I do not intend to defend everything every populist leader has ever said or done. All leaders are flawed and many, populist or otherwise, do things that I, like others, would regard as authoritarian and immoral.
The question though is not whether every action by a populist leader can be defended – it would be strange if it could – but whether there is something inherently misguided, unchristian, even sinister about populism that means Christians should regard all such movements and leaders with, at best, suspicion, at worst, rejection.
Suspicion certainly seems to be the best Susan Kerr, editor of Is God a Populist? has to say about populism. Writing in Christian Today, she observes that ‘several prominent populist parties have branded themselves as defenders of Christian values’, and cynically asks if this is just a ‘smokescreen to legitimise unchristian policies’.
The main example she offers is of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who claims to run a Christian government and who in 2018 enshrined the protection of Christian culture in the constitution. Two years earlier, she says, ‘a ministry was opened for persecuted Christians that has provided assistance to Christians in the Middle East’.
This ‘appears admirable’ she concedes, but her objection is it comes with other policies that she regards as much more questionable. Hungary has, for example, ‘criminalised homelessness and offering assistance to asylum seekers, narrowed civil and political rights, and undermined judicial independence, academic autonomy, press freedom and the ability of NGOs (including the national chapter of Amnesty International) to operate’.
It is worth noting that many of these are criticisms which are often made by political opponents who object to the way (usually) conservative governments reform or constrain institutions that evince an entrenched hostility to conservative values. Such institutions often include the judiciary, universities, the media and NGOs, which in many Western countries have developed outlooks that are markedly secularist, internationalist, multiculturalist, feminist, pro-abortion, pro-LGBT, permissive and anti-traditional family values. Amnesty International, for example, is singled out by Kerr for a mention, but it is strongly committed to the promotion of abortion rights and LGBT equality worldwide and thus has no obvious claim to Christian allegiance. While I would not want to be committed to defending every action populists take to counter this progressive-liberal agenda, the tension between the mandate of a democratically elected government and the opposition to this mandate by powerful groups within society does need to be kept in mind.
In terms of the ban on homelessness, it should be noted that the government frames this in humanitarian terms: its aim is to save the lives of rough sleepers by pushing them into shelters where they can be helped. This might not be the kindest or most effective way of doing this, but it is hardly the most unchristian goal a government has pursued.
As to criminalising offering assistance to asylum seekers, it is important to recognise that Hungary has done this in only one respect, that of offering to ‘initiate an application for asylum to anybody who has arrived from, or passed through on the way to Hungary, any country in which that person was not persecuted’. This is presumably because, under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, such people should have applied for asylum in the first safe country they arrived in, so their application for asylum in Hungary may, in a sense, be regarded as inherently invalid – at least, that appears to be the attitude of the Hungarian government. The main target here are pro-immigration NGOs, many funded by the wealthy Hungarian-born activist George Soros (the legislation was part of a package of measures dubbed ‘Stop Soros’ by the government), which are said routinely to initiate applications for asylum seekers regardless of whether Hungary is bound under EU law to accept them. Hungary has not made it illegal to initiate an asylum application that conforms to EU law, nor to offer any other kind of assistance to asylum seekers. One may find this policy unduly inhospitable and disagreeable, but it does not seem the worst approach to refugees anyone has ventured.
Despite populism’s frequent appeals to Europe’s Christian heritage, Kerr appears to regard it as inherently anti-Christian, claiming it is ‘more about adopting a nostalgic Christian identity in an era of social fragmentation and individualism than about God’. Its appeal to practising Christians, she suggests, is that it shares with Christianity that great liberal bogeyman, ‘binary thinking’. Christians should eschew this, she says, and instead ‘think holistically’ and ‘seek wisdom’.
Kerr appears to be oblivious to her own binary thinking, however, in her demonising of populism, as when she cautions Christians to be on guard against being ‘wooed by populist messaging despite the warning signs’. She calls on churches across Europe to ‘discuss these issues internally and speak out in response to anti-democratic populist politics of exclusion in their name.’ How exactly populist politics is ‘anti-democratic’ is not explained. Is populism not popular? Are populists not elected in free and fair elections? As to exclusion, her own politics are hardly inclusive of populists and the huge numbers of people who support them. She praises the idea of flourishing in a community with others, but where is the recognition that national communities are, as per the populists’ common refrain, the most tried-and-tested bearers of democratic legitimacy?
Kerr concludes with a warning that Christians who buy into populist ideas risk finding themselves ‘on the wrong side of history by breaking core principles of Christianity itself’. Leaving to one side that the idea of history having a wrong and right side is not a sound Christian one – God defines what is right and wrong for Christians, not history or ‘progress’ – we need to ask where is the recognition that Christian values are under sustained attack in Western nations, not least in the area of marriage and family, with a birth rate through the floor to show for it? Hungary’s pro-natal policies, on the other hand, are showing how effective an alternative, family-friendly approach can be, with marriage rates up, divorce down, and a birth rate rebounding.
Listening to Kerr, one gets the feeling that those inclined to dismiss and demonise the populists through an ironic opposition to ‘binary thinking’ and ‘exclusion’ have still got some way to go to recognise that populist movements might be resonating with electorates for some good reasons.