Enlightenment, creating a barrier between politics and religion. Nevertheless, this barrier has not always been crystal clear, not even nowadays, as religion is a rather popular topic in everyday political news. Radical right parties’ components have been invoking Christianity in their discourses, while hoping to attract voters. This use of religion in politics has been puzzling academic scholars.
There is an ongoing academic debate concerning the appropriate terminology to refer to the far-right. While not all academics agree, the term ‘radical’ is often used in relation to far-right parties. Because it was used by most researchers, I will refer to far-right parties as radical-right parties (RRPs).
The association between Christian voters and RRPs is a common conception. When I first started researching literature, I too, thought that most Christians actually voted for RRPs. These parties in Western Europe have been proclaiming themselves as the defenders of Europe’s Christian identity against Islam. Furthermore, scholars have identified similar traits shared by religion and populism: authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, and prejudice towards immigrants. Many of the populist parties currently dominating Western Europe’s political landscape are radical-right, and so per extension, the latter tend to adopt those populist characteristics common to religion as well.
Does this religious rhetoric of RRPs work? Why? In this article, I will attempt to answer these questions and will look at the debate between scholars who support the so-called ‘vaccine-effect’ theory, which I believe to be the best argument as it is widely supported within the academic community and is most convincing, and those scholars who believe there is no such effect.
But do radical-right parties actually attract Christian voters?
There seems to be a general consensus among academics that the religious rhetoric of RRPs does not attract religious voters because they support Christian or mainstream parties.
Many scholars who have researched religion in politics have focused on religious practice and attendance, and have shown that people going to church does not automatically result in them voting for RRPs in Western Europe. This religion gap shows that, despite the attempt of Western European parties to promote a Christian self-portrait, Christian voters are not more inclined to vote for them. On the contrary, it seems that many Christian voters are affected by what Arzheimer and Carter have called “vaccine effect“: they are ‘vaccinated’ against RRPs because they tend to vote for Christian Democrats or Conservative parties.
Nonetheless, researcher Weiqian Xia argues that there is not enough evidence to claim that Christianity is ‘immune’ to RRPs. He argues that marginal members in a number of countries do vote for such parties, and that if religious voters weren’t held back by Christian parties, they’d vote for RRPs because of the affinity between authoritarianism and moral conservative values of both Christian voters and RRPs.
These statements are not much supported in the academic world. I found Xia’s analysis interesting, but not fully convincing. Even though he claimed there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the ‘vaccine effect’ theory, Arzheimer and Carter provide a satifying and thorough report of data analysis, which has been tested and backed up by many scholars.
Why then, is the populist tactic not working?
Because populist RRPs are all about identity and do not include faith and belief in the equation. They are focused on creating an identity group, formed by ‘us’ Christian Europeans, opposed to ‘them’, Islamic people. Along these lines, populist parties talk much more about Islam than Christianity in their speeches, proving that they care more about what is outside the group rather than inside.
Furthermore, despite some similarities, there are big differences between Christianity and RRPs: Christians preach peace, tolerance and believe in sovereignty in the hands of a higher power. Conversely, RRPs believe that sovereignty should only be in the hands of the people. While few argue that anti-immigrant attitudes contribute to Christians’ support for radical right parties in some cases, several scholars have found evidence suggesting that Christian values of tolerance and altruism suppress anti-immigrant sentiments.
The approach taken by the radical right in Western Europe is called ‘othering‘. RRPs’ identity is defined by what distinguishes them from another group, in this case Islam. The other, the immigrant, the Muslim is repeatedly demonised by these parties. It’s more about ‘them’ than it’s about ‘us’. That is the radical-right parties’ Achilles’ heel. They forget about what is truly important to Christian voters: belief.
Though interesting, researching the relationship between religion and RRPs has been challenging because of the limited amount of literature. Nonetheless, in recent years, scholars have started to investigate this topic. It is important to have a better understanding of the ties between religion and politics because we are witnessing a revival of religion in politics, it can disprove common misconceptions and help us to think critically about our political choices. In this regard, in this blog, we provide examples of the use of religion by three far-right parties in different nations: Lega Nord in Italy, Dansk Folkeparti in Denmark, and Rassemblement National in France. In this article, I wanted to share my findings in the hope of sparking at least some curiosity about the topic of religion in politics in you readers!