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Against Right-Wing Identity Politics and Exclusion: Resources from CST and Christian Social Ethics

In several European countries, not least in Germany, (far) right-wing political movements have been gaining increasing influence, as the recent elections to the European Parliament have shown quite clearly. This development is of great concern to many people, not least inside the churches. The Christian churches in Germany, Catholic and Protestant alike, have clearly positioned themselves against right-wing programs.[1] A recent socio-ethical study examines the program of the right-wing political party “Alternative for Germany”, compares its positions with those of CST, and comments on the findings.[2] The research provokes one to ask what resources Christian social and political ethics can offer to counter the ideological claims of the “right”: What are the orientations and potentials opened up in the perspective of Christian (social) ethics to counter the impositions of right-wing populist and extreme right-wing programs, identity politics and images of history in thought, speech and action?

Of course, political opinion is not formed solely (perhaps not even primarily) through the examination of written programs and the importance of emotional states – worries, fears, hopes – must not be underestimated as sources of influence on people’s political positioning and decisions. Nonetheless, basic ethical orientations are important for personal and collective judgment. They contribute to strengthening socio-political commitment based on a Christian understanding of the human being, the inviolable and indivisible human dignity and human rights, and support the readiness to take responsibility for justice and solidarity on a universal scale, notwithstanding its limitations on the level of concrete (individual) action. And they draw attention to what people need in order not to lose confidence that a good future is reachable and democratic forces are politically committed to this – despite the multiple crises that characterise our time. In the context of Christian ethics, this means not only formulating a claim, but also recalling the promise of peace, justice, and healing inherent in the biblical message of God.

Ethical orientations – necessary distinctions

As to the ethical foundations there are profound differences and incompatibilities between right-wing populist and right-wing extremist parties on the one hand, and positions of CST on the other. In sociological terms, however, the fault lines do not simply run between people and groups who think (or feel) politically to the right and those who identify as Catholic or Christian, but also between people and groups who invoke a Christian (be it Catholic or Evangelical) foundation. Overlaps between the political and the religious right are evident in some programmatic-ideological positions that are irritating and problematic with regard to the whole of CST and Christian ethical argumentation. Such overlaps can even be identified in the official teaching of the Church, for example in the support of anti-gender ideology by magisterial voices through to papal statements.[3] The need to elaborate clear distinctions on a Christian ethical basis must, therefore, also be addressed to the Church itself. The interpretation of what is identified as “Christian” and “Catholic” must be struggled for: It is no protected “brand”, but unfolds throughout a living tradition. Nevertheless, Christian faith, tradition, ethos, and ethical theory must by no means be claimed as sources of legitimization for arbitrary political positions. Christian ethical positions and options for action based on the principles and certainties of CST and Christian (social) ethics do serve also as obligations that bind Christian and ecclesial practise.

Human dignity and human rights

The biblical narration of the human being created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26) and called into communion both with all other human beings and all creatures serves as a framework for modern Catholic teaching in which the inviolable dignity of every human being has been adopted as firm conviction. Human dignity can neither be graded nor granted to “more or less”. It is not conditioned, as if it depended from a certain individual endowment, personality traits or performance (ability), but is granted to every person by virtue of their humanity. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount on the prohibition of swearing apply to the commitment to human dignity and the required resistance to disregarding it: “Let your yes be yes, your no be no” (Mt 5:37): Yes to equal human dignity for all, No to discrimination and exclusion that attacks and calls into question the dignity of those affected. Differences as to ethnic belonging, race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation must not play a role in this. When people are discriminated against, disregarded and marginalized for such reasons, it is not only the dignity of these people that is attacked, but also the conviction that all humans are equal as to their dignity as human beings. This conviction requires decisive opposition to any kind of violation of dignity and a practical commitment to defend the dignity of those who are denied respect, protection and recognition or who are attacked and violated on the basis of certain characteristics such as origin, skin color, gender, etc. Positions that programmatically undermine this claim – regardless of who represents them – contradict the universalistic Christian image of humanity.

Corresponding with the acknowledgement of the inviolable dignity of every human person modern CST and Christian social ethics recognize universal human rights. They must not be arbitrarily withheld from anyone and, more than that, they require continuous and resolute commitment, including advocacy. Formal recognition is not sufficient; human rights, especially for the most vulnerable groups, must be effectively protected and enforced. The Catholic magisterium refused to recognize human rights from early modernity onwards up to the 20th century, and still gives rise to human rights criticism by specific institutional and doctrinal restrictions up to the present day.[4] Nonetheless the Church of today is committed to the respect and protection of human rights in its preaching and diaconal practice, including through its aid organizations, in a variety of ways worldwide. Since turning to modern human rights at the time of the Second Vatican Council, the promotion of human rights has been perceived as an essential prerequisite for overcoming structural violence, enabling just peace and curbing the overexploitation of natural resources. Such engagement is driven by the deep-rooted hope that moving towards a global situation in which people are not forced to leave their homes in order to live a decent and secure life must not remain an illusion. That is why Church actors, especially Pope Francis, do not cease to demand and encourage serious global political efforts to guarantee the dignity and basic rights of every human being. There is no other way than to campaign and work in order to realize this aspiration – even though the cynics of this age dismiss such campaigning as utopian, do-gooderism and dreaming, as Pope Francis realistically stated in his encyclical Fratelli tutti (cf. FT 124-127).

However, considerable tensions remain between the United Nations’ international human rights system and the Catholic Church with regard to their views on (some of the) individual human rights and their protection. Above all this applies to certain issues of the protection of life, in particular with regard to unborn life and the understanding and implications of “reproductive autonomy”. Standing up for the protection of unborn life requires that human autonomy – including the autonomy of pregnant women – is not thought of in an individualistic manner, but in fundamentally relational terms. The Church’s advocacy for the right to life of the unborn is based on strong ethical grounds. However, this must not lead to the protection of women’s dignity and rights being lost sight of – as seems to be the case with certain “pro-life”-activists and -campaigns, such as the “March for Life” initiative, in which the religious right and the political right make common cause and reinforce each other at the expense of a clear Christian witness to the universality and indivisibility of human rights.[5]

Another issue in which the Roman magisterial position, from an ethical perspective, falls short of the claim to respect and protect the dignity and human rights of every human being at all costs is the recognition of gender and sexual diversity. Statements of ideological anti-genderism have not only been militantly advocated by representatives of the Catholic right as well as the political right for many years, but have found their way into Roman magisterial texts since the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There is clear evidence that Pope Benedict actively fuelled the Catholic anti-gender discourse over many years.[6] Up to today the defamation of ‘gender’ is constantly repeated by voices of the religious right (catholic, evangelical, and orthodox) and by magisterial teaching. Repetition, though, does not make such positions more convincing, but rather weakens the Church’s commitment and dedication to the comprehensive protection of dignity and human rights, insofar they discriminate against people on the basis of their gender and/or sexual orientation.[7]

Responsibility, solidarity and justice

The biblical understanding of the human being made “in the image of God” also forms a foundation for recognizing human responsibility to preserve the “family of creation” (Pope Francis), i. e. the global human community and all creatures in their interconnectedness and interdependence. According to the biblical narrative, the human creature as ‘viceregent’ (image, statue) bears responsibility for safeguarding creation as God’s work and “domain” (cf. Gen 1:28) and for nurturing and caring for it as a habitat for all creatures (cf. Gen 2:15).

To take responsibility requires both to align one’s actions with ethical principles and to reflect on the good or bad consequences of certain courses of action in advance. In a world that is globally interconnected and interdependent in almost all areas of life, no one can pretend that their own responsibility ends “at the garden fence”. At the level of political action, the effects of possible alternative courses of action on all groups in one’s own society, including the future generations affected, must be examined; this responsibility, as well, does not end “at the garden fence” or at national borders either. No society, no state leads an insular existence that could at best be protected against flooding “from outside” by dams.

From a socio-ethical perspective, the recognition of human dignity and human rights forms the universalistic framework within which responsibility (both on the personal and the political level) is read. It refers to a principally unlimited political and ethical space, even if the capacities for implementation are limited, which necessitates the delineation and definition of graduated obligations. This basic tension must be emphasized against right-wing ideological agendas that with a particularistic, often nationalistic, identity politics drive a wedge into the system of social, economic and political participation based on universal human rights. Such particularistic agendas call into question equal human rights with regard to certain groups and restrict political and even humanitarian responsibility to the national level or to one’s own particular group. To abandon a universalist ethos of human dignity, human rights and responsibility in the name of biologistic or nationalistic particularism is incompatible with basic Christian ethical convictions. CST and Christian social ethics offer various orientations that help emphasize ethical responsibility for the protection and realization of universal and indivisible human rights.

The preferential option for the poor

Turning to the needy has always been a basic orientation of a Christian social ethos. In modern ecclesial and theological-ethical development, this feature of identity has been redefined by the “option for the poor”. Beyond the obligation to help the poor (which always carries the risk of paternalism), the option recognizes them as subjects of their own lives and thus as social actors and aims at strengthening their agency and enabling them to just participation. Practically, the option refers always to specific poor ones in a given context, but it does not restrict the ethical obligation to those who belong to one’s own group. Rather, related to the specific situation it must be asked as to who the specific poor are and whose claims to participation and involvement must be strengthened and implemented. The urgency of the challenge for action is revealed in the situation of the poor themselves and in their claim to be seriously recognized as subjects. Modern CST has recognized the option for the poor as a criterion of how just a society or a state in fact is.[8]Thus the option for the poor offers a counter-model to a logic of action that perceives (and evaluates!) the poor exclusively from a deficit perspective and makes the right to participation dependent on how a person has performed in advance. The option for the poor provides a benchmark for both individual and collective action in society and serves as a means of ethical critique of political offers, strategies and their effects on social cohesion.

Solidarity beyond borders

The aim to empower people, especially under conditions of poverty, injustice and limited participation, must be translated into a policy of solidarity, especially when it comes to issues that transcend the local space and demand responses at the national, continental and global levels. According to a Christian understanding, solidarity is more than the answer to a shared interest of a “closed” group. It rather aims to respond to the experience of mutual dependency with social practices and institutions in order to reliably organize support and to minimize life-risks beyond individual commitment to charity.[9] In today’s globalized world, no society or state – no matter how much they insist on “national sovereignty” – can free themselves from economic and political entanglements without increasing the existing problems (as the societal consequences of Brexit have clearly shown and continue to do so). The multiple crises of our time – above all the climate, energy and environmental crisis driven by progressive global warming – call for enforced cooperation and international solidarity; they by no means qualify as an argument for abandoning solidarity obligations and justifying a restriction to the national level. One of the strong messages of the current pontificate is to repeatedly emphasize the connection between the social and ecological crisis and the urgency of pooling all forces of solidarity in order to at least cushion the dramatic consequences, especially for the world’s poor.

Social justice

As to the understanding of justice, CST and Christian social ethics can draw on a long and diverse tradition. Justice has been developed as a virtue on the one hand, and as a demand on the order of society and the political community on the other hand which is what “social justice” is about. Its framework of reference has expanded with the changes in modern societies, especially under the auspices of globalization, worldwide political, economic, cultural and informational interdependencies beyond the nation state up to the global level and, more recently, even to the planetary dimension. Today’s socio-ethical challenge is to treat concrete local questions of justice without separating them from the larger dimensions of global socio-ecological justice.

The understanding of justice differs profoundly between right-wing populist programs (like the German AfD) and CST. The right-wing political program focuses primarily on performance, ties social support by the state to advance performance and primarily aims at reducing the burden on the state. Particularly vulnerable persons and those in need of help should not be granted support unless they have previously made the appropriate contributions. Strangers and those who are denied belonging should also receive no or only marginal support. This fits neither with an approach based on human rights ethics nor with the CST tradition of justice. The core demand of a modern Christian understanding of social justice is participatory justice which relies on the recognition of the ethical subject and its agency. It is complemented by distributive justice and exchange justice as well as procedural justice which is added as a guarantee that just claims can be enforced. The four criteria belong together (further criteria, in particular intergenerational and gender justice, are added). They relate to the individual person and their equal dignity and rights; however, the individual is not perceived as isolated but embedded in social relationships and ecological contexts. In order for everyone to be able to claim equal freedom, there must be an order that assigns individual freedoms to each other in a compatible manner. It protects and limits individual freedoms and balances out inequalities that prevent certain individuals from enjoying their freedom and just participation. Equitable participation necessarily includes equitable distribution. It requires a close look at how differences between people and social diversity are dealt with and where human rights’ equality is undermined by referring to certain differences in a discriminating way. The prohibition of discrimination, be it on ethnic or religious grounds, on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or disability, plays a key role.

The crises of our time, above all the ecological crisis, not only endangers individual claims to freedom, but increasingly jeopardizes the livelihood for more and more people – and non-human beings – as a whole. It is, therefore, one of the outstanding requirements of justice today to adapt the scope for freedom in a way that further threats to life and coexistence can be effectively and sustainably counteracted in a global and planetary context. This is where intergenerational justice comes into play. The claims to an intact basis of life for generations to come cannot be articulated today but in an advocatory manner. To claim a restriction of justice and solidarity to particular groups of presently living people – based on ethnic, nationalist or other (arbitrary) criteria – seems to be profoundly unethical with regard to the complex and intertwined issues of justice from the local to the global and planetary level as well as in the temporary dimension between past, present and future.

Keeping the horizon open

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman published his analysis of the present under the headline “Retrotopia”. He addressed the tendency to romanticize the past and to look backwards instead of aiming at an unprecedented future:

As the old fears drifted gradually into oblivion and the new ones gained in volume and intensity, promotion and degradation, progress and retrogression changed places – at least for a growing number of unwilling pawns in the game, they were – or felt themselves to be – doomed to defeat. This prompted the pendulums of the public mindset and mentality to perform a U-turn: from investing public hopes of improvement in the uncertain and ever-too- obviously un-trustworthy future, to re-reinvesting them in the vaguely remembered past, valued for its assumed stability and so trustworthiness. With such a U-turn happening, the future is transformed from the natural habitat of hopes and rightful expectations into the site of nightmares […] The road to future turns looks uncannily as a trail of corruption and degeneration. Perhaps the road back, to the past, won’t miss the chance of turning into a trail of cleansing from the damages committed by futures, whenever they turned into a present?”.[10]

The impositions of a crisis-ridden present let the shift to ‘retrotopia’ appear attractive though it is deceptive: it “derives its stimulus from the hope of reconciling, at long last, security with freedom: the feat that both the original vision and its first negation didn’t try – or, having attempted, failed – to attain”[11]. The illusionary striving works with a threefold “back to the future”[12]: Firstly, the “rehabilitation of the tribal model of community”, secondly, the “return to the concept of a primordial/pristine self predetermined by non-cultural and culture-immune factors”, and thirdly, the “retreat from the presently held (prevalent in both social science and popular opinions) view of the essential, presumably non-negotiable and sine qua non features of the ‘civilized order’.”[13]

In fact, these characteristics seem very near to what shapes the backward-looking historical thinking and identity politics which can be found in the AfD’s program:[14] Clues for the ‘völkisch’-nativist construction of identity (‘German national community’) are sought in history. At the same time, however, this identity is “naturally” anchored beyond history, through reference to descent (as condition for belonging and citizenship), the “natural” form of the family and a quasi-natural link between culture and nation. History is constructed in a one-sided, (not progress-oriented, but) success-oriented way in that historical features are only referred to in an affirmative way; critical examination (of the crimes of National Socialism, but also of colonialism) is vehemently rejected. Such a paradoxically backward-looking, romanticizing construction of society and collective identity seems decidedly lacking in hope. It suggests that nothing can be trusted in the future, that nothing new can be thought of or expected in a good sense.

From a Christian perspective, both the present and the future of a social community are linked to its past in a profoundly different way. Reassurance of one’s own identity requires a connection with one’s own origins, with tradition and history. But reconnecting with history then means “aggiornamento”, not a return to “yesterday”. Remembrance does not mean turning backwards, but approaching the legacy of the past in a future-oriented way. Historical consciousness neither restricts itself to the memory of success nor constructs a success story cleansed of all shadows. Rather, it also includes experiences of failure and entanglement in guilt. Facing up to this demand is a challenge that the church itself has been very hesitant to take on, in recent times especially in coming to terms with the history of sexual and spiritual abuse. However, the fact that a critical approach to (one’s own) history can fail due to the ‘obstructionism’ (to the point of refusal) of those in positions of responsibility is not an argument against a corresponding ethos of remembrance, on the contrary: this shows how much the path to an open future depends on opening up and facing up to an unvarnished approach to the past.

Not to suppress guilt and failure means first and foremost that the victims of past injustice must not be concealed and forgotten. In the wake of the Holocaust as a dehumanizing breach of history, theology and church preaching have taken up this challenge: For the Christian confession of Jesus Christ, the remembrance of suffering (memoria passionis), the commemoration of the victims of unjust violence and the confrontation with one’s own guilt is constitutive.[15] The forgetfulness of suffering, even in Christian traditions, must be subjected to fundamental criticism. Telling history only as a “victor’s story” is inhumane, because it hurts the victims once again, and even exposes them to annihilation. A new awareness can arise from the pursuit of justice for the victims and from the (always precarious) hope of reconciliation in the future: history can be experienced as a time-space of repentance and a new confrontation with the unreconciled parts of the past that continue to have an impact in the present.

Learning from history requires facing up to its dark sides. Faith in Jesus Christ, in which the memory of suffering and the promise of salvation and healing are so closely linked, offers a strong incentive not to refuse this challenge. History – past and future – with its light and dark sides, is to be understood and accepted as an unfinished time-space of human development, of the struggle for freedom, justice and peace, and of the chance for reconciliation between people and between people and creation: It reveals itself as the task of shaping togetherness in a truly humane way. In the light of Christian faith, this task can rely on a transcendental hope for a completion that cannot be achieved through human striving; in other words, by the promise of divine salvation intended for all people. Such hope relieves human struggling of the compulsion to self-redemption. It liberates them to a fundamental serenity in thought and action.[16] However, it also implies the challenge to give credible expression to hope in (Christian) lives and actions.

[1] Deutsche Bischofskonferenz (DBK) (2019): Dem Populismus widerstehen. Arbeitshilfe zum kirchlichen Umgang mit rechtspopulistischen Tendenzen (Arbeitshilfen, 305). Bonn: Sekretariat der deutschen Bischofskonferenz, online: (20.06.2024); Deutsche Bischofskonferenz (DBK) (2024): Völkischer Nationalismus und Christentum sind unvereinbar. Erklärung der deutschen Bischöfe, online unter (09.05.2024); Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) (2023): Beschluss der 13. Synode der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland auf ihrer 4. Tagung zur Auseinandersetzung mit gruppenbezogener Menschenfeindlichkeit und extremer Rechter vom 05.12.2023, online unter‌gruppen‌bezoge‌ner‌_‌‌Menschenfeindlichkeit_und_extremer_Rechter.pdf (09.05.2024).

[2] Heimbach-Steins, Marianne / Filipović, Alexander et al. (2024), Die Programmatik der AfD – eine Kritik. Darstellung und Vergleich mit Positionen der katholischen Kirche (Arbeitspapiere des Instituts für Christliche Sozialwissenschaften, N. 28), Münster (forthcoming). This essay presents a shortened and modified version of the concluding chapter (4) of our research.

[3] Cf. Behrensen, Maren (2020): Eine philosophische Auseinandersetzung mit der katholischen Genderkritik. (Sozialethische Arbeitspapiere des Instituts für Christliche Sozialwissenschaften, 13), 1–20. DOI: 10.17879/74089683601; Behrensen, Maren /Heimbach-Steins, Marianne /Hennig, Linda E. (Hg.) (2019): Gender – Nation – Religion. Ein internationaler Vergleich von Akteursstrategien und Diskursverflechtungen, Frankfurt/M.: Campus.

[4] Cf. Stein, Tine (2014): Menschenrechte und Kirche – eine politikwissenschaftliche Analyse und kirchenpolitische Stellungnahme aus aktuellem Anlass, in: JCSW 55, 79-103, urn:nbn:de:hbz:6:3­jcsw­2014­12235

[5] Cf. Strube, Sonja Angelika (2019): Rechtspopulismus und konfessionelle Anti-Gender-Bewegung, in:  Behrensen, Maren /Heimbach-Steins, Marianne /Hennig, Linda E. (Hg.): Gender – Nation – Religion. Ein internationaler Vergleich von Akteursstrategien und Diskursverflechtungen, Frankfurt/M.: Campus, 25-49; Püttmann, Andreas (2019): Geschlechterordnung und Familismus als Policy-Angebote des Rechtspopulismus und Autoritarismus für das katholische Milieu, in: Behrensen, Maren /Heimbach-Steins, Marianne /Hennig, Linda E. (Hg.): Gender – Nation – Religion. Ein internationaler Vergleich von Akteursstrategien und Diskursverflechtungen, Frankfurt/M.: Campus, 51-80.

[6] Cf. Behrensen (2020); Heß, Ruth (2023): Zurück zur ‚natürlichen Geschlechterordnung‘? Theologische und theopolitische Motive im Anti-Gender-Diskurs, in: BAGKR (Hg.), Einsprüche. Studien zur Vereinnahmung von Theologie durch die extreme Rechte, 4, Berlin, 6-26.

[7] Heimbach-Steins, Marianne (2024): Der menschenrechtliche Anspruch der Inklusion und die Haltung der Kirche gegenüber sexuellen Minderheiten, in: M. Feix / F. Trautmann (Hg.), Die Universalität der Menschenrechte. L’universalité des droits humains (SThE 164), Basel – Würzburg, 247-259.

[8] Cf. United States Catholic Bishops (1986): Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. Washington D.C.: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

[9] The history of modern welfare states in Europe offers various examples of how the idea of solidarity can be implemented on the societal level, cf. Gabriel, Karl (2024): Die soziale Macht des Christlichen. Religion und Wohlfahrt in Deutschland und Europa, Frankfurt/M.: Campus.

[10] Bauman, Zygmunt (2017): Retrotopia. Polity Press, 9.

[11] Bauman, Zygmunt (2017): Retrotopia. Polity Press, 11.

[12] Ibid. 11.

[13] Ibid. 12.

[14] Heimbach-Steins/Filipović et al. (2024), chapters 2.1 and 4.3.

[15] Metz, Johann Baptist (1980): Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, transl. by D. Smith, London: Burns & Oates.

[16] For a Future founded on Solidarity and Justice. A Statement of the Evangelical Church in Germany and the German Bishops’ Conference on the Economic and Social Situation in Germany, Bonn-Hannover 1997, 94, online: