There is a particular mode of political organization and rhetoric that has manifested itself in Canada and the United States, increasingly in the past century or so, although it has existed for centuries. It is not unique to North America; there are examples in history all over the world. But to give focus to the issues at play and facilitate theological evaluation, we will look mainly at North American examples.
Populism is a political stance that attempts to promote what is deemed the “will of the people.” Its target is the mobilization of this influence over against a political enemy that is described as having excessive control over the people whose support is being solicited.
The people are identified as a group according to a convenient umbrella identifier that can be used to describe them collectively and with which they are inclined to identify. Populism usually rallies around an influential, often charismatic leader, but it is not restricted to a political ideology – there have been right-wing, left-wing, and centrist populist leaders.
One example of populism comes from in Canada in the 1980s, where dissatisfaction among political conservatives in western Canada led to the formation of a populist political party, the Reform Party of Canada. The party appealed to western Canadians as people marginalized by political elites in eastern Canada, and attempted to represent a western Canadian voice in parliament, especially to balance the voice of the separatist francophone Bloc Québécois party from Quebec.
The major type of political adversary commonly identified in populist politics is a perceived bloc of political, social, cultural, or ethnic foes (or some combination thereof), seen as possessing not only inordinate power and often excessive influence (or wealth). The basic political strategy is to identify a group that can be used as a scapegoat and blamed for the grievances of the people whose support is being solicited.
From a political perspective, there are a number of strengths and weaknesses to this political approach. I will identify one of each. It can be used to highlight real injustices and valid criticisms of the political status quo, and mobilize a response to them. On the flip side, populist political groups can sometimes find commonality more in relation to what they oppose than what they support, so they can have difficulty maintaining focus and momentum.
What about populism in theological perspective? First, populism is a political strategy, and political strategies are always flawed by the necessity that politics is ultimately motivated by self-interest and the use of power, whether soft power (influence) or hard power (coercion).
Political work requires political compromise, and with that political compromise comes inevitable moral compromise. These are fundamental reasons why the Kingdom of God is not established by political means. Politics involves a lesser form of human ordering than that of the Kingdom of God.
Specific to populism is that it perpetuates a climate of political partisanship, and in many cases exacerbates partisan polarization in a way that is damaging to modern liberal democracy, in two ways. Let me explain by returning to the example of the Reform Party.
Remember that this is just an example of what has taken place in many locations at many times in the world. Most of the support for the Reform Party came from conservatives, but their conservatism was not all of the same kind. Most were political conservatives, but some were also social conservatives.
This meant that the focus of their opposition to the status quo was not all directed the same way. At the start, the major organizing focus of the party addressed political and economic issues, but the party became embroiled in controversy because the social conservatism of some of its members inclined them to lash out in other ways, against racial minorities, against immigration, and against policies such as bilingualism, multiculturalism, and gay rights. The movement fragmented because it was increasingly unclear what it was trying to do, and because its approach fostered a lack of discipline among its members.
This other problematic issue with populism is that is not oriented to look to the needs of its opponents. Populism is about turning the tables on oppressors, whereas liberal democracy attempts to consider and balance the needs of all citizens. Populist rhetoric creates a climate for marginalizing the opponents defined as the other, even if such actions are disavowed by leaders. Rather than fostering respect, it creates a climate for animosity, and even violence. It is easy to see that this is incompatible with the calling of Christians to be agents of reconciliation.
In many respects, nationalism is an extension of populism to a different political arena. The “Make America Great Again” sloganeering of the recent Trump administration in the United States, and his posturing as one to confront American political elites as a representative of ordinary citizens was typical of populist politics.
It was also ironic, given that Trump himself was born into wealth and privilege, and is a classic representative of the very class he attempted to target. Trump is far from unique. Populist leaders are prevalent globally. Jair Bolsonaro from Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Narendra Modi of India are just a few among many.
The threat of populist politicking is not evident only in its tendency to reduce political process to petty manoeuvering motivated by prurient self-interest. The intolerance and hostility that populism tends to breed raises the risk of increasing violence and warfare in coming years.
It may be that a calling for Christians is to engage the political process, not as a way to incarnate the Kingdom using political tools, but rather to subvert the corruption of political processes using incarnational Kingdom witness – modeling Christlike love in the context of heated political arguments, and calling for a response to political foes that treats them with the respect due to every person, created as all are in the image of God.
Christians may also be able to address a fundamental corruption to which Christians themselves have an unfortunate habit of appealing – the call to uphold freedom. Historically, the call to freedom was understood in the context of conscience and religious expression. It was seen as the counterpoint to the religious persecution that arose in the context of jurisdictional support for an established church.
Religious dissenters wanted the right to worship according to their consciences. But over time, the principle of freedom changed into an articulation of a virtual absolute right to libertarian self-expression – in other words, it became the right to do whatever I want to do. Usually it is limited by an expression to do no harm to others, but even this is being questioned in some populist rhetoric. Responses to government mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic have been resisted by populist ideology that sees government itself as the oppressor.
There are many layers to this, but I will speak to only one. This posture is incompatible with the Christian mandate to submit to government authority. The call is to obey the law unless one’s conscience forbids it (cf. Acts 5:29).
The appeal to self-interest or self-preservation voiced in opposition is not a call to Christian integrity, because neither principle is a valid expression in Christian theology.
Freedom in Christian reflection is the freedom to live for others, as Christ lived. Where Christians exercise freedom that conflicts with laws or cultural values, the call of Christ is to embrace the suffering that comes as a consequence of faithfulness.
The questions Christians need to ask about freedom are these: From what do I seek to be free? What do I want to be free to do? The answers to these questions will shed considerable light on our discipleship and the faithfulness of our theologies.