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The Moral Theologian in the Time of Populism

Keywords: moral theologian, populism, elitism

An ongoing phenomenon that is international in its spread is the rise of populist leadership. Donald Trump of the United States, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Erdogan of Turkey, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kacynsko of Poland, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Jair Balsonaro of Brazil are generally perceived as walking illustrations of populism.

 The word populist, or its related word popular, can be understood pejoratively or positively. It comes from populus which means people. To be a populist can mean that one has the ability to relate to the majority of the population. That is certainly better than someone who is too aloof to relate to the hoi polloi.

 But populism is pejorative when it is equated with demagogy. A populist politician presents overly simplistic answers to complex questions, and appeals to raw emotions. This populist often takes advantage of certain real grievances or fears of some people. Thus, Trump plays around the immigration phobia, Putin the anti-Western sentiments, while Duterte the drug scare. Because of the populist appeal, what is obviously morally wrong has become acceptable to a great number of their followers.

 In his latest book Identity, Francis Fukuyama describes a populist leader: “Populist leaders seek to use the legitimacy conferred by democratic elections to consolidate power. They claim direct charismatic connection to ‘the people,’ who are often defined on narrow ethic terms that exclude big parts of the population. They don’t like institutions and seek to undermine checks and balances that limit a leader’s personal power in a modern liberal democracy: courts, the legislature, an independent media, and a nonpartisan bureaucracy.”

 The anti-thesis of populism is elitism, and it too can be taken positively or pejoratively. It is negative when it implies exclusivism. For instance, a club is considered elitist when a condition for membership is high financial standing.

 But elitism too has a positive connotation in the sense that only the best are allowed to enter. For instance, the marines are supposedly the elite in the military since not all soldiers can survive the rigorous training. In the same manner, not everyone can be a medical surgeon. It is in this positive sense that Plato asserted that the ideal republic is where kings are philosophers and philosophers are kings. It is in this same positive sense that Jose Ortega Y Gasset, in his book, La Rebelion de las Masas, was referring to when he wrote, “I have never said that human society ought to be aristocratic. What I have said, and still believe… is that human society is always (whether it wills or not) aristocratic by its very essence… “ For him, the division of society into masses and the heroic minority is not based on social classes and cannot coincide with a hierarchical separation of the upper from the lower classes. Rather, society is divided into those who make great demands on themselves and those who demand nothing special on themselves.

The tension between populism and elitism has always been felt in philosophy and theology. For instance, existentialism reacts against herd mentality and espouses individual authenticity. Karl Marx was more on the populist side when he theorized that the proletariat would bring about revolutionary change resulting into the emergence of the communist state. Vladimir Lenin, on the other hand, was more elitist when, reflecting upon the progress of the Russian revolution, he said that the proletariat, if left to themselves, could only reach up to trade union consciousness. For him, vanguards who are willing to make sacrifices are necessary.

The tension between the elite few and the majority is also seen in the message of Jesus. Not all people are called to respond to then radical demands of Christianity. The challenge of Jesus for the rich young man to sell everything and give money to the poor was not addressed to everyone. He did not make the same demand on Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

Jesus chose an inner circle but he worked for the benefit of the marginalized sectors of society. Jesus compared the growth of the kingdom to the small amount of leaven that can make all the yeast grow. I take this to mean that a small number of committed people can help realize the vision of the reign of God.

Contemporary sensitivities towards greater democratization may turn off suggestions of elitism. One may recall the Gnostic doctrine that some people have received a special kind of salvific knowledge that is not received by the general population. But elitism is not necessarily wrong. It becomes wrong if the elite do not serve the greatest possible number and remains engrossed in self-glorification. 

This brings us to the role of a moral theologian in an age of populism. A moral theologian is elitist who, to be effective, also must speak the language of the people.

It is a given that the moral theologian belongs to the elite since not everyone is professionally trained to appropriate the values of one’s religious traditions in order to make judgments on a given contemporary situation. A moral theologian, by training, can go beyond simplistic sloganeering. 

Moreover, the same moral theologian is elite not simply because of one’s academic expertise but the willingness to be part of a heroic few who can boldly proclaim their judgments.

 Yet, here we go to why a moral theologian also needs to speak to the people. To be effective in shaping current discourse on societal issues, a moral theologian cannot just use esoteric jargon while speaking before one’s peers. Otherwise, the books which are products of ivory tower reflections may find their way into the shelves of fellow academes but may fall on the deaf ears of the general public. And more than just shaping discourse, a moral theologian needs to articulate, in a substantive yet understandable manner, the cries of the victims of populist policies.