Less than two weeks before the 2016 Iowa GOP presidential caucus, then-candidate Donald Trump attempted to solidify his Christian bona fides during a speech at Liberty University. Trump declared, “We’re going to protect Christianity…. Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame…is that the one you like?”
Though he would eventually garner overwhelming support from America’s conservative Christian voters, the usually self-assured candidate appeared somewhat out of his comfort zone. The awkward phrasing aside, the follow-up question – “is that the one you like?” – revealed almost explicitly that the campaign would appropriate language that did not come naturally to the candidate.
Seven years after Trump’s speech at Liberty University, what are we to make of the intermingling of religion and populism? Enter Tobias Cremer’s The Godless Crusade: Religion, Populism, and Right-Wing Identity Politics in the West, which evaluates this question on four interrelated arguments using Germany, France, and the United States as case studies.
First, Cremer argues that right-wing populist movements emerge in response to new social cleavages. Traditional social divisions around class and religion have given way to an identity-based divide between cosmopolitans and localists. As Cremer writes, “many voters are beginning to think…more in terms of a new contest over the status of ethnocultural, racial and civilizational identities of majority populations in the West.” A number of factors have contributed to this new split in Western societies, including secularization, globalization, and immigration.
Second, amid the rise of right-wing populism, Cremer argues that religious identity is turning into a cultural, rather than religious, concept. The secularization of religious identity creates a useful tool for right-wing populists who “use Christian symbols and language as cultural identity markers, while often remaining distanced from Christian doctrine, ethics and institutions.”
In addition, right-wing populists leverage religious language to imbue a spiritual significance to things associated with the nation – territory becomes a “sacred homeland” and immigrants become “dangerous others.”
Third, Cremer argues that right-wing populist rhetoric is usually most successfully making inroads among non-religious voters or non-practicing Christians for whom Christianity can be more of a cultural marker. Religious practice, on the other hand, has tended to correlate with a relative “immunity” to populism. Germany’s right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, for example, performed much better among non-religious voters in elections between 2014 and 2021. Cremer also notes that, despite later success, Trump’s early support in the 2016 GOP primary was strongest among the religiously unaffiliated.
Fourth, and closely related, the ability of right-wing populists to overcome the relative immunity correlated with religious practice depends “on the availability of a ‘Christian alternative’ in the political landscape and…on churches’ and faith leaders’ willingness and ability to publicly denounce the populist right and create a social taboo around them.”
In Germany, the populist right has been held in check because Christian voters have long found a home in mainstream parties and the major churches have been vocal in condemning the AfD’s appropriation of religion. In France, however, the center-right political bloc has eroded, with French politics divided between President Macron’s center-left movement and the far-right represented by Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Forced to choose between the two primary options, many practicing Christians have chosen the right-wing populist parties. Moreover, Cremer observes that Catholic bishops have softened their rhetoric toward the far right.
In the United States, meanwhile, Cremer observes that globalization, immigration, and other factors fostered an identity crisis and malaise in a large section of the population. Trump took advantage and, in doing so, transformed the Republican Party into a more identitarian – rather than faith-driven – political entity. Absent any political alternative, and with faith leaders not cultivating a taboo against right-wing populism, immunity to right-wing populism has diminished among practicing Christians.
Cremer’s book is a rigorous analysis of the interplay between religion and right-wing populism and a necessary read for understanding the politics of the past decade. But what are its implications for the future, particularly the United States?
The democratized and decentralized character of American Christianity renders it difficult for a voice or small group of voices to speak on its behalf and cultivate social taboos that apply to politics. If trust in institutions continues to decline, alongside secularization, the prospects for a definitive Christian witness vis-à-vis populism, akin to what Cremer argues has happened in Germany, seems unlikely.
The book also offers a cautionary lesson for American Christians moving forward. The transformation of Christianity into a cultural concept in the West has facilitated its subordination into a prop in the service of nationalistic populism. But what is the end that Christians seek? Is it the kingdom of God? Or the expansion of their own power under the pretense of sacralizing a nation? The intermingling of Christianity and nationalism risks reducing the potency of the Gospel message by making the former a cover for the latter.