Behind the rise of populist politics in recent years is a genuine anguish: many feel thrust aside by the ruthless juggernaut of globalized technocracy. Populisms are often described as a protest against globalization, although they are more properly a protest against the globalization of indifference. At bottom they reflect pain at the loss of roots and community, and a generalized feeling of anguish. Yet, in generating fear and sowing panic, populisms are the exploitation of that popular anguish, not its remedy. The often cruel rhetoric of populist leaders denigrating the “other” in order to defend a national or group identity reveals its spirit. It is a means by which ambitious politicians attain power.
Today, listening to some of the populist leaders we now have, I am reminded of the 1930s, when some democracies collapsed into dictatorships seemingly overnight. By turning the people into a category of exclusion—threatened on all sides by enemies, internal and external—the term was emptied of meaning. We see it happening again now in rallies where populist leaders excite and harangue crowds, channeling their resentments and hatreds against imagined enemies to distract from the real problems.
In the name of the people, populism denies the proper participation of those who belong to the people, allowing a particular group to appoint itself the true interpreter of popular feeling. A people ceases to be a people and becomes an inert mass manipulated by a party or a demagogue. Dictatorships almost always begin this way: sowing fear in the hearts of the people, then offering to defend them from the object of their fear in exchange for denying them the power to determine their own future.
For example, a fantasy of national-populism in countries with Christian majorities is its defense of “Christian civilization” from perceived enemies, whether Islam, Jews, the European Union, or the United Nations. The defense appeals to those who are often no longer religious but who regard their nation’s inheritance as a kind of identity. Their fears and loss of identity have increased at the same time as attendance at churches has declined.
The loss of relationship with God and a loss of a sense of universal fraternity have contributed to this sense of isolation and fear of the future. Thus irreligious or superficially religious people vote for populists to protect their religious identity, unconcerned that fear and hatred of the other cannot be reconciled with the Gospel.
The heart of Christianity is God’s love for all peoples and our love for our neighbors, especially those in need. To reject a struggling migrant, whatever his or her religious belief, out of fear of diluting a “Christian” culture is grotesquely to mispresent both Christianity and culture. Migration is not a threat to Christianity except in the minds of those who benefit from claiming it is. To promote the Gospel and not welcome the strangers in need, nor affirm their humanity as children of God, is to seek to encourage a culture that is Christian in name only, emptied of all that makes it distinctive.
Pope Francis, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 117-18.