2. Populism and Theological Possiblity

The most common language used in relation to the momentum behind both Trump and Brexit is “populism”. The phenomenon is somewhat slippery to define and can take different shape depending on the region (Europe, America, or Australia by way of example), or whether it is politically right or left. But it is by no means new.

For a preliminary outline, see pages 2-7 of:

Albertazzi and McDonnell define populism as:

“an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.” (p. 4)

For a review essay of the concept, see

Though Albertazzi/McDonnell definition might appear somewhat abstract, Michael Kazin does well to connect the dots, illustrating how populism appears in recent history (including Bernie Sanders) and how Trump feeds on the same ground.

For a different take, Jeffrey Broxmeyer focuses less on formal definitions of political populism. He connects the production of law, popular culture and elections as a mass consumer event when these come together. This speaks to forms of participation in the political process (Trump’s rallies as event), and to how one might understand the framing value of “winning”:

“Elections are the main arena of enchantment in liberal democracies. They represent an extended theatrical moment when the state calls upon elite competition to tap into the masses, to organize and mobilize them coherently. In performances from the banal to the entertaining, the time-space of elections represent a ritual that must necessarily project a unitary mythology of consensus from an unendingly complex constellation of intersectionalities and social positions.” (p. 140)

  • Broxmeyer, Jeffrey D. “Of Politicians, Populism, and Plates: Marketing the Body Politic.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 38, no. 3/4 (2010): 138–52.

Though a concept within political debate, the theological reflection on populism seems less well developed. Church Colson warned of the problem in 2010, but his counter identified theological resources which read as a type of Republican manifesto: “Christian doctrines such as sphere sovereignty, subsidiarity (nothing should be done by a larger, complex organization when a smaller organization can accomplish it), the balance of power, and God’s transcendent law must hold government in check.”

Though the title might see off topic, Randall J. Stephens does an excellent job connecting populism, religion, the rural context, and interpretations which account for populism in terms of cultural shift but with little to no reference to religion.

  • Stephens, Randall J. “The Convergence of Populism, Religion, and the Holiness-Pentecostal Movements: A Review of the Historical Literature.” Fides et Historia 32, no. 1 (2000): 51–64.

As secondary reading, see Wayne Flynt on the gap in research concerning “poor white evangelicals.”

  • Flynt, Wayne. “Religion for the Blues: Evangelicalism, Poor Whites, and the Great Depression.” The Journal of Southern History 71, no. 1 (2005): 3–38.

Molly Worthen examines the complex relationship between (non-professional) belief, the commitment to a moral vision, and discourse. Her conclusion: “Since the 1960s, plain-folk populist conservatism has become the lingua franca of the powerful fusion of traditional Christianity and libertarianism the is now the rudder of the Republican Party.” (p. 32)

  • Worthen, Molly. “‘Plain-Folk Religion’: Theology’s Place in a Political Story.” Fides et Historia 45, no. 2 (2013): 28–32.

To this point, much of the material may well cast populism in a negative light. This is far from necessarily the case. Luke Bretherton argues that “broad-based community organizing is best framed as an extension and development of American populism.” (p. 261) This is set within the context of the democratic process itself. Aware that community organising can trend toward the anti-political and in this attract more conservative constituents, he nonetheless concludes that “it is precisely the ability of community organising (and the Populist movement before it) to convert anti-political self-interests into political mutual interests that gives it much of its potency as a performance of democratic citizenship.” (p. 275)

  • Bretherton, Luke. “The Political Populism of Saul Alinsky and Broad Based Organizing.” The Good Society 21, no. 2 (2012): 261–78.

For further reading, Bretherton also finds connections between Augustine and Alinsky: the relating of the world to the world, the role of conflict in politics, and a remedial rather than revolutionary approach to politics.

  • Bretherton, Luke. “Local: Augustine, Alinsky, and the Politics of the Common Good,” in Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness, 71–125. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Turning to the more formal accounts of populism, Andrew Arato begins with the secularisation of theological concepts and the work of Carl Schmitt, before turning to Claude Lefort on “the fantasmagoria of popular power,” and concluding with Ernesto Laclau’s theory of populism. It is dense, but introduces a few key theorists that tend to inform the theological discussion. Arato’s own conclusion warns that the “authoritarian consequences of political theology may be unavoidable.” (p. 166) While not all will agree with Arato, it is the potential path he charts from the secularisation of theological concepts, to populism defined as one body in distinction to another, to the justification of authoritarianism, which is worth considering.

  • Arato, Andrew. “Political Theology and Populism.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 80, no. 1 (2013): 143–72.

Further Reading: