Beware of Religious Populism

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We remind ourselves frequently that SBC is mandated by churches to train faithful servants of Jesus Christ, to edify the body of Christ, and to make disciples of all nations. We have to be vigilant against whatever may distract—or hijack— us from this mission. While 2020 was a year of disasters mainly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we should not miss other sources of impact on our faith and the world. One of these is the rise of religious populism.

THE RISE OF RELIGIOUS POPULISM

What is ‘populism’? This term has flooded social media in the past few years. In politics, this is an approach that favours rhetoric and policies that appeal to people’s instincts but ignores or rejects the informed and refereed opinions of experts in relevant fields. When their concern is for their own interests and sense of importance, many have been provoked and manipulated by overly simplistic, shallow and catchy but baseless claims of populist leaders.

Populism has also become common in religious discourse. Many have flocked to populist religious leaders. Even Christians are not immune.

THE EVIDENCE OF CHRISTIAN POPULISM

How do we tell if our faith has adopted elements of religious populism? Nick Spencer from Theos, a Christian think tank in the UK, points out three interrelated characteristics of ‘Christian’ populism:

  • An adherence to the notion of ‘the people’
  • A simplistic definition of who the ‘Christian’ people are
  • A categorization of ‘the Christian people’ as the one identity that must be differentiated and defended by any means against all other lifestyles, values and beliefs

But is there populism in Christianity? Christians are taught to love our neighbours, be they friend or foe, with genuine respect for them as creations in God’s image. However, we also tend to differentiate ourselves from those who hold dissimilar beliefs and values, using simple, sometimes too simplistic, demarcations of Christian identity. Is this a kind of religious populism? Not exactly, or at least, not yet.

THE LURE OF CHRISTIAN POPULISM

Globally, we see Christian leaders who have been lured to adopt some forms of populism. Spencer observes that they fall short in biblical and theological literacy. They prefer superficial, content-light and slogan-like messages. They end up making social, cultural or even national identity the ultimate value, neglecting biblical teachings and theological principles.

Regrettably, many Christians have been led to confuse their social, cultural and national identities with belief in the gospel. In this way, they unwittingly serve the populist tendency to undermine the dignity and values of others.

At the core of Christian populism is the fear of losing our identity in an ever-secularizing world. Identity is the basis of our sense of self-worth. To fear losing our identity or its recognition by others is common to any group. Populists can make use of the double-edged nature of this fear to hijack our faith:

    1. The fear of losing Christian impact on the world
      Christians want to change the fallen world by sharing the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ. To make the gospel’s truth accessible, we might be tempted to overly simplify the biblical message and make it sound like a sales pitch.
    2. The fear of losing our personal and group identities
      Christians like everyone else want to be recognized as respectable and trustworthy. Some populists offer bad theologies like the promise of personal material gains, social status, and physical health through faith in Christ. Others propose harmful policies that claim to protect the Christian group identity by coercing nonbelieving others through political means.

     

    THE CURE FOR CHRISTIAN POPULISM

    The best antidote to populism in the church is not no theology but good (i.e., orthodox) theology. And good theology is rooted in the whole counsel of the Bible, by which we are enabled to discern various bad theologies of identity.

    To overcome Christian populism, we need a ‘Bible-heavy’, theologically informed, and Holy Spirit-refereed Christian identity. Paul has defined this identity clearly: “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10 NIV). This new identity in Christ should be the faithful and glorious testimony of God’s people in their families, workplaces, and societies.

    When you support SBC to provide a holistic theological education for God’s faithful servants, you are helping to disciple God’s people to testify to this power of the gospel.

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