Five years ago, who could have predicted that Britain would today be in the process of disentangling itself from the EU, that right-wing parties would have sprung out of nowhere across Europe and that a reality TV star who wants to build a wall along the US-Mexico border would occupy the White House? The recent populist surge took the world by surprise and it will constitute the staple diet of political scientists for many years to come as they try to piece together how exactly this electoral revolt came about.
As with everything in politics, there are a thousand possible explanations for how and why this happened, each equally valid and each playing its own small part in the bigger picture. Racial tensions and rising rates of illegal immigration were significant factors in the election of Donald Trump, for example, while ongoing hostilities towards European initiatives probably contributed to the rise of the far-right Lega party in Italy. There is, however, one social grouping that seems to be overrepresented across the populist votes of the last few years and whose role in the populist explosion is perhaps not fully appreciated: Christians.
A substantial 60% of British Anglicans voted for Brexit in 2016, while 45% of Italians who attend church regularly voted for the right in this year’s elections (with those parties earning just 37% of the overall vote share). In the 2018 Hungarian elections, nearly 70% of voters backed parties that call themselves Christian and are of the populist right, and a whopping 81% of white American evangelicals voted for and continue to support President Trump. Other examples of clear trends between Christianity and populist voter behaviour are plentiful; one could equally refer to Poland, Austria, Germany or Switzerland, to name but a few.
Politically, this might not seem terribly surprising. Those who cling to religious belief in an increasingly atheistic world tend to be more traditionalist when it comes to social issues. Our modern society is founded on Judeo-Christian ideals which often find themselves in direct juxtaposition with the progressivism of the modern left. There is, however, an argument to be made that Christianity boasts a unique link to populism on an ideological level. The intermingling of a two-thousand-year-old religious ideology and contemporary Western society might be seen as the perfect conditions for a populist uprising.
Populist ideology is rooted in the idea of a struggle between so-called ordinary people and the perceived omnipotent elites who pull the strings of business and government by means of The Establishment. Right-leaning populism inevitably sees that elite as fundamentally leftist and wanting to drag Western civilisation into a post-capitalist liberal future. This thinking, in its extreme form, is what gives rise to nativist ideas such as the white genocide conspiracy theory, which alleges that left-wing authorities are engaged in a conscious effort to wipe out white populations by means of mass immigration.
The basis of this ideology closely resembles some core themes in Christianity. Working-class feelings of marginalisation at the hands of an invisible elite mirror with remarkable accuracy Biblical teachings about the way Satan uses his earthly power to tempt Christians out of their faith with worldliness and materialism, with the help of powerful non-believers. They lay crafty plans against your people, warns St. David in Psalm 83.
The killing of Jesus was, according to the Gospels, only possible because the Roman rulers and the religious authorities banded together in a bid to dismantle the movement he had created which was largely comprised of the poor and outcast. This religious perspective of a materialistic world conspiring against the godly masses fits exceptionally well with the political view of the left-wing establishment working against the interests of the hardworking native population.
This implicit sentiment of being a member of the oppressed multitudes is exacerbated by certain aspects of the behaviour of the modern left. For instance, nearly half of Britons profess to believe that free speech is being unduly suppressed. Fear of political correctness and concern about a lack of openness in the public sphere have fuelled the growth of the idea that the all-powerful establishment is tightening its hold on people by infringing on their rights and moving towards a more authoritarian form of government.
At the crux of this worldview is freedom and the belief that the powers that be are set on curtailing it any way they can. Politically, populist voters desire the freedom to keep control of their money (via low taxes) and culture (through less immigration); in religious terms, Christians seek the freedom to live a life of uninterrupted faith without succumbing to the harsh materialism of the godless world.
One might characterise the key overlap between populism and Christianity as conservatism; that is, keeping things broadly the way they are, and thereby halting the perceived accumulation of power (and curtailing of freedom) by those who run the world. Where populism suggests that liberal elites are suppressing freedoms in order to negate the needs and wants of the native population, Christianity posits equivalently that the atheistic worldly powers are suppressing freedoms in order to make maintaining faith in God as uncomfortable as possible.
By no means does this theory constitute a comprehensive analysis of either populist or Christian ideology, nor of why Christians tend to vote populist. Nonetheless, on an ideological level, it does appear that this fundamental principle — a feeling of being under attack from unaccountable, maleficent elites — is common to both right-wing populism and Christianity and might go some way towards explaining the current political polarisation that is starkly visible across Western societies.