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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.
Covid 19 & Religious Nationalism

16 May 2020

Starting the conversation…

Tobias Cremer, Graduate Research Associate, Cambridge Initiative on Religion & International Studies, Centre for Geopolitics

In recent years news headlines have been dominated by the rise of national populists who often use of religious language and symbols as part of their appeal. How might the COVID-19 pandemic affect this development?

In many ways the new pandemic accentuates some of the negative consequences of globalisation that the national populist revolt is fighting against, and against which they had sought to mobilise religious and cultural identities. COVID-19 is a global threat whose spread has been hugely accelerated by open borders and high levels immigration and international exchange. International trade also made domestic economies and populations more vulnerable to the virus’ repercussions for supply lines. 

However, the virus also shifts popular attention away from national populist core topics of immigration, national identity, and the clash of civilizations. Crucially, COVID-19 also changes the way religion itself is perceived and practiced in many societies. National populists tend to emphasise religion as a cultural form of collective belonging and identity marker of the nation in order to draw boundaries and create in and out groups. However, in times of death, disease and social isolation, the spiritual and theological aspects of faith as a source of hope and meaning move back to fore, just as individual prayer and meditation replace mass gatherings. 

Will nationalist populist leaders still be able to capitalise on the pandemic to push back against globalisation and reinforce national cultural identities? Or will a return to spirituality embolden religions’ universalist claims?

A crucial question in this context is also what role can faith leaders play? We can already see that many faith leaders like Pope Francis were not only among the first to follow scientists’ advice to close places of worship and suspend services, but also to emphasise Easter’s message of hope and renewal and to appeal to transnational solidarity and charity in the face of the pandemic. 

Yet, at the same time some religious leaders, notably in the Americas and in India, have already defied governmental social isolation guidelines as threats to religious freedom and used religious arguments to question scientific findings. As religious people around the world face the threat the pandemic will they put their faith in the populist right’s calls for a pushback against globalisation or will they return to some of their traditions more universalist instincts?


David Elcott, Henry and Marilyn Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership, New York University

I sit comfortably in my home, surrounded by my safely sequestered children and grandchildren, food delivered, internet for eleven of us, lots of yard space to roam.  We are safe and protected.  From this position of privilege and security, I cringe at the autocratic voices that rage against the COVID virus and the embarrassment who sits in the White House. 

But for others, there is a deep fear, a sense of loss and abandonment, an experience of déclassement. This is hard for progressives to hear. Those who are rebelling against the established elites, against people like me, see themselves as having played by all the rules, dutifully standing in line, patiently waiting their turnfor the benefits of the globalized world that I enjoy, but a world that has never materialized for them. For them, a global pandemic is further terrifying proof that globalization leads only to suffering and loss. 

As much as their xenophobia and racism infuriate me, I also must recognize that these folks are clearly in pain, a reality that right-wing nationalists clearly understand. The death rate among high school educated white American men and women from what is described as “deaths of despair” rose precipitously over the first decades of the 21stcentury. And across the world, people are voting and marching against the existing globalist, neo-liberal order.In so many places, then, there is a sense that the social contract has been shattered. Those who feel disenfranchised, believe that liberal democracy has robbed them of their dignity, values, and culture. 

For so many, globalization is a kind of cultural death – except now globalization brings a crippling pandemic, confirming their worst fears.

And illiberal democratic political movements and their leaders do not turn to the progressive voices of their churches, temples, mosques and synagogues. These leaders seek to reestablish the perceived historic purity of their nation, grounded in what they view as a traditional national culture that weds the state and society with the dominant religion. Autocrats and populist politicians know how to effectively play this identity card. This deep connection to national religious identity—not necessarily religious practice—is used by these leaders to fuel anger and hurt. What they preach is that real Americans or Germans, Israelis or Indians, share an ancient religious tradition, whether or not they are true believers, and that only those who share that unique, national religious tradition can be authentic citizens.  Everyone else, no matter how long they have resided in the country, are outsiders, “others” who will never be true citizens.

That is the dilemma of the liberal elite, my dilemma.  How do I speak to my fellow citizens to explain that I am protecting their rights, I am fighting for the democracy that defends them from demagogues and self-serving charlatans? That they are being seduced by leaders who use religion as a cudgel to gain power that, ultimately, will destroy everyone.  Is there language, a compelling narrative, that we can offer those who feel that they are being robbed?  That is the challenge we face, to tell a more meaningful story that will embrace not only those who have been disenfranchised and marginalized because of populist illiberal movements, but those who have been convinced that the Trumps and Putins, Netanyahus and Modis, are the only ones who care about them. 

It is time to roll up our sleeves, reach out, and get to work.

Alexander Goerlach,  Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

When I moved to the United States in the fall of 2014 to become a fellow at Harvard University, I quickly learned that the concept of race, and therefore the concept of racism, is different in the US than in Europe. Neither of the two types of racism is good. However, it is worthwhile to have a look at the difference in order to highlight what might change amid the Covid-19 outbreak in regard to the denigration of people of a different ethnicity, in the United States and elsewhere.

In Europe racism is not necessarily directed towards race, but it is attacking the culture of a specific group. Therefore you might hear a sentence like “Islam doesn’t fit here, into our Occidential, Christian culture” more often than something directed to a falsely proclaimed inferiority of one specific ethnic group (albeit this exists, it is not in the mainstream of identity politics). In the United States, on the other hand, and due to its specific history with people of African and Chinese descent, race is pretty much at the forefront of the debate. When it comes to discrimination of people in the LGTBQ-community, there seems to be a closer link to the way racism operates in Europe, by calling a natural sexual orientation a “choice of lifestyle.”

I think it is fair to say that xenophobes nowadays use cultural and religious heritage as a means to propel their racism. That is also now visible in the COVID-19 meltdown: people of East Asian origin are attacked on the streets, insulted and even physically assaulted. The perpetrators claim that Chinese people are inferior humans because of the food they eat. This is a new level of racial insult as the cultural denigration is entirely meant to make a point of racial inferiority. In China on the other hand, the government agents have taken on a similar road, casting people of African origin out of their homes to forcefully quarantine them. There has also been a comic strip that showed Africans and other foreigners as trash that needs to be discharged by the mighty Chinese, picturing humans being thrown to the trash bin.

I fear the global outbreak of the pandemic with a humongous loss of lives and a devastating impact on the world economy will make obsolete cultural hints as a sort of disguised racism. We now see an extreme loss of civility, human kindness and empathy that is owed to the fact that governments need to cover their base, implying that a mighty force, a foreign state, is in fact to be blamed for the pandemic and not themselves. 

Paul Freston,  Professor, Balsillie School of International Affairs

Some of the most frequent macro-interpretations of the effects of the pandemic have religious implications or parallels. Waning prestige of the neoliberal model and existing consumer culture will weaken their parallel manifestations in religious garb. The reality-shock of the pandemic may lead to renewed appreciation of science, expertise and academic knowledge, weakening both religious and non-religious anti-intellectualisms. Populist political leadership has run up against hard facts and shown its deadly limitations. The US and UK (as I write, first and second globally in fatalities) and Brazil (leading the southern hemisphere and currently the fastest-evolving hot spot) have all, in various ways, exemplified traits of populist governance. While none of their leaders are particularly religious, two of them have been heavily supported by evangelicals and various types of conservative Catholics, and this could still prove a time-bomb for the public image of those religious currents.

In a sense, what unites all the above examples (neoliberalism, anti-intellectualism, populism) is the concept of “faith”: in the market, in “common sense”, and in political messiahs. But are the predictions of their weakening sound, or are they academic and political wishful thinking? The sociology of religion on failed prophecy suggests there is more resilience to expectations around complex historical phenomena, for which the meaning of events is rarely as perspicuous as all that. News bubbles (such as some I am following in Brazil) are already hard at work devising alternative readings which maintain the basic premise of the “faith”. And the economic effect of the crisis, whatever policies are followed, threatens to be so dramatic in countries without the means (e.g. Brazil) or the political will (e.g. the US) to provide an adequate social safety net, that it may exacerbate culture wars and an embattled stance in some religious communities.

One thing we can be fairly sure of already is that there will be a significant loss of US global prestige and leadership. This, of course, has been coming for some time, but the current administration and especially the pandemic have accelerated the process. This has implications not only for American religious exporting, but also for its more diffuse attractiveness as an influence on religious life around the world, the global capacity of the US image as a nation to confer positive associations on certain religious currents. Not that American decline in this respect will be replaced by China; rather, we may see something of a vacuum, a world in which a mismatch between hard and soft power predominates to an unusual degree.