The Post-Pandemic Western Populist Right: A Purported Clash Between the Public Good and Individual Rights
Vice President Mike Pence meets with Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of Italy in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Monday June 17, 2019 (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)
As the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be loosening its grip on most regions of the world, at least in its deadliest form, several Western democracies have been left to deal with the political and judicial consequences of the restrictions imposed during the worst phases of the disease onto mobility, social contacts, and individual liberty.
The world health crisis has escalated the debate over the boundaries of constitutional rights and freedom. During the first months of the pandemic, newspaper op-eds in countries including the United States and Italy asked whether social distancing measures constituted necessary and vital precautions, or attempts made by states and governments to curtail citizens’ rights.
The physical, mental, and spiritual impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world’s population can hardly be overestimated. The widespread deployment of religious tools to cope with the feelings of fear and uncertainty on the part of faithful individuals is thus unsurprising. To halt the spread of the then-unknown deadly virus, however, governments around the world imposed more or less severe restrictions on public gatherings, including religious and spiritual ones.
While the intensity varied from country to country, the clamor that these restrictions created in the conservative public discourse is indicative of how the western populist right increasingly exploits these feelings of uncertainty, as well as the desire of affected populations for connection and reassurance, to build and strengthen their case against a more communitarian state apparatus and inclusive policies. In other words, social and political actors’ remonstrations against restrictive measures, affecting religious gatherings among other activities, shed light on how religious identity and belonging are exploited for the advancement of political and ideological claims.
These claims, far from being aimed exclusively at pursuing a conservative political agenda seeking to minimize interference from an intrusive government, foster the perception of a public fight between defenders and enemies of constitutional rights such as freedom of religion and speech. Furthermore, they transfer behavioral guidelines, aimed at preserving the public good, into an arena of polarized public discourse.
The United States and Italy
Western democracies situated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean present substantial differences in terms of historical development, political systems, and the (dis-)establishment of religion. This, however, has not hindered the attempts of politicians and social actors to create a transatlantic right wing Christian populist network. Moreover, the structural differences among these countries cannot hide the striking similarities between the rising stars of the western populist right, which are evident in both their backgrounds and in their electorates.
Many western nations have seen the rise of a class of actors whose previous or early public life suggests no involvement with religion, and who reinvented themselves as defenders of what large swaths of the electorate consider the unofficially sanctioned state religion. This process allowed them to dramatically expand their support or voting base, thus demonstrating the efficacy of leveraging religious belonging in public discourse.
Although the countries under consideration in this essay differ historically, culturally, and religiously in substantial ways (first and foremost in the foundational elements of their respective national mythologies, which contain the ethnic, cultural, and social elements that provide presumed legitimacy to populist claims), the role assumed by religion in the political claims of the western populist right may provide elements for understanding the rise of a new transnational religious right.
Key features of right wing populism such as nativism and authoritarianism have not been lost in the growing inclusion of Christian elements in the discourse of these political actors. They have in fact remained a staple of their agendas, highlighting the exploitation of Christian symbols in what has been defined as a developing western post-religious right at the service of a reactionary and nationalist identity politics.
Already in April 2020, a few days before Easter, the Kansas Supreme Court had to reinstate a measure implemented by the Democratic governor Laura Kelly which banned religious gatherings of more than ten people. Kelly had to resort to the Supreme Court’s intervention because her decision, taken as a consequence of the dramatic spread of the pandemic, had almost immediately been revoked by the state’s Republican legislators who had harshly criticized it as an unacceptable attack on religious freedom.
Cases like this were not uncommon during the first months of the pandemic in the United States where, alongside the fight against the virus in overwhelmed hospitals, other battles were fought, often between the federal and state governments, with courts called in to settle cases allegedly involving infringements on the First Amendment (a long, albeit far from exhaustive, overview of such cases can be found in the list of amicus briefs filed by Americans United against the granting of exemptions towards religious institutions).
Right wing religious interest groups, portraying themselves as the joining link between citizens’ values and demands and the government, were not immediately enraged about restrictions on religious gatherings. Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council (FRC), one of the most prominent Religious Right organizations, initially supported stay-at-home orders, but their tone changed abruptly when New York’s mayor De Blasio realized that the provision was not universally respected and had to resort to more stringent measures.
It was what came next that had Americans everywhere up in arms. If the city’s houses of worship didn’t comply, the mayor threatened, New York officials would “take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently… You’ve been warned.” Where are we? Communist China? As frustrated as de Blasio was with the situation, this was a completely disproportionate response — not to mention an unconstitutional one. No mayor has the authority to permanently close the doors of a city’s churches and synagogues. And if he tried, there’s a little thing called the First Amendment that would have something to say about it.
The Trump-Pence administration often praised protests or pastors who overtly defied restriction orders. The former Vice President publicly applauded the Department of Justice’s support of a Virginia church refusing to limit the service audience to ten participants. In the midst of the worst months of the pandemic, President Trump immediately sided with protests against church restrictions. In the most critical weeks of the virus’ spread throughout the country, Trump showed his lack of a cohesive national plan to address the health crisis. The former president issued guidelines from the White House, only to then incite citizens protesting social distancing measures and urge state governors to loosen controls.
As far as Italy is concerned, the country constituted the first European hotspot of the Covid-19 pandemic and immediately imposed the necessary restrictions on all types of public gatherings, implementing a particularly severe form of shelter-in- place mandates. Unsurprisingly, prominent Italian rightwing parties, such as Lega (League) and Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), insisted on the reopening of churches and the restoration of in-presence masses, in contrast with the provisions of a decree-law issued on March 25, 2020.
Guiding the above-mentioned parties, Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni belong to the current of rising right wing, populist, and authoritarian politics conquering growing numbers of the Italian electorate. While they do have some fundamental differences, both espouse the necessity of closing borders to foreign migrants, pursuing an “Italians-first” policy, and defending an allegedly threatened Christian identity against an array of alien threats ranging from Islam to so-called “gender ideology.”
Salvini was recently indicted for prohibiting Open Arms, a ship carrying refugees, from entering the port of Lampedusa in 2019, and, in line with his most famous predecessor leading the Northern League Umberto Bossi, strongly opposes the rights of immigrants to land on Italian coastlines. Finally, Meloni often mixes the defense of the culture of life with affirmations against the so-called islamization of Europe.
Italy lacks the unofficial but incisive movement known as the religious right in the United States, but occasions for politicians to signal their alignment to the Catholic, or nominally Catholic, constituency clearly abound. Salvini has often made sure he was caught on camera carrying, and at times kissing, a rosary necklace, and one of Meloni’s most famous public speeches (given in 2019) saw her shouting from a stage to a cheering crowd “I’m a woman! I’m a mother! I’m a Christian!”
These figures can count on the support of prominent conservative media outlets, but it is in La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana (The Daily Compass) that one can find the clearest signs of alignment to their Christian populist rightwing program. A self-proclaimed newspaper providing news from a Catholic point of view, The Compass is an online paper which, during the pandemic, represented the voices of those dissatisfied, or utterly furious, with governmental decisions to close churches. Starting from the March 25, 2020 issue of the decree-law, the newspaper published article after article decrying the alleged infringement on religious freedom on the part of the government.
In an op-ed titled “Masses banned, religious freedom has died (yesterday in Parliament),” a journalist claimed:
“For the first time in the history of the Republic, the Italian Parliament, maintaining the letter H inserted in decree-law No. 19 of March 25, 2020, gives the green light to the limitation of religious freedom which — as recalled by a recent ruling of the Constitutional Court — being ‘guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution, is an inviolable right, protected to the highest degree by the Constitution.”
The newspaper also espouses the views of the growing numbersanti- vax protesters, a faction unsurprisingly composed by many self-proclaimed fundamentalist Catholics, comparing the mandate to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to the persecutions enacted in Nazi Germany.
Far from being exclusively used within the realm of religion, the rhetoric of imperiled individual rights readily spilled over into the protests against mask- and vaccine-mandates. Seen as unacceptable, violent intrusions of governments into the private lives of citizens, any measure aimed at preserving public health was criticized by growing numbers of citizens proclaiming to fight for their freedom. Once again, prominent western right wing actors exploited the spreading societal discontent, and portrayed themselves as the defenders and protectors of citizens and families’ rights against intrusive governments.
In the post-pandemic discourse of the western religious right, the family has become the symbol of the fight against state-imposed restrictions as well as larger-scale regulations. Preeminent example of the introduction of an external, extraneous, and foreign element into one’s body, vaccines have easily become the latest symbol of the alleged interference of the state in the lives of its citizens, as they blur the boundary between private and public and are therefore cast asimpositions, on the part of the state, into the citizens’ private lives.
The Internationalization of the Religious Right
The main figures of the Italian populist religious right have inserted themselves into the western populist right network initiated, among others, by former Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon. This commonality of interests translates into a profitable exchange of participation, support and organization of events. Signs of this new international right include the thirteenth World congress of families organized in Verona in March 2019, and the participation of Giorgia Meloni in the 2020 National Conservative Conference and in the annual U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2019 and 2020.
In 2017, Bannon, in cooperation with Benjamin Harnwell, established the Certosa di Trisulti monastery in the region of Lazio as the seat of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. This was supposed to become an academy for educating figures who wished to work for the protection and restoration of a Judeo-Christian west. After a long fight that saw civic organizations attempting to strip Bannon and Harnwell of the old monastery, the Certosa has finally been restituted to the Ministry of Culture.
But the project of what Mudde defines as the “global Christian right” extends well beyond Italy. This is shown by the frequent interactions between key figures of the former Trump administration with Hungary’s Orbán, as well as prominent French, Austrian, and Spanish right wing political actors.
The resemblance of the right wing populist attitude of prominent political figures in the U.S. and in Italy is striking in several regards. One of the most evident common characteristics is the contrast created by the profession of a devout Christian faith and the harsh rhetoric and policy proposals reserved for the immigration emergency involving both the United States and the southern European continent.
The second major element in common, which strongly facilitates the creation of a western religious rightwing network, is the insistence on the defense of constitutional individual rights against an allegedly overbearing state apparatus or central government. This defense is mounted, as claimed, in the interest of the people; a category to which, however, only citizens possessing specific ethno-cultural traits can aspire to belong.
Western rightwing populist actors on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean found in the supposed clash between public good and constitutional rights the occasion to consolidate their image as defenders of an imperiled Christian identity, and to legitimize their authoritarian, nativist, and populist claims. Their growing electorate, Christian in name only, is proving willing to accept their narrative and advance their agenda. ♦
Chiara Migliori obtained her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of North American Studies of the Freie Universität in Berlin, where she focused her research on the figure of Donald Trump as perceived by white conservative Christians, ordinary voters, and members of religion-based advocacy and interest groups. From 2017 to 2019, she conducted individual and focus-group interviews with Trump supporters in the United States, and the results of the research were published in the book Religious Rhetoric in Right-Wing Politics: Donald Trump, Intergroup Threat and Nationalism by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022.
Migliori, Chiara. “The Western Populist Right in 2020: A Purported Clash Between Public Good and Individual Rights.” Canopy Forum, July 21, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/07/21/the-post-pandemic-western-populist-right-a-purported-clash-between-the-public-good-and-individual-rights/