The Godless Crusade: Why Europe’s Far-Right Is More Secular Than You Think

While America grapples with concerns about “White Christian Nationalism”, Europe’s identarian far right is decidedly more secular in its “Godless Crusade” against immigration and liberalism.

The term “White Christian Nationalism” has gained prominence among commentators on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. While scholars and commentators continue to debate its precise meaning and how „Christian“ it actually is, major American news outlets are already warning about Christian nationalists threatening to turn the US into a religious state. Many European observers are captivated by these developments, especially with the far right projected to make substantial gains in the upcoming European Elections in 2024. Some have even begun to wonder if their own continent might become the next battleground for the Christian nationalist crusade.

However, Europe’s far right holds a fundamentally different stance on religion than their American counterparts. Superficially, concerns about a European “handmaiden’s tale” may appear justified, as right-wing populist leaders such as Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Eric Zemmour in France have made efforts to emphasize their countries’ Christian identity, display Christian symbols, and present themselves as defenders of the Christian West against Muslim migrants. Yet, a closer examination reveals that Europe’s far right is both a symptom and a harbinger of the continent’s increasing secularization, with these parties’ policies and supporters exhibiting a decidedly secular outlook.

For my recent book I have analysed voting behaviour and conducted interviews with 114 right-wing populist politicians, faith leaders and representatives of mainstream parties in Germany, France and the US to understand and compare right-wing populist movements relationship to religion. One notable finding was that rise of the far right in Europe is less driven by religious revival and more by the emergence of new social cleavage centred on questions of identity. These divisions are intricately linked to the erosion of traditional religious and class identities through the processes of globalization, individualization, and secularization. The underlying logic is that as traditional collective ties based on faith, class, or region weaken, a crisis of identity arises, particularly among white working-class voters. Right-wing populists seek to capitalize on this trend by promoting their own brand of right-wing identity politics. This brand offers a collective identity not in terms of shared faith, class, or region, but rather in opposition to an external “other”, which in Europe is often defined as the Muslim immigrant. The erosion of class identity and associated social structures has caused many working-class voters to shift their allegiance from left-wing parties to far-right parties. In the US for instance Donald Trump conquered the Rust-belt, while Marine Le Pen won a staggering 65% of working class votes in the second round of the 2022 French presidential election (compared 41,5% overall). A similar trend has emerged among formerly religious voters who, traditionally aligned with Christian democratic parties, have become more open to voting for the far right as their religious affiliation and practice have waned, especially when the far-right pays lip service to the West’s “Christian heritage”. In Western Europe for instance irreligious voters are significantly more likely to vote for far-right parties than their more pious neighbours.

To better understand that dynamic, it’s important to note that references to Christianity as a cultural identifier of the “us” primarily appear in right-wing populist rhetoric in the context of their religious definition of the “other” as Muslim. For right-wing populists, Christian symbols and language serve as insignia of Western civilization and whiteness, used against Islam and immigration. These symbols can be interchangeable with Viking-inspired symbols, neo-pagan motifs, and even secularism, but remain often detached from Christian beliefs, values, and institutions. In fact, in my book I show that beneath the right-wing populists’ superficial commitment to Europe’s “Judeo-Christian identity,” these parties often pursue highly secular policy agendas.

For example, the French RN has placed a strict secular interpretation of Laïcité at the core of its agenda, promoting extensive bans on religious expression in the public sphere. Meanwhile, Germany’s AfD has called for its party members to disaffiliate from churches, clergy to be prohibited from participating in political debates, the abolition of religious education in schools, defunding theology faculties, and a stricter separation of church and state. Right-wing populists also clash with church doctrines, not only on matters of race and immigration but often even on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Some of Europe’s far-right groups have for instance embraced more socially liberal positions in an attempt to present themselves as defenders of a “modern Western lifestyle” against what they perceive as “backward” Islam.

Within the European electorate, this political divergence is mirrored by a growing division between the old religious Right and the new secular Right. The former primarily consists of churchgoers and, on average, more educated middle-class individuals committed to liberal economics and socially conservative church teachings on abortion and gay marriage. However, they also tend to be more open to immigration and are aligned with conservative or Christian Democratic parties. In contrast, the new secular Right is predominantly composed of unchurched, disenchanted working-class voters who combine more “progressive” attitudes on social issues with a cultural nativist stance and greater scepticism toward capitalism and the norms and institutions of liberal democracy. Moreover, even those members of the old religious Right who may hold anti-immigrant views tend to not translate them into voting for far-right parties. The research that I conducted for my book suggest that the reason is that practicing Christians tend to be highly attuned to social taboos surrounding right-wing populist parties, often set by faith leaders who have strongly opposed the far right in Europe. By contrast, among members of the new secular Right, faith in leaders of religious, political, or even scientific elites and institutions has eroded, along with their sensitivity to social taboos. 

As a result, in Europe, this division is evidenced by what some scholars have described as a “religious immunity” against the far right, where church attendance often serves as one of the strongest predictors of not voting for these parties. For instance, the AfD in Germany consistently over-performs among irreligious voters, but does disproportionality poorly among Protestants and Catholics (see table). 

Considering Europe’s rapidly increasing rates of secularization, where Christians are now a minority in countries like Germany (48%), France (45%), Sweden (36%), or the Netherlands (34%), and where church attendance has plummeted to between 1-5% of the population in most countries, it is no surprise that Christian Democrats, who traditionally represented the devout, are struggling, while the populist far right is on the rise. An adaptation of a Christian-right-inspired “Handmaiden’s tale” scenario of a theocratic takeover seems unlikely in Europe, given the waning influence of Christianity on the continent. However, whether the “godless crusade” of Europe’s more secular but equally radical and intolerant populist right is a less daunting prospect, remains to be seen.

Featured image of the article is text to image generated by the AI.

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