One of the hallmarks of populism is that it rarely represents mass mobilization simply for the people. It’s also typically mass mobilization against an opposing force — whether it’s the hated elite or the despised “other.” The for/against dynamic is inherent to some degree in all of politics, but mobilization against other people as a group is a core component of the populist enterprise.
Take, for example, old-school southern populism. Yes, there was a powerful economic component, often centered around government-sponsored economic development. But white southern populism was also focused directly and intentionally against black southerners. Despite the fact that they lived and work alongside southern whites, they were still the “other.” They were still the threat.
Much ink has been spilled analyzing Trump’s populism. And the for/against dynamic on the right is alive and well. If Trump’s appeal were based mainly around his calls for tariffs, his desire to retreat from the Middle East, or even his immigration restrictionism, he likely would have crashed and burned in the general election. Each of those positions is contentious within the Republican community, much less the nation at large.
Instead, his core appeal is built around his combativeness. He can flip from position to position — govern as a traditional Republican in 2017 and then shift to economic populism and military withdrawal in 2018 — but so long as he fights the common enemy, he retains his hold on the base.
Less ink, however, has been spilled analyzing the combative side of progressive populism. We know what progressive populists are for — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, etc. — but who are they fundamentally against? Yes, of course it’s Donald Trump. But progressive populism existed before Trump, and it will exist after him.
I’d submit that at least one of the common enemies — especially for white progressives — is conservative Christians. As I wrote earlier this month, attacks on conservative Christians are certainly popular in some quarters of the Left, but now I also fear they’re populist — they can help animate a mass movement.
The combination of ignorance, fear, and hatred wielded against conservative Christians in progressive quarters is disturbing. Just in this new year, we’ve seen two progressive senators aggressively question a Christian judicial nominee because of his membership in a mainstream Catholic service organization, we’ve seen a days-long attack on Karen Pence for teaching part-time at a Christian ministry, and we watched a stunning online feeding frenzy against students at a Catholic boys’ school based on a misleadingly clipped video segment of a much longer confrontation.
Moreover, we just concluded a Supreme Court term in which progressive governments attempted to erode the constitutional firewall against compelled speech by attempting to compel Christians to advance messages they found immoral. California attempted to compel pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise free or low-cost abortions. Colorado attempted to compel a man to custom-design a cake for a gay wedding.
And along with each of these events we’ve seen tens of thousands of words of commentary declaring Christians bigoted and hateful — often based on condescending claims of hypocrisy premised on sheer ignorance of Christian theology and tradition. For example, how many times must Christians hear from know-it-all commentators that they can’t possibly be credited for their sincere religious beliefs unless they fully apply all elements of Jewish Levitical law?
Who can forget the avatar of progressive populism himself, Bernie Sanders, in 2017 aggressively grilling a nominee for the Office of Management and Budget over his theological views on the differences between the Christian and Muslim faith? He actually said that the nominee was “not someone who this country is supposed to be about.” And of course Dianne Feinstein famously rebuked Trump judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett by declaring that the “dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern.”
This week, in response to my defense of Christian education (I attended a Christian college, sent my three kids to a Christian school, and served as the chairman of the school board of their school), an activist started an “Expose Christian Schools” hashtag designed to elicit stories of the terrible things Christian educators do.
Yes, there are bad people who attend and teach at Christian schools, but I find it interesting when anecdotes about Christians abuses are illuminating, but anecdotes about, say, illegal immigrant crime are by definition racist and illegitimate. Or, if you want to see grotesque stereotyping in action, look no farther than this viral tweet from — you guessed it — a BuzzFeed writer:
One theme of the conversations over the past 24 hours = how deeply familiar this look is. It's the look of white patriarchy, of course, but that familiarity — that banality — is part of what prompts the visceral reaction. This isn't spectacular. It's life in America. pic.twitter.com/TmziDwAjYA
— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) January 21, 2019
These stories represent a partial list of the political and legal attacks on Christian free exercise and — just as importantly — traditional, orthodox Christianity itself. I spent most of my career litigating in campuses from coast to coast, often to simply preserve the right of Christian student groups to pray and worship in empty classrooms.
When large majorities of Americans oppose your party or stand outside your culture, the natural human tendency is to ask, “What’s wrong with them?” I’ve seen this for years in the Republican response to the reality that overwhelming majorities of black Americans vote Democratic. At worst there’s hostility. Sometimes there is condescending sympathy: “They’re misguided. They’re voting against their interests. They’re brainwashed.” Less often is there respect and reflection. If a vital member of the American community is that united against us, should we consider whether any aspect of that opposition is our fault?
One striking feature of left-wing hostility to conservative Christianity is its insistence that opposition to secular progressive morality is proof of malign intent. Instead of asking whether progressive intolerance (or the selection of a corrupt Democratic candidate) played any part in the 81 percent white Evangelical opposition to Hillary Clinton, all too many progressives use that level of united opposition as grounds for further hatred. And, yes, there’s also the condescending sympathy: “They’re brainwashed by Fox. They’re voting against their interests.”
Last summer I wrote an essay called the Great White Culture War. In it, I argued that a great deal of America’s political division isn’t just explained by the division between white Americans and racial minorities — there are also immense cultural divisions within “white America” itself. And in few areas are those cultural divisions more stark than in religious belief. According to Pew Research Center data, 72 percent of white Republicans believe in the God of the Bible. Only 32 percent of white Democrats share that belief. That’s a stunning gap, especially considering the historical dominance of the Christian faith in the United States.
Our culture war is also a religious conflict, and that means progressive populism will almost certainly continue to trend against conservative Christianity. And as this happens, it will be increasingly difficult to confine our differences to the political realm. The fear and loathing will extend to individuals. It will mean more attempts to destroy lives and limit individual liberty. And when it does, our divide will only grow.
Hostility to traditional, orthodox Christianity is no longer confined to the white progressive elite. It’s now popular in the white Left. Liberal elites who attack traditional Christian beliefs and express contempt for traditional Christians aren’t demonstrating their disconnect from America, they’re giving their constituents exactly what they want.