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Nationalism, Populism, and the Politics of Religion. Towards an Illiberal Reframing of Fundamental Rights

By María Belén Soriano Zamora

Can populism weaponize freedom of religion to install markers of exclusion in law and politics? Can religion be portrayed as a possessor of the truth to promote nationalist agendas?

These are some of the questions that emerged during Professor Susanna Mancini’s lecture on October 26, 2023, Nationalism, Populism, and the Politics of Religion. Towards an Illiberal Reframing of Fundamental Rights, where she discussed the appropriation and instrumentalization of human rights and fundamental rights by illiberal nationalist and populist forces, and the repoliticization of religious values in the context of nationalist and populist agendas.

Professor Mancini is chair of Comparative Constitutional Law at the University of Bologna School of Law and vice president of the International Association of Constitutional Law. Her lecture is a part of  the CIVICA research project “RELICON: Religion, Illiberal Constitutionalism, and the Retrogression of Fundamental Rights in East Central Europe” – a project developed through the collaboration of the Hertie School, CEU’s Democracy Institute and the EUI.

The appropriation and instrumentalization of human rights

“The fact that illiberals and populists attack rights, per se, is of course not particularly surprising, given that rights are the main stake of the political project”

Professor Mancini highlighted that populist discourses can assign a hierarchy to human rights. For instance, during Donald Trump’s regime in the United States, there were institutions dedicated to establishing reforms on human rights discourses, alleging that they had departed from the nation’s founding principles of ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights’. ‘God-given rights’, like freedom of religion and private property, were contrasted with ‘man-made rights’, like social and gender equality, with the former occupying a higher hierarchical position.

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Institutional secularism is attacked by claiming that aspiration to neutrality is bound to result in an anti-religious outcome. This has been the basis, for example, for attempts to require schools to teach creationism alongside evolutionary theory in the U.S. since the 1980s. However, this does not mean that illiberalism and populism have completely rejected secularism. In fact, it is still a key, malleable concept within their discourses, as it can be easily adapted from an ideological approach. Religious values from privileged majorities can be promoted as the ones that are truly compatible with secularism. Certain religions can be established as main religions, which will enjoy more visibility, while the rest of them become peripheral, barely tolerated, afterthoughts.

The threat of globalization, migration, and supranational governance

“Both in right-wing nationalist and in populist appropriation of religion, what is crucial is not whether there is a significant, or even widespread, commitment to religious dogma and beliefs. Instead, what is important is the use of religion, in the first place, as a basis for forging identitarian bonds that strongly exclude those that are cast as ‘the other’, but more broadly, the use of religion as a tool to set national, geographical, cultural, and sexual boundaries that are felt as threatened by globalization.”

Professor Mancini emphasized that pluralism and transnational governance are also versatile notions within populist agendas. They do not need to be disavowed only through religious discourse, given that it might be enough to cite the cultural differences that separate one dominant group from the minorities that threaten the status quo. For example, immigrants from the Global South can be described as backwards and incompatible with the democratic values of the Western World, and this might be enough to foster animosity towards globalization. Similarly, propositions of transnational governance that hold stricter standards of unified humanitarian policies can be depicted as arbitrary entities imposing short-sighted expectations on independent democracies.

In contrast, populism can also have an alternative approach when it comes to transnational activism, since the possibility of having foreign references from supranational courts can influence domestic courts into upholding illiberal values. Right-wing groups can have extensive experience in religious litigation, in order to gather and endorse international legal resolutions against abortion, which might support the promotion of their agendas on a local level.

“We have to be aware of the risk that comes from supranational activism and make sure the courts are well-equipped to resist such instrumentalization and remain like a boat sailing against the current of populist rhetoric.”

Nevertheless, Professor Mancini highlighted that the politicization of religion is not exclusive to right wing politics, but mostly to anti-pluralistic regimes. Latin America was cited as an example of a radically left-wing politicization of religion.

The search for consistency with secularism

According to Professor Mancini, populism and illiberalism can profit from religion as a tool to install markers of inclusion and exclusion that respond to identitarian structures. When secular principles demand a clear separation between state and religion, illiberal regimes might argue that all systems of law have always been based on religion, that it is inherent to our understanding of the world and, implicitly, a possessor of the truth in politics.

“Religion is meant to, somehow conspicuously, re-enter the public sphere as inextricably linked to the culture of the polity or an essential attribute of culture.”


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