Engaging with Religion and Populism

A response to “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”

by Thomas White

In Professor Brian S. Turner’s RSP podcast interview with Sammy Bishop, a rallying cry for the relevance of sociology of religion rang out. In the aftermath of 9/11, it was the rush to understand Islamic terrorism that re-centred the study of religion in the social sciences. Now, Turner argues, it is the worrying integration of religion with emerging far right populisms and strongman regimes that provides renewed urgency and relevance to the discipline.

Populist movements – of the nativist, right-wing, anti-establishment sort – are on the rise in erstwhile confidently liberal democratic states. Trump’s America, Brexit Britain, the National Front in France, Italy’s Northern League, the Golden Dawn in Greece, Netherland’s Freedom Party, and the governments of Poland and Hungary, together present a worrying trend of escalating vulgar patriotism. Energised by the Syrian refugee crisis, anti-immigration – with an unmistakeable undercurrent of Islamophobia – is the policy platform on which these movements commonly enjoin. Elsewhere, illiberalism, democratic decay and the appeal of strongman politics is taking root in Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey and in the Philippines, under the thuggish rule of Rodrigo Duterte. In the podcast interview, Turner points out that in nearly all of these movements or regimes, religion is a major factor. He predicts that on the issue of populism, “from an academic point of view… religion is going to be very central to all of these debates.”

Professor Turner’s rich and wide-ranging interview provokes a broad array of questions that deserve further scholarship. Why does America’s Christian Right, formerly self-named the Moral Majority, support such an apparently amoral Donald Trump? How does populism in Western Europe combine the politics of Christian identity and secularism to hound religious minorities? What do religious revivalist groups and populist movements share in terms of their social structures or in their treatment of history? How may Turner’s own work (2011) on the theory of religion, such as his discussion of Kant’s distinction between cult and religion, and Weber’s ideas of the virtuosi and the masses, or his work on charisma, or on the body (is populism essentially democratic auto-immunity?) inform engagements with populism? For this podcast response, I want to simply reflect on how discourses of religion and populism can feed other (secular) populisms too. I do so with reference to the specific subject area I know best: religion, populism and constitutionalism in Fiji.

In the Pacific Islands state of Fiji, religious difference tracks and underscores ethnic difference. Nearly two-thirds of the population are indigenous Fijians and near-exclusively Christian, whereas a further third, the Indo-Fijians, are mostly Hindu and Muslim. Fiji has suffered three ethno-nationalist coups (two in 1987 and another in 2000) and these drew heavily on the institutional, symbolic and human resources of Fijian Christianity. Nationalists cheered “Noqu kalou, noqu vanua” (“My God, my land”) and “Rerevaka na kalou ka duka na Tui” (“Fear God and honour the chief”) as they overthrew Fiji’s multiracial governments, enforced nation-wide Sabbath observance and harassed Indo-Fijians towards emigration. In light of this history of destructive religious populism, in 2012, when Fiji began drawing up a new constitution to bury the ethnic divisions of the past, the Bainimarama military regime – itself coming to power in a coup in 2006 – declared Fiji would be a secular state. This non-negotiable provision was fiercely contested by indigenous Fijians during the constitutional submissions process, who favoured a “Christian state” instead. These protests, however, were largely ignored, being principally understood by the constitution commissioners and the government as an exclusivist, religious nationalism echoing down from the coups. Yet was this fair?

In their edited collection Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion (2016), Marzouki, McDonnell and Roy point out that the populist use of religion is more often about “belonging” than “belief.” This distinction is a useful one. It differentiates between those voices who invoke religion as an in-group/out-group marker, seeking some special recognition from this distinction, and those who invoke religion to express a moral/spiritual orientation towards the public good (This distinction might explain why, for instance, Trump’s Evangelical support is strongest amongst those with lowest church attendance). In the case of the indigenous Fijian submissions rejecting a secular state, this distinction fell largely along clergy/laity lines, with church leaders speaking from “belief,” and the lewe ni vanua (the people of the land) from “belonging.” The churches typically expressed misgivings about a state no longer anchored to a Christian morality, whereas submissions from the laity were more likely to list their demands for a Christian state alongside calls for cultural markers of indigeneity to be prioritised within the symbolism of the nation-state. Examples include the name “Fijian” only being used for indigenous Fijians, Fijian as the language of the state (presently it is English), and the indigenous chiefs having a dominant hand in government. This distinction between these two positions, however, was occluded by the Bainimarama regime’s own populist tendency to homogenise political opponents – locating all concerns regarding a secular state, by both villagers and churches, as effectively racist. This reduction to racism of often nuanced religious “belief” positions was facilitated by the slippery use of “secularism” in public debate. “Secularism” was translated into Fijian as vakavuravura, meaning “worldliness,” implying a materialism cut-off from God. When the government discussed secularism in English, however, it was presented as state neutrality, pursuant of political equality and religious freedom. This duality of meaning had political implications. Secularism as vakavuravura excited broad church opposition. Yet as the government publicly positioned this opposition as a rejection of state neutrality and the principles it championed, they could then seek to dismiss these religious institutions as anti-democratic and unsuited for political participation. The positioning of public religion within a frame of racist populism has helped the Bainimarama government justify a strong (suspiciously vakavuravura) secularism, and further centralise state power through the political marginalisation of church leaders critical of government.

We might say that the role of a sociology of religion in engaging with the connection between religion and populism has (at least) three areas of competence and responsibility. (1) Providing for thicker descriptions of the anxieties and ambitions that underlie populist movements, particularly when religion and religious individuals are integral to their operations. Turner’s discussion of Trump supporters and the narrative of the “tender warrior” is a case in point. (2) To use the unique insights that a training in the study of religion brings to an analysis of the structure and techniques of populist movements: how the “us and them” distinction is constructed, disseminated and deployed. I touched on this very briefly above. And lastly, and in relation to the Fiji case-study, (3) to ensure that a growing public recognition of where and how religion lies within neo-populist movements, authoritarian government and ethnic conflict, is contoured by a subtlety of social analysis that guards against the threat of religion-centred populism being used to justify a secular authoritarianism, undermining democracy from the other side.


Marzouki, N., McDonnell, D., & Roy, O. 2016. Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Turner, Bryan S. 2011. Religion and Modern Society: Citizenship, Secularisation and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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