Religion-based nationalism as the new normal for Republicans and conservatives

Populism has been positively and negatively associated with religion to varying degrees, but according to recent reports the religion factor is more established in the U.S., both in the Republican Party and in populist conservatism in general. While the religious right is regularly eulogized as a spent force, observers note that conservative religious politics has migrated to a new brand of populist, national conservatism. In a paper presented at the recent Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Portland, Ore., which RW attended, James L. Guth and Lyman Kellstedt provided a unique look at religious populism before and after the Trump presidency. Analyzing the American National Election Study of 2020, the two political scientists found that the evangelical affinity for Trump and populism remained relatively unaffected from 2016. Older Catholics, mainline Protestants, LDS members, and Orthodox and Conservative Jews provided some populist support, while other ethnoreligious minorities and secularists were on the other side.  These divisions and tendencies feed into the party system, as populism adds “something new to the electoral equation,” apart from traditional ideological identities, according to Guth and Kellstedt.

Aside from party politics, a religion based and populist “national conservatism” is now at the center of conservative debates, writes David Brooks in The Atlantic (November 18). Yoram Hazony, an Israeli Orthodox Jew who is the chief intellectual architect of national conservatism, “argues that you can’t have a society that embraces government neutrality and tries to relegate values to the private sphere. The public realm eventually eviscerates private values, especially when public communication is controlled by a small oligarchic elite. If conservatives want to stand up to the pseudo-religion of wokeism, they have to put traditional religion at the center of their political project,” Brooks reports. Hazony reasons that if 80 percent of Americans are Christian, then Christian values should be the dominant ones. “Majority cultures have the right to establish the ruling culture, and minority cultures have the right to be decently treated,” Hazony said at the National Conservatism Conference held last month in Orlando, Florida.

Other conference speakers held up the national conservatism of Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary. Conservative Christian activist and author Rod Dreher extolled Orbán’s Christian nationalism for understanding the civilizational stakes of the culture war, as reflected in his use of the power of the state to limit how much transgenderism can be taught to children in schools. Brooks writes that over the past few decades there have been various efforts to replace the Reagan paradigm of conservatism: “the national-greatness conservatism of John McCain; the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush; the Reformicon conservatism of the D.C. think tanks in the 21st century. But the Trumpian onslaught succeeded where these movements have so far fizzled because Trump understood better than they did the coalescence of the new American cultural/corporate elite and the potency of populist anger against it. Thus the display of Ivy League populism I witnessed in Orlando might well represent the alarming future of the American right, the fusing of the culture war and the class war,” Brooks concludes. But he doubts that Hazony’s vision of an American return to Christian dominance has much appeal. “Evangelical Christianity has lost many millions of believers across recent decades. Secularism is surging, and white Christianity is shrinking into a rump presence in American life. America is becoming more religiously diverse every day. Christians are in no position to impose their values —regarding same-sex marriage or anything else—on the public square.”

(The Atlantic, national-conservatism-conference/620746/)