Populists, manipulated Christianity



Éric Zemmour exhilarating “the angel who leads the army of angels against that of demons” in front of Mont-Saint-Michel, last weekend: an image full of historical-political and religious overtones. The symbol had already been used in other times by Nicolas Sarkozy, who had inaugurated his campaign at the same place, in 2007, evoking “this France, this country like no other”.Éric Zemmour therefore invented nothing, except that he, more than the former President of the Republic, explicitly took up the “Christian values” to defend. So here is the archangel hijacked by the candidate who continues to oppose one part of the country to another.

Should we be worried about it? Yes, because throughout Europe we are witnessing a similar instrumentalization of Christianity by far-right populist policies. What Zemmour does with Mont-Saint-Michel, Salvini also did with Medjugorje and Orban with the Bible. A religious insistence curiously little raised by the political observers of the extreme right. The Italian journalist Iacopo Scaramuzzi (1) has thus dissected the ways in which populists in Europe and elsewhere reuse the symbols, language and rituals of Christianity, to make them a defense against the foreigner and to reinforce a feeling of western identity. Whether it’s Putin, Orban, Bolsonaro, Zemmour, Salvini or Trump, it’s the same appeal to Christian values, the same exaltation of a lost heritage… Paradoxically, moreover, these populists who proclaim themselves defenders of the Christian tradition found their firmest enemy at the heart of this Christianity, in Rome, with Pope Francis.

What are the springs of such instrumentalization? Undoubtedly, religious language makes it possible to respond to the concerns of contemporaries who are rightly confused. But there is deeper. Christians, in France in particular, have good reason to worry about the voluntary and almost systematic disappearance of any religious reference. Looking at Zemmour in front of Mont-Saint-Michel, how not to think of another Saint Michael, a statue representing the archangel slaying the dragon, installed on the forecourt of the church in Les Sables-d’Olonne (Vendée), which the administrative court of Nantes has ordered to unbolt, because constituting “a religious symbol in a public place”. This kind of absurd decision whispers the idea that we want to erase part of our memory, our roots, and our history. It feeds all the populist rhetoric.

However, by reducing Christianity to its cultural aspect for the sole purpose of reinforcing a mythologized European identity, the populists do no better. They are basically only the other facet of the same enterprise of dechristianization, as Iacopo Scaramuzzi rightly points out… On the one hand, those who, out of secular conviction and fear of Islam, have launched a battle against all religions. On the other, those who exploit religion to make it a cultural identity of protection against foreigners, surfing on a feeling of fear. Both devitalize the faith. Because Christianity does not emerge unscathed from this manipulation. The Gospel placed first not the defense of identity or soil, but the love of neighbor. If Europe became Christian, it was first of all by building hospitals, schools, centers for the poorest or the most fragile. And not by raising barriers. As for the statues of the archangel, it’s a safe bet that they will soon no longer interest the populists who will move on to something else when they no longer need them. After having emptied the Christian tradition of its deep meaning.

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