In To Serve God and Wal-Mart historian Bethany Moreton describes the rise of the Wal-Mart model of Christian free enterprise. Most Americans do not see Wal-Mart as Christian or even as religious, but as non-sectarian. Like the United States, Wal-Mart rises above the particularity of religion. It transcends religion. Moreton’s argument resonates powerfully with broader questions in the study of American politics. This chapter explores political theologies of American exceptionalism through the lens of Moreton’s work in conversation with Winnifred Sullivan’s book on prison religion in the United States, Lisa Sideris’s writings on American techno-exceptionalism, and Gil Anidjar’s essay on rethinking what we study when we study Christianity/ies. While each of these authors offers important correctives, most Americans and America-watchers cling to outdated assumptions about the boundaries between the political, the religious and the economic, ignoring their fluid inter-relations and theological aspirations. Exploring these dynamics offers a window onto the ambivalent role of protestant Christianity in American exceptionalism, an ambivalence that affirms and naturalizes what legal theorist Jothie Rajah describes as “an affective conviction in the United States as transcendent.” These convictions, in turn, resonate in and through contemporary American populism.
Media accounts often suggest that anger motivates the rise of populist political movements. Indeed, populism and anger are so closely associated in popular discourse as to become almost one: populism is angry people doing politics. And today, many people are angry. From Trump to Brexit, from rivalries in the Middle East to nationalisms in Eastern Europe to protests in Hong Kong, from racial justice protests in Ferguson to the global #metoo movement, anger now seems to be a prime mover of global politics. In this chapter, Vincent Lloyd classes accounts of anger into two groups. Some cultural critics and philosophers take anger as a fitting response to a wrong. Others take anger, or at least a certain type of anger, as opaque, directed at the injustices baked into a normative order. By turning to accounts of anger from the Hebrew Bible, where human and divine anger are closely tied with authority, Lloyd argues that the opaque concept of anger is often forgotten, or repressed. When it is recovered, we are attuned to questions of domination, and to possibilities for flourishing in a radically different world.
Sovereignty remains one of the most contested political issues in the discourse about populism. Prominent scholars on the American left have made the study of Jewish ethics a crucial component of campaigns to discredit sovereignty as a political ideal. Against these scholars, Julie E. Cooper contends that the fixation upon Jewish values is liable to hinder the development of a forceful rejoinder to sovereignty’s defenders. To temper the enthusiasm for ethics as a framework for arbitrating conflicts over sovereignty, she revisits an internal Zionist debate surrounding the wisdom of investing political energy in projects of ethical cultivation. Drawing on Jakob Klatzkin (1882–1948), she argues that critics of sovereignty should downplay ethics, focusing instead on defending the political viability of non-sovereign regimes. The challenge is to combat the poverty of imagination when it comes to envisioning political agency beyond the nation-state.
This conclusion leaves the readers with two invitations to examine further the spirits of both political theology and populism. The first is to consider the ways that the anti-Muslim rhetoric of far-right populism in Europe and North America is intertwined within a longer history of Christianity and secularism. Solely disavowing far-right populism as antithetical to genuine liberal or Judeo-Christian values leads to evading a more serious analysis of the complications and contradictions latent within Western political theology. Moving beyond the volume’s primary aim to study the spirit of populism in Europe and North America, the second invitation is to expand our analysis of both populisms and political theologies into a broader global perspective. To accomplish this, Joshua Ralston suggests ways that political theology might borrow from comparative theology to engage in new readings of global populist movements, including Islamism.
Christianity’s checkered relationship with power and politics in Europe is complex and paradoxical. Today, right-wing populism is increasingly using a Christianist rhetoric. Its refences to Christianity conjure up a ‘Christian Europe’ over and against a ‘Muslim other.’ At the same time, research shows that church attendance can ‘immunize’ churchgoers against right-wing anti-immigration attitudes. In this chapter, this paradox between Christianism and the Christian immunization against Christianism is explored from a christological perspective, drawing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. How is the church to confess Christ in Europe today when Christianity itself is used as a means to demarcate and denigrate ‘the other’? The uncomfortable answer from Bonhoeffer’s Christology is to be ‘for’ the other in a radically Christ-like way. This Christ-like way might even call for the death of the church.
Populism and nationalism are often seen as inextricably linked and, singularly or jointly, as toxic phenomena which are intrinsically unethical. A consequence is that working definitions of both often have an ethical deficit pre-loaded. In this chapter, Doug Gay develops the argument first advanced in his Honey From The Lion – Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism that it is possible to conceive of an ethical nationalism and to posit what the theological conditions might be for such a position. He argues for a resetting of definitions of nationalism and populism towards more neutral formulations. He draws on the language of ‘discipleship’ to argue that, from the perspective of theological ethics, we learn how to be Scottish, Danish or Ghanaian and that such identities need to be ‘discipled’ (as opposed to simply ‘demonized’) so that they can be inhabited and performed ethically. This approach to the ethics of nationalism can be extended to growing debates around populism. The experience of active involvement with campaigns for Scottish independence is brought into dialogue with post-colonial perspectives to argue a distinctive case for a critical and nuanced ethics of nationalism and populism.
The call “We are the people” echoed throughout Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a call for democratic participation in the formation of new states. But “We are the people” also echoes through Europe today, albeit as a call for a ‘true people.’ In today’s South East Europe, particularly in the Western Balkans, populist politics relies on the concept of an ethnically, religiously, and culturally homogenous people, combined with the nationalism that was present in the formation of new nation states during the 1990s. This chapter investigates the theological support for nationalism and patriotism that fuels the populist movements in the countries of the Western Balkans. Zoran Grozdanov analyzes and assesses texts by Pope John Paul II and their reception in the Western Balkan in order to show how the Pope draws his political theological thought about the identities of particular cultural and ethnic groups from the conceptualization of the Incarnation.
Connecting ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ dimensions of populism, Lukas Meyer explains why Brexit undermines the traditional distinction between political left and right. Regarding the referendum, the vertical dimension became visible in the idea of a Eurocratic conspiracy, whereas the horizontal dimension became visible in the anti-migrant sentiment of many Brexiteers. Therefore, the main arguments for Brexit were populist. When examining the Christian debate, however, the arguments took a specific turn. All Christian Brexiteers were convinced that there could and should be a great restitution of the British nation. As a reply to this kind of Christian populism, Meyer proposes a re-launch of the Conciliar Process with a closer reference to the European Union. The lack of a theology of Europe was the main issue. By identifying justice, peace, and the integrity of creation as political guidelines, European unity could be conceptualized theologically.
Despite internal disagreements, populist far-right discourse seems to share the assumption that political development in Muslim-majority countries requires a change within Islamic liberal culture, comparable to the Reformation in Christianity. Many Islamist and post-Islamist thinkers have also tried to move on this path, which extends from Islamic political culture to political structure by way of hermeneutics. In this chapter, Fatima Tofighi assesses this claim through an analysis of Islamist and post-Islamist readings of certain themes in the Qurʾan. Tofighi argues that the idea that Islamic hermeneutics needs to develop liberal reading strategies rests on the assumption that pre-modern readings of the Qurʾan are prone to violence. This assumption is rejected in an analysis of the reception history of a Qurʾanic passage often related to domestic violence. Both modern and pre-modern interpreters show surprisingly similar reading strategies, which in many cases escape the literality of the text. Questioning over-arching patterns, Tofighi evaluates common assumptions about the relation between hermeneutics, politics, and the culture and structure of liberalism.
This chapter is a case study in political theology, understood as the application of theological categories to political discourse. It critiques the role played by scriptural and liturgical tropes in political Zionism and the populist use to which they are put in the service of this ideology. Writing as someone who is Jewish, and taking Psalm 137 as his cue, Brian Klug asks what it means, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not to forget Jerusalem. After discussing the peculiar form that populism takes in the context of Zionism, he discusses two sources that feed it. The first is the use of the words ‘reality’ and ‘fact’ in the controversy over President Donald J. Trump’s decision in 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The second is the ‘flattening’ of biblical and liturgical texts, which he refers to as a form of fundamentalism. The chapter concludes with a reflection on how Judaism itself contains an antidote to the populism associated with political Zionism.