Politicized Christianity “others” migrants

Christian values and symbols are used to create an us/them dichotomy in the debate on immigration.

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From the left: Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Trygve Wyller, and Cathrine Thorleifsson. Photo: Wefring

The event Kristianisme – En panelsamtale om kristendom, migrasjon og gjestfrihet [Christianism – A panel discussion about Christianity, migration and hospitality] was held at the House of Literature on October 31, organized by UiO:Nordic’s research project Nordic Hospitalities in a Context of Migration and Refugee Crisis (NORDHOST). Extremism researcher Cathrine Thorleifsson, social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen and theologian Trygve Wyller discussed the encounter between Nordic Christianity and Christianism and the recent years’ immigration wave to Europe. Introductory talks from each of the three panelists were followed by a panel discussion and questions from the audience. The discussion was led by Kaia Rønsdal, post doc at the Faculty of Theology.

Cathrine Thorleifsson, researcher at the Center for Research on Extremism. Photo: Wefring

Right-wing populism and Christian symbols

Christianism denotes a form of politicized Christianity where right-wing populists and anti-immigration extremists use Christian symbols and values in political argumentation. Cathrine Thorleifsson pointed out various degrees of reliance on symbols among right-wing populist politicians and movements. In more religious countries symbols, especially the cross, are used more than in the Nordic region and other secular countries in Northern and Western Europe. The rhetoric employed by for instance Jimmie Åkesson in Sweden and Nigel Farage in the UK is more typical here. They talk about protecting Christian cultural heritage and promote Christianity as a religion that holds a special place in society, but do not represent overtly religious parties or make use of Christian symbols. On the other hand, Norway’s Sylvi Listhaug was mentioned as a Nordic example of a more symbol-oriented form of Christianism.

There is extensive use of symbols within more extreme movements like Pegida and Jobbik, and in social media and online forums. Thorleifsson researches so-called “chan forums” that inspire terrorism, and sees an increasing “canonization” of terrorists, like calling the Christchurch terrorist “Saint Tarrant.”

Non-Christianist Christianity

Trygve Wyller, professor of theology. Photo: Wefring

Trygve Wyller emphasized that it might seem like there exists a “pure” Christianity which is corrupted by right-wing populisms, but that this is not the case, especially not in the Nordic region. He pointed out that Nordic Protestantism already combines the religious and the secular. As an example he discussed Arne Viste who was recently sentenced to one year in prison for have employed asylum seekers who were in Norway illegally. Viste comes from a conservative inner mission community in Jæren, but does not use Christianity as a rhetorical tool, focusing instead on the value of human life. Wyller sees Viste’s public persona as an expression of Nordic Christianity, but that this form of non-Christianist Christianity is struggling in the fight for symbolic power.

Thorleifssen pointed out that right-wing populists also use this Nordic intermingling of the secular and the religious, for instance Jimmie Åkesson, who does not use the cross or other Christian symbols, but talks of a Swedishness rooted in Christian traditions. Wyller thought the fact that populism is nourished by the same secularized Christianity as those who attempt to oppose it presents an additional challenge for non-Christianist Christianity in the Nordic region.


Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of social anthropology. Photo: Wefring

The three researchers all discussed the way in which religion is used to create an us/them dichotomy. Wyller pointed to Nazi-Christianity from the 1930s as the “godfather” of this form of populist mixing of religion and politics. Thorliefsson argued that Christianism has more to do with belonging than religion, that this politicized Christianity is used to define who can and cannot be part of the nation. At the same time, she mentioned that this might be too much of a simplification.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen introduced persepctives from other parts of the world to illuminate various ways in which religion contributes to dichotomization. In India Hinduism is increasingly used to create identity. Arguing that all Hindus across different denominations and languages have more in common with each other than with their Christan and Muslim neighbors is a fairly new development. In other places the divide is instead between religious and non-religious segments of the population. In the Seychelles the Catholics say that the Hindus and Muslims are “just like us, they are also God-fearing people.”

Emotional ideology

According to Hylland Eriksen, nationalism has more in common with phenomena like religion and family than with other political ideologies like liberalism. The way in which Christianity is used in anti-immigration rhetoric is by raising personal experiences to a level of commonality. The argumentation boils down to “unless you want to betray your childhood memories, you must support us.” This level of deceitfulness is not found in other political orientations, said Hylland Eriksen.

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