A church was burned in Massachusetts; historically black churches were burned to the ground in Louisiana; a church in Georgia was the scene of a horrific mass shooting; worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh were gunned down; a gunman attacked worshippers at a synagogue near San Diego. Readers aren’t being catapulted back in some sort of time machine to the U.S. of the 1950s or 1960s when four girls lost their lives while at a morning religious service in Birmingham, Alabama, and three civil rights workers were tortured and murdered in rural Mississippi during Freedom Summer when they returned from investigating a church burning in a nearby Mississippi town. No, this is the contemporary U.S. with the melding of hate, violence, religious fundamentalism, and political populism. Recall that the nefarious Ku Klux Klan wears and wore white robes and hoods reminiscent of a medieval and extremist religious order.
Religious fundamentalism has been on the rise since the 1970s, even though church affiliation in the U.S. has steadily declined during the same period. Fundamentalists found a home within the Great Communicator’s (Reagan’s) America and they have never left. As the U.S. is battered by the effects of economic globalism and social displacement, many have turned to religious populism as a safe haven in a world of uncertainty. Who, other than Donald Trump and his acolytes, could be further from religious ethical values with his payoffs to sexual liaisons, his violent rhetoric toward opponents, his dyed-in-the-wool misogyny; his tax giveaway to the extremely wealthy, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions, his modernization of doomsday weapons and abrogation of nuclear weapons’ treaties, and his push to close off the U.S. economically in a global market with tariffs and economic sanctions against opponents such as those in place in Iran and Venezuela?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a populist as “a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people.” And some of those common people are waking up to the fact that Trump, et al., are treating them in the same way he treated many workers and contractors who were shortchanged in the construction of his real estate empire. Environmental destruction and the use of economic sanctions are a practical tutorial for those in the farming industry who thought Trump was in their corner. If Trump has his way, his followers won’t even be able to afford those plentiful, cheap consumer goods from Asia and then where will they turn for solace?
The Guardian sheds light on the joining of populism and religion in “The populist right is forging an unholy alliance with religion,” (June 11, 2019). The melding of religion, the political system, the social system, and the economy is a dangerous phenomenon taking place across the globe, with resulting hate of the other undergoing a resurgence and metamorphosis in places like Hungary, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and of course in the United States. How could the so-called lessons of World War II be learned when masses of people are poorly educated and simple answers are all they seem to want for complex global issues and problems that affect their lives. Great Britain at least has some sense to limit their disastrous view of populism in the economic and social spheres and keep religion and religious intolerance out of the debate for leaving the European Union. But the effects of British populism may be the same as religious fundamentalism in the long term vis-a-vis immigration.
Much of religion on the right today is not marked by participation in a church or other religious meeting place with social connections, but rather a bizarre nod to religion that comes from the likes of Trump, which is religion without redeeming values: It’s not a hand up, but a push down. Both the New Deal and the Great Society were somewhat successful attempts to raise most economic prospects in a secular environment. Those programs brought people together, but the erosion of democratic traditions and values about the worth of people and groups are eroding faster than the soil of the rain-drenched Midwest. It can be seen outside of the U.S. in India, in Brazil, in Russia, and elsewhere.
Religious populism is not the religion that bound people toward the common good, but rather a populist way to attempt to deal with globalization and its myriad displacements of communities and individuals.
We on the left need to respond to the morphing of global capitalism that is leaving so many unmoored and adrift and ready to support the next authoritarian who comes along with the false promises of false prophets. This isn’t that old-time religion, it’s blasphemy!