Political religion and European-style culture wars come under new scholarly scrutiny

At a conference better known for holding forth on the steady advance of secularization in much of Europe, it was striking how many of the papers at this year’s meeting of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Barcelona showed the growing political influence of religious groups and discourse on the continent. In fact, the theme of the early-July conference, attended by RW, was “The Politics of Religion and Spirituality,” and the wave of populist and nationalist politics sweeping the continent often served as the framework for viewing the churnings of political religion throughout the world.

In reporting on the results of the European Parliament’s recent elections, Monica Simeoni of Sannio University noted that right-wing populist groups gained in elected representatives (along with Greens) and that this was associated with their appeal to religion or religious heritage. She cited a recent survey of Italian Catholics by political scientist Ilvo Diamanti showing that the number of them voting for the populist Lega party has increased, now standing at 27 percent. While the teachings of the church are considered personally important by 20 percent of Italians—both members and non-members of the Lega—they are considered useful for political and other purposes by 41 percent. Simeoni linked evangelical support for leaders such as Donald Trump in the U.S. and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to the rise of populist politics, and many of the other scholars at the conference tended to view the religious right in its various guises as driving political change. This seems especially to be the case when it comes to the contested issue that is now known as “gender ideology.” The term has become a battle cry for conservative Christians in scores of countries of Europe and Latin America against activists pushing for diversity in gender identities and expressions and for LGBTQ rights in general.

But in this new culture war over gender and sexuality in Europe and Latin America it is difficult to know which side fired the first shot. Sociologist Juan Vaggione (National University of Cordoba, Argentina) traced the use of the term “gender ideology” to debates in Argentina and other Latin American countries in the 1990s about distinguishing human rights from the legal rights that women and sexual minorities were seeking. Pope Francis was a bishop in his native Argentina at that time and this rhetoric is still reflected in his speeches and writings, as well as in the work of the Vatican Commission on the Family over the concern that the natural family and the traditional roles of male and female are under attack. A recent Vatican document called for a dialogue on gender issues but also linked the promotion of gender activism to the economic domination of poorer developing countries by Western nations that disrespect their sovereignty and moral and family traditions. Vaggione noted that evangelicals, both in the U.S. and abroad, have joined the battle, arguing that gender activists are threatening religious freedom. The movement to challenge “gender ideology” has also sought to show that science backs up its claims, as it increasingly works to counter laws that have been put in place to enforce gender equality and diversity.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro was able to rally evangelicals and conservative Catholics in his campaign through his attack on “gender ideology,” and Catholic broadcasters like Fr. Paulo Ricardo have been on the front lines on this issue, according to a paper by Silvia Rodrigues and Bruna Carvalho (Pontifical Catholic University, Brazil). They found that Ricardo has a Facebook following of 1.5 million people and over 615,000 subscribers on YouTube, where his videos often attack “gender ideology” as a “pseudo-science” and a “war against biology.” Much of this activism started in response to the Brazilian Ministry of Education’s effort to introduce gender diversity into the curriculum; the initiative was silenced after congressmen defeated the effort and subsequently removed all references to gender in education programs.

In Lithuania, the culture war is being waged moreover gay rights, with evangelical and Catholic NGOs fighting against advances made by the LGBTQ movement in its fight for same-sex marriage. Although the country was required to remove laws penalizing homosexuality as a condition for joining the European Union in 2008, there has been a backlash against gay rights since then. There have been attempts, though unsuccessful, to stop Baltic Pride marches. In 2019, a legislative attempt to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other countries received strong opposition. Milda Alisauskiene of Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania, said that a coalition uniting conservative Catholics and evangelicals has given them some influence among politicians. One proposed piece of legislation is calling for laws against polygamy as well as same-sex marriage, which the researcher said may be targeted toward Muslims. These activists and church leaders are finding support from both “Moscow and Rome,” which is unusual for Lithuanians since they have traditionally been anti-Russian. But Lithuanian Catholic bishops are finding support from Russian Orthodox bishops and from the Vatican in their support of “family rights.”

In a paper on the Romanian Orthodox Church, Lucian Cirlan (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris) reported that it has shifted from a traditional political alliance with the state to mobilizing believers on traditional values. A “pink curtain” against gay rights now covers much of Eastern Europe, and in Romania this has translated into a prohibition of same-sex marriage, supported by up to 80 percent of the population (although younger Romanians tend to be in favor of civil unions), and the emergence of anti-gay rights and pro-traditional family groups such as the Coalition for the Family and the European Center for Law and Justice, which is founded by American evangelical legal activist (and Trump advisor) Jay Sekulow. Cirlan concluded that there has been a “Catholicization of Orthodox Christianity” in Romania, where the church has developed a “social doctrine” on family rights in a similar way to Catholic social teaching.