In the 1960s, the grandfather of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley, popularized the slogan, “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” Aimed then at leftist imaginings of heaven on Earth via political transformation, the phrase admonished those who would reduce the transcendent end of faith (eschaton) to earthly political ends (immanence). It became a touchstone for a generation of young conservatives. Yet, today right-wing populist nationalist movements are instrumentalizing religion in support of authoritarianism. Around the world, surging religious nationalism should give pause to any who might still share Buckley’s worry.
In India, a Hindu nationalism has erupted into sometimes violent extremism. Under the ideological banner of Hindutva (Hinduness) the movement aligns with and is abetted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. A quasi-paramilitary group, Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh, has been associated with significant violence. Harshly anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalism also targets Christians and Dalits for persecution. Attacks on Muslims include deaths and rapes, destruction of mosques, unjust imprisonments, and flagrantly discriminatory laws and court decisions. Jesuit Father Stan Swamy, who died in 2021 while imprisoned, is a horrific Christian example. Other minority religions in India, including Sikhs, Parsis, and Jains face varying levels of discrimination.
In Turkey, a Turkish-Islamist nationalism fanned by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party and its radically right-wing ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, has effectively used religion to marginalize minority religious and ethnic populations (Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Christians, Jews, Ba’hais). Erdoğan has also positioned his interpretation of Islam against key democratic institutions and fundamental constitutional rights, valorizing the historically-freighted term “the national will” ahead of rule of law and in support of his authoritarian regime. Similar Islamist-nationalist authoritarianisms are finding fertile ground elsewhere, evident across the Middle East, in North Africa, as well as in South and Southeast Asia.
An extremely violent variant of this phenomenon is found in the radical interpretation of Buddhism that the military junta (Tatmadaw) in Burma uses to justify its seizure of power in the 2020 coup. The junta is behind an ongoing genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslims and an increasingly violent anti-Christian campaign. Hindus too have been targeted. Atrocities include thousands of deaths, rapes, destruction of mosques and churches, razing villages, and in recent months even airstrikes against civilian populations. In November, the Christian village of Mone Hla, home of Myanmar’s highest Catholic prelate, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, was destroyed by the junta, resulting in several deaths. Less violent utilizations of Buddhism to support authoritarian movements can be found elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Indeed, immanentizing faith for nationalist ends is a global virus. Think on Viktor Orban’s Hungary or Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro. Notice, too, the increasing efforts to weaponize Christian identity by the far-right authoritarian parties in Europe and even Bibi Netanyahu’s current use of Judaism in Israel. We may be seeing something similar in Putin’s efforts to deploy Russian Orthodoxy to bless and justify his invasion of Ukraine. The United States, of course, is also not immune.
An excellent study of the situation in the United States was released in February by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Entitled “A Christian Nation? Understanding the Threat of Christian Nationalism to American Democracy and Culture,” PRRI’s polling found 29 percent of Americans to be sympathetic to Christian nationalism. (See also Pew Research Center’s study from last fall.) These Christian nationalists supported the arguments that the U.S. should declare itself a Christian nation and that God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society, preferring by a large margin an America made up of people who follow the Christian faith and unsupportive of the idea that the U.S. should be a nation made up of people belonging to a variety of religions. The study reports, moreover, that “nearly four in 10 Christian nationalist sympathizers (38 percent) and half of strong Christian nationalist adherents (50 percent) support the notion of an authoritarian leader,” “a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”
The PRRI poll also offers some initial insight into populations most open to Christian nationalist appeals. The numbers skew toward Americans who are less educated, older, who are less inclined than other Americans to be concerned about racism, less welcoming of immigrants, and more inclined toward antisemitic and anti-Muslim views. More than eight in 10 Christian nationalist adherents agreed with the statement, “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world.”
The PRRI sample found 64 percent of white evangelical Protestants to be either adherents or sympathized with Christian nationalism. White Catholics were far less supportive at 30 percent. That said, Christian nationalism’s appeal in some Catholic circles is obvious, and many prominent leaders publicly associated with the movement are Catholic, such as former army general, Michael Flynn, and white supremacist, Nick Fuentes.
Returning to consider the rising religious nationalism globally, the American data fit a pattern. Religious nationalism is a populist movement that appeals to less educated, more fundamentalist religious populations. It appeals to populations who are resentful in two directions—vis-à-vis elites whom they perceive as unfairly above them and vis-à-vis those whom they perceive as unfairly cosseted below them: those of lower caste, different, immigrants, minorities. In class analysis, religious nationalism especially appeals to what sociologists term the lower middle class. This is a class with low social capital that is economically and socially anxious for its place in society. Psychologically, those attracted to religious nationalism are fearful that changes occurring in society imperil their sense of status and self.
Arguably, rapid globalization is a top-level driver of contemporary religious nationalism. Globalization’s social and economic changes give raise the anxiety of religious fundamentalists and the lower middle class. Around the world, religious nationalism often reflects anti-West sentiments, as Western values and Western economic forces are seen as threatening to established ways of life and thought to be conveyed by globalization.
Authoritarianism finds traction among religious nationalists not only when it promises to guard disaffected populations from social and economic change, but also when it purports to have a unique strength lacking in the normal processes of law to act against the targets of that populations’ resentment. Erdoğan and Modi exemplify how this works. It should be recognized, however, that authoritarianism inevitably hollows out civil society and other mediating institutions in society that traditionally provide a sense of place and security in the social order. Religion itself becomes subsumed under political authority in authoritarian states. Freedom of belief is often an early victim when religious nationalism bends toward authoritarianism—and, indeed, defending freedom of belief is critical in response to such authoritarianism.
Catholic teachings oppose “immanentizing the eschaton.” While faith should always be an inspiration for our political engagement as citizens, it is corrupted and deformed by efforts that make it a political program. It is no longer faith if yoked to political ideology. Even more, if the transcendent that can only belong to faith is imagined to co-inhabit a political movement or a political leader, the result is inevitably catastrophic for both faith and political life.
Stephen Schneck, a Catholic advocate for social justice and former professor at The Catholic University of America, currently serves on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Commission.
Image: Wikimedia Commons. Viktor Orban speaks in Slovenia.