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New nationalisms in Europe and the ambivalent role of religion

New nationalisms in Europe and the ambivalent role of religion

Marianne Heimbach-Steins, University of Muenster/Germany

The migrant or refugee crisis in Europe brings about serious ethical questions on what may be called a European identity. Different actors on the political stage readily rely on “European values” and sometimes also on “Christian values” to justify their opinions and claims. The weaker European solidarity appears to be the more the rhetoric of values seems to be used although obviously there is hardly a common understanding of what these claims mean and to what kind of thinking or acting they might commit people to. A political field that shows quite clearly the confusion as to values and political-ethical orientation is the development of new nationalisms in Europe.

In many European countries right wing political parties and movements are gaining strength and growing in influence not only on the public climate but also on  political opinion and decision making. In Western and Northern European countries like France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany as well as in Eastern and South-eastern countries like, for example, Poland and Hungary such trends can be observed. Nonetheless the political role of these nationalist forces differs a lot from one state to another. While in Poland and Hungary the right wing parties presently carry governmental responsibility, in Western European states they form more or less strong oppositional parties like – to mention but two examples – the French Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) the latter of which came out from the most recent elections in several German Laender quite strongly and will take a remarkable number of seats in the Laender-Parliaments.  

Although they derive from different national traditions these political forces have some essentials in common. They promote programs shaped by strong antagonisms performing anti-liberal, anti-migrant (which means at the same time xenophobic and anti-Islam), anti-gender and homophobic tendencies, and anti-European nationalist attitudes. They claim to represent the ordinary people, their anxieties and their interests which seem not to find satisfying answers in the established liberal, conservative, social-democratic or green parties. The claim to struggle for social justice and representation of the people’s needs goes along with a very limited idea of justice. It does not go beyond the national level, thus excluding rights, needs and interests of non-citizens or non-nationals. This also means to promote the (illusionist) idea of a homogenous society, fighting against diversity of any kind. In all cases the nationalist parties profit from the uneasiness parts of the population feel vis à vis the recent migration flows, from the fear of social deprivation which scares some people in precarious socio-economic situations, and from the widespread fear of terrorism.

Dependent on the specific national traditions the promotors of these nationalist programs either use religious or laicist motives and traditions to justify and strengthen their positions and to present them as rooted in the country’s specific ‘culture’. In Poland and Hungary, for example, the ruling forces refer to Christian traditions and values to justify the exclusion of migrants from Islamic societies.

With regard to the Social Teaching of the Church and especially with reference to the positions Pope Francis stands for many people ask – I myself was frequently asked those questions during the last weeks – how the Church in the mentioned countries (and how some Christians in our countries) can support these narrow nationalisms which form a strong contrast to the values of love and solidarity as well as to the Church’s self-understanding as a world church. In fact, nationalist political programs seem to be contradictory to the biblically rooted idea of the human family or to the even broader idea of the family of creation Pope Francis stressed in his encyclical letter Laudato si’. Catholic Social Teaching promotes the idea of a Christian cosmopolitanism and the right to freedom of movement – strongly expressed for example in the encyclical letter Pacem in terris by Pope John XXIII. And it postulates time and again an openmindedness and generosity towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as people whose human rights need to be protected and implemented for the mere reason that they are humans – and in need of protection.

The renewed nationalist tendencies in so called “Christian” or “Catholic” societies which seem to be contradictory to these basic Christian convictions showcase the ambivalence of the political engagement of religion. On the one hand Christian faith cannot abstain from social and political responsibility insofar as faith in Christ incarnate drives believers to take the option for the marginalized in societal and political conflicts. On the other hand there is the danger of getting instrumentalized and involved in the game of power on the wrong side. A narrow relationship between national interests and religion / Church therefore always is a threat to the authenticity of the Church and her mission. It needs a clear discretion of the spirits and the courage of Christians to speak out against the instrumentalization of “Christian values” for political interests.