- Matthew GUEST
The Brazilian presidential election this fall election offers insight into how populist leaders in the 21st century are using religion to enthuse their base of support. Right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2018 with support from evangelical Christian voters who warmed to his social conservatism.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the launching ceremony to officially become a candidate for presidential re-election, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 24. PHOTO: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
On August 13, 2022, he was asked to March for the Gathering of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro among thousands of his evangelical supporters. Opposition candidate and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attempts to win back those votes by invoking religious language, mirroring how Bolsonaro has reshaped the political landscape.
It’s partly a question of numbers – evangelical Protestants make up about a third of the The population of Brazil (estimated at around 70 million people) – but it is also a question of political style.
“Populist politicians adopt a distinct style. They are overwhelmingly nationalistic, claiming to represent the true will of the people, and yet do so by dividing society into binary camps: who belongs and who does not belong.”
Bolsonaro is reaching out to the conservative evangelical voter because he needs their vote, but also because their language and values align well with his populist message. At the heart of Bolsonaro’s policy is a pro-family conservative program which includes negative views on homosexuality and abortion.
Populist politicians adopt a distinct style. They are predominantly nationalist, claiming to represent the true will of the peopleand yet do so by dividing society into binary camps: who belongs and who doesn’t.
But this alignment of right-wing populism with a Christian base is not limited to Brazil. We see it in the bullish authoritarianism of leaders such as former US President Donald Trump, French far-right leader Marine le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
According to sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, Trump’s rise to power coincided with a rise in Christian nationalism. They describe Christian nationalism as a “cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”
In their research, Whitehead and Perry find that American citizens who were most supportive of Christian nationalism are more likely to support authoritarian leadership styles, “traditional” models of family, and an understanding of American identity that privileges those who are Christian, white. and origin. They were also the most likely to vote for Trump in 2016.
Bolsonaro, known to some as the “Trump of the tropics”, is an avowed admirer of the former US president. Narendra Modi remained a staunch supporter of Hindu nationalism during his tenure as prime minister of india.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president or prime minister for most of the past 20 years, has embraced Islamic populism. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party claims to defend the values of Turkey’s Muslim majority against its secular elite.
The link between religion and populism is, in part, a matter of rhetoric. Populism favors the language of binary distinctions – truth and lies, good and bad, us and them, citizen and immigrant. Some forms of religion organize the world into similar dualistic categories, based on the belief that the universe is divinely ordained. be like that.
Populists also claim to appeal directly to the will of the people, rejecting the authority of “elites”, tackle the media, the political establishment, academia, the intelligentsia or big business.
Populism is not always associated with religion and populists do not always use religion Language. But the link is strong, even if it is not always simple. For example, religion is not universally embraced by populists as an ally.
Across Europe, anti-Islamic sentiment has long been invoked by right-wing nationalists movements. Marine le Pen’s National Rally (formerly Front National) now campaigns for the “de-Islamization” of France, portraying Muslims as both a security threat and a foreign cultural presence. Religion serves as a marker of who does not belong.
Coalitions of populist religious movements have found common cause in their opposition to what is presented as a “woke” liberal agenda. Orbán’s recent appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas a striking illustration. CPAC has become a major rallying point for Christian nationalists in the United States, and this year’s rally culminated in a closing speech from Trump.
Like Trump, Orbán characterizes his political ambitions as a fight against the “enemies of freedom”, a “culture war” with the forces of “woke” liberalism. Speaking to CPAC delegates, he described Hungary as “an ancient, proud, but David-sized nation, standing alone against the Globalist Goliath”.
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Use of religious images
Orbán’s use of biblical imagery is not unique among populist politicians. Trump has been compared by some supporters to King David: an imperfect but anointed leader.
Trump has advanced the evangelical Christian cause through his decisions as president. He used his executive power to woo the conservative Christian vote, with monumental consequences for the American people.
During his four years in office, he appointed three justices to the United States Supreme Court, tipping the balance on the conservative side and strengthening his position with the Christian right. This led to the controversial reversal of Roe vs. Wadethe decision that has protected the right of American women to have access to abortion since 1973.
The use of religion to underpin political ambition is nothing new. But my research suggests that recent years have seen religion being used as political capital in distinct ways by populists.
We attend the strategic and cynical use of religion as a way to advance nationalist and conservative agendas. It achieves its momentum precisely because of the ideological similarities between populism and certain forms of religion which aspire to transform the social order.
How these changes affect religious communities at the local level is not yet clear. But where alignments with religious traditions bear political fruit – such as in Brazil, the United States and Turkey – one can expect those who seek power to keep trying to use it for their own ends. .