The adamant defense of Christianity by far-right populists, as well as their ostensible display of Christian symbols such as the rosary, have been interpreted as hijacking religion from the hands of religious leaders and institutions. In fact, religious leaders have often accused far-right politicians of instrumentalizing religion for political gain, while far-right politicians have accused religious leaders of not defending Christianity against Islam. In a sense, far-right populist actors present themselves as being better interpreters and defenders of Christianity than religious leaders.
As many scholars have pointed out, the Christianity that far-right populism defends is a matter of culture and tradition imbricated in the historical past and national identity rather than a matter of faith. Thus, populists have been accused of not being ‘true believers’ and twisting religion to better serve their aims, and self-identified religious people who support far-right populism have been framed as victims of the political instrumentalization of religion. In my Identities article, ‘Hijack or release? On the heuristic limits of the frame of instrumentalization of religion for discussing the entanglements of populism, religion, and gender’, I explore the relationships between populism and religion from another angle, taking the transformations undertaken by religion and religiosity in contemporary societies into account.
In addition to the fact that we have no means to discern whether a person is ‘truly’ religious, two elements, in particular, are worth mentioning: first, religion is more than what happens in and through religious institutions. Religion is both individual faith and community culture; it ranges from individual prayers and spirituality to traditions, public rites, landscapes and soundscapes. Sociologists and anthropologists of religion have long explored the individualization of religiosity and its detachment from traditional religious authority as an aspect of the secularization of European society. Second, who has the right to determine religion and its doctrine? Scholars working on the mediatization of culture and digital religion have discussed how spreading knowledge about religion makes it available to many actors as a discursive and cultural resource. Additionally, studies have documented the development of religious influencers and 'alternative' forms of religious authority that challenge, negotiate with or complement traditional ones. Furthermore, feminist and LGBT+ voices within Christianity are re-interpreting religious doctrine in more inclusive terms. In this scenario, rather than being an exception, the far-right populist discourse regarding the reappropriation and redefinition of Christianity is one of the many meaning-making processes at play in relation to religion.
In my article, I investigate how Instagram followers of Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right populist Lega Nord party, discuss religion and religiosity. The analysis shows how they reclaim the ‘legitimacy’ of their Christian identity and explore their understanding of religion, which prioritizes cultural aspects of Christianity over Catholic faith and people’s religiosity over that of the clergy, who are depicted as elites. Additionally, the analysis shows how religiosity is gendered in the populist discourse: Christianity is depicted as manly and muscular, which leads populists to criticize the clergy while also questioning their heterosexual virility, while Islam is depicted as being composed of violent men and fragile (or, in some cases, manipulative) women. In this sense, religion and gender intersect in the process of othering. In the end, I argue that a displacement of attention from ‘instrumentalization’ to the factors that allow politicians to discursively mobilize religion in the political field, and which grant the legitimacy of this mobilization in the eyes of self-identified religious people, could provide a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics between religion and populism and the role of cultural and social factors in shaping the complex entanglements among populism, religion and gender.
Blog post by Alberta Giorgi, University of Bergamo, Italy
Read the Identities article:
Giorgi, Alberta. Hijack or release? On the heuristic limits of the frame of instrumentalization of religion for discussing the entanglements of populism, religion, and gender. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2021.2002583 OPEN ACCESS
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