Religion found to offer political resource in secularized societies

High religiosity is not a prerequisite for the successful use of religious arguments, and even very secularized Western societies can sometimes find religious arguments convincing, writes Petr Kratochvíl (Institute of International Relations, Prague) in The Review of Faith and International Affairs (Spring). Especially in populist discourses, religious arguments can become tools of identity construction. The article examines three cases in the Czech Republic, one of the most secularized countries in the world, with only one-fifth of the population considering themselves as believers (according to the country’s 2011 census). Although Czechs hold very liberal views on issues such as same-sex marriage (62 percent in favor) and legal abortion (84 percent supportive), and while there is no sign of a return to more religiosity, religious arguments have found ways to come back into political debates as a consequence of the migration crisis (although there are few Muslims in the Czech Republic). In 2015, after previous failed attempts, Good Friday was made a public holiday. Its Christian nature was stressed in identitarian terms in the official memorandum, “against the onslaught of other identities,” gaining widespread support even from a majority of Communist MPs.

In 2017, when a German retail chain airbrushed the crosses from the top of an Orthodox church it used in its packaging for a line of Greek food, there was a strong and prolonged backlash in the Czech Republic, with few voices daring to offer a secularist interpretation and defend the company. The discussion showed a strong link between anger at the removed crosses and fears of Islamization with the presence of Islamic symbols in the country’s public square—although Muslims had nothing to do with the controversy. Finally, discourse and sentiment have spread (thanks to the churches among other actors) advocating the acceptance of Christian refugees rather than other ones, clearly presuming that their Christianity would make them easier to integrate, and making Christianity an element of broad identity rather than belief or behavior. (Finally, even non-European Christian refugees were considered with reluctance.)

Thus religion can be used in secular societies for defining one’s identity, provided key actors raise the issue as not only religious but also cultural, “thus bridging the religious-secular cleavage that is usually rather deep in secular societies.” Kratochvíl argues that the less a society knows about religion (“our own” or the other’s), the easier it is to make general claims about it in terms of civilization. Such uses of religion do not prevent continuing secularization.

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