In the shadow of the rise of the far-right, ultra-conservative Christian denominations and groups in Europe are joining forces and overcoming long-held dogmas. These new interdenominational and international networks could profit from processes of social politicisation and radicalisation.
The unthinkable has happened in the last decades: Ideas affiliated with the far-right, have become mainstream and have been normalised by conservative parties. Pushed by the so-called "refugee crisis“, populist radical right parties are part of governments in multiple European nations and have, so far successfully, restricted the rule of law in Hungary and Poland.
The deployment of religious tropes has played a consistent role in the rise of the populist radical right. Mostly uninterested in theological debates, religion is rather used by those parties and politicians as a device to appeal to religious voters, more preoccupied with “belonging than belief“.1 Religious narratives are employed to elevate a Manichean perspective and to amplify the strategy of “othering“, by contextualising it in religious terms and creating notions of “Christianism”.2 Conspiracy myths are customized to resemble apocalyptic and millennialist preoccupations of believers, in order to amplify racist doomsday narratives like “the great replacement“.3
The increasing dynamics between Christianity and far-right politics in Europe has been academically analysed mainly from an “appropriation“-perspective, focused on questioning how far-right movements and parties seize religion to legitimise populism, neo-nationalism and illiberalism. 4, 5 For their part, how are religious groups in Europe adopting this “thin-theology“, proposed by far-right groups? To do this, they reinterpret strategies of the U.S Christian Right to gain political access. The issue is, however, currently under-researched.
The intense use of religious language, themes and tropes has not left believers, churches and denominations in Europe unaffected. Disenfranchised conservative believers in Europe may feel inspired by the hegemonic power of the Christian Right in the U.S. and the reactionary turn in Russia since 2014, even though they often represent, especially in Western Europe, demographically only a minority within a minority.
Unlike the relationship between the Republican Party and the Christian Right, which has produced iconic images that encapsulate their symbiotic convergence, the efforts of Christian Right groups in Europe have largely occurred undetected in the public sphere. Images such as President Trump holding a Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church during the Black Lives Matter protests, when the Church’s Pastor had been subjected to tear gas, or when his spiritual counsellors laid their hands on Trump while praying for him in the Oval Office, seem unthinkable in Europe.
There are various reasons for this. Unquestionably, it is connected with the different cultural, historic, political and religious contexts in Europe compared to the U.S. In Europe, relationships between state and religion are heteronomous and thus the efforts of Christian Right groups are decentralised, while appearing unclear or incomprehensible. Additionally, the self-perception as a mainly secularised continent, where religious discourses are often categorised in the public opinion as obsolete, can lead to an underestimation of global religious realities, while the emergence and potential of politically orientated religious networks in Europe are consequently underestimated. These groups risk therefore to be perceived as disjointed; less significant and possibly underrated in their political potential. As a consequence of this blind spot, the ideological convergence between different religious denominations and networks, that share the same ultra-conservative concepts and political agenda, can remain undetected.
Three different cases in Europe can serve to some extent to illustrate in this blog post how different ultra-conservative religious groups and denominations are slowly converging, thus demonstrating the interconnectivity of networks and narrative fluidity in Europe.
While British evangelicals are religiously similar to their U.S. counterparts, they traditionally prioritise social justice rather than pursuit of a politically conservative agenda.6 Despite this, different narrative similarities between conservative British evangelicals and the far-right led to a narrative convergence in the context of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Notions of secret knowledge that are both present within apocalyptical postmillennialist doctrines and the far-right conspiracy of “the great replacement“, as well as the mythomoteur of persecution, have created an “overlap of convictions and strategies“ between the narratives, leading to a shared “alt-history“.7
Consequently, a few evangelical pastors embraced the UK’s Brexit referendum, yet without forming a collaboration or alliance with far-right groups. Such pastors saw it as a chance to “take the right action“ during the “end times”, and as a result stop the EU’s “satanic legislation“.8 The referendum was also of considerable interest for other Christian Right groups in Europe, especially those blaming the “corruption” of the traditional family, the introduction of LGBTQ+ friendly policies, the “casual” use of abortion and what they see as large-scale Muslim immigration into the European Union, to explain social degeneration.
In Italy, the widespread interest in conspiracy myths and fear of the UN-dominated “New World Order” has created common ground between several “independent“ Pentecostal churches, historically connected to the American continent, and conservative Catholic groups, opposed to Pope Francis. Most recently, different denominations and organisations met in January 2020 in Rome for the first Christian Day. This was a protest organized generally to defend Italy’s “Christian identity“ and specifically to register disapproval of distribution of the Brazilian Netflix Film, “The first Temptation of Christ“ that portraits Jesus as a paedophile.9 Co-organized by the Azione Christiana Evangelica, (Christian Evangelical Action) a political action group affiliated with Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), several speakers blamed the EU for turning its back on its Christian identity, with a few speakers emphasizing what they claim are the “satanic roots” of the European Union.10 The event was endorsed by prominent charismatic churches including Missione Paradiso in Catania and Ministero Sabaoth in Milan. Perhaps surprisingly, the event was welcomed by numerous Catholic believers. The joint appearance clearly represented a novelty in Italy, as Italian Pentecostals are traditionally politically reserved due to their minority status and agreement with Catholics is frowned upon, due to the role of the Roman Catholic Church in persecuting Pentecostals during the fascist regime in Italy in the 1930s.
Much more advanced than in Italy, the Christian Right in Russia has embraced the main aspects and strategies of the U.S. Christian Right and introduced in Europe interdenominational collaboration on conservative matters, a feature still a novelty within religious ultra-conservative milieus in Europe. Two main groups are connected both to the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church and are crucial to the rise of the Christian Right in Russia. The World Russian People’s Council (Vsemirniyj Russkij Narodnyj Sobor, VNSR), relates closely to the concept of Russki Mir, a term that encapsulates the cultural and religious imperial ambitions of Russia and is led by the Patriarch of Moscow, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. The vice-speaker of the VRNS, the oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, is on the list of individuals sanctioned by the US and the EU for financing Russian fighters in Eastern Ukraine, where the Russki Mir ideology functions as the common narrative framework for the fighters.11 In addition, Malofeev is heavily involved with the Russian Chapter of the World Congress of Families (WCF), a U.S. Christian Right organisation that spreads anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda as well as apocalyptic narratives and conspiracies.12 The WCF is also involved with connecting and funding Christian Right groups and far-right parties in Europe, including the abovementioned Fratelli d’Italia and Matteo Salvini's Lega.
As shown by these cases, it is necessary to look beyond national borders to understand how ultra-conservative Christian groups are reorganising themselves, joining forces and developing new alliances. While it may be exaggerating to speak of a European Christian Right, due to the existing denominational discords and liturgical and doctrinal differences, it is important to note that the potential to create religious-based international networks is greater than that of the “political” far-right.
Substantial policy differences that have curbed alliances between populist radical right parties within the EU, such as the NextGenerationEU Recovery Fund, are potentially insignificant for the Christian Right in Europe. Instead, such religious groups can draw on the full potential of the populist toolbox, without having to propose policies and legislation that have to withstand international and institutional norms and regulations.
Analysis of the development of the Christian Right in Europe requires therefore a close look at the narratives and organisational structures of Christian denominations, churches and networks, as well as narrative trends within the European far-right, that go far beyond this blog post. The forthcoming edited volume, The Christian Right in Europe, aims to collect analyses of the developments within ultra-conservative groups that are attempting to influence and radically change Europe and its policies. Including case studies within the EU, Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe, the scope of this edited volume is to shed a light on the common narratives, structures and networks to offer an accessible overview for practitioners and academics, engaged with politics, religion and conflict.
About the blogger
Gionathan Lo Mascolo is currently editing the volume The Christian Right in Europe. He welcomes additional papers for the book. The deadline for the submission of the Abstract is the 1st May 2021.You can find the Call for Papers here.
Gionathan Lo Mascolo studied Intercultural Theology at FIT Hermannsburg and Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London. He worked for several years as a reporter and producer on Conflict, Religion and Politics in Europe and the Middle East and is a former UN advisor on Political and Religious Violence. He currently works as a research fellow within the Competence Network of Right-Wing Extremism Prevention in Berlin, Germany. He tweets at @lo_mascolo
1 Marzouki, N., McDonnell, D. and Roy, O., 2016. Saving the people. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2 Haynes, J., 2020. Right-Wing Populism and Religion in Europe and the USA. Religions 11, no. 10: 490. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100490
3 Lo Mascolo, G., 2021. The time is Near: The role of Conspiracy Myths and Christian Millennialist narratives in the alignment process between the Far Right and the Christian Right in Western Europe.
4 Hennig, A. and Weiberg-Salzmann, M., 2020. Illiberal politics and religion in Europe and beyond. Concepts, actors, and identity narratives. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag GmbH.
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6 Hatcher, A.C., 2017. Political and Religious Identities of British Evangelicals. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
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8 Knowles, S., 2018. Brexit, Babylon and Prophecy: Semiotics of the End Times. Religions, 9(12), p.396.
9 Notizie Cristiane. 2020. Migliaia di cristiani a difesa dei valori cristiani e contro la blasfemia - christian day 25 gennaio – roma- piazza santi apostoli ore 15,00 – Notizie Cristiane. [online] Available at: <https://www.notiziecristiane.com/migliaia-di-cristiani-a-difesa-dei-valori-cristiani-e-contro-la-blasfemia-christian-day-25-gennaio-roma-piazza-santi-apostoli-ore-1500/> [Accessed 9 March 2021].
10 Boezi, F., 2020. I cristiani scendono in piazza: "Fede dissacrata senza rispetto." Il Giornale, [online] Available at: <https://www.ilgiornale.it/news/cronache/i-cristiani-ora-si-difendono-ecco-manifestazione-identitaria-1815013.html> [Accessed 9 March 2021].
11 Stoeckl, K., 2020. The rise of the Russian Christian Right: the case of the World Congress of Families. Religion, State & Society, 48(4), pp.223-238.
12 Stroop, C., 2016. A Right Wing International? Russian Social Conservatism, the World Congress of Families, and the Global Culture Wars in Historical Context. The Public Eye 4-10