Religion is the new priority for anti-liberal, anti-free-trade populist parties in Europe. A victory by Poland’s nativist Law and Justice (PiS) party will pose a host of unpredictable challenges for the EU. 

Jaroslaw Kaczyński
Jaroslaw Kaczyński

“We are moving in the direction of catho-fascism.” These strong words from the Polish writer Jacek Dehnel are featured on the cover page of the Polish edition of Newsweek. They reflect the growing concern that a new electoral victory by Poland’s nativist Law and Justice party (“PiS”)  is on the horizon; and that this will turn Poland into a new type of oppressive theocracy.

Although PiS stands for “Law and Justice,” we have seen little of either over the past four years. Instead, we’ve observed an intensification of political campaigns targeting LGBT+ groups and the demonization of so-called “gender ideology.” The “traditional family” model, by contrast, has been praised and supported financially, thanks to a child benefit program aimed at turning Poland’s dwindling birth rate around. PiS has praised the laws reflecting the views of the Catholic clergy, especially in fields such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and medically-assisted conception. It has tried to ban abortion altogether, and it only abandoned that project when faced with mass protests by women. The leader of PiS has gone so far as to claim that “beyond the Church there is nihilism” and called for the creation of a “new man” under his party’s prolonged reign.

The elections that took place in Poland in 2015 were dominated by the issue of migration and social spending. Since then, the victorious PiS government has effectively blocked the European Union’s efforts to relocate refugees and migrants among all the member states. It has also ended the fiscal discipline pursued by its predecessors and put money into numerous social programs, from the above-mentioned child benefits to the lowering of retirement age. Neither migrants nor social spending have disappeared from PiS’s electoral platform, but the key issues in the 2019’s campaign have become faith and religion. The objective is to end liberal “permissiveness” in citizens’ personal lives and to reinforce the normative models prescribed by the powerful Polish Catholic Church.

Poland may well be one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, with the vast majority of citizens declaring themselves Catholic. (By contrast, neighboring Czech Republic is only 21 percent Catholic). However, many of those who call themselves religious do not follow the Church’s prescriptions and secularization is spreading rapidly among the younger population—a process that has accelerated rapidly following a series of pedophilia scandals involving the Church, which drew widespread criticism.

As if this was not enough, Poland’s top clergy openly opposes the teachings of Pope Francis, who has called for embracing migrants, dialogue with other religions (including Muslims), and compassion in matters of sexuality and marriage. In this sense, the confessional offensive of PiS looks very much like the defense of a world that is rapidly disappearing, to the dislike of Poland’s clergy and conservative politicians. 

Matteo Salvini Photo by Radio Alfa [CC BY-SA 2.0]

PiS’s confessional offensive is not surprising for students of populist and nativist parties in Europe. Anti-liberal parties are using religion as a political weapon across the entire continent, albeit in different ways, depending on the local context. The leader of the Italian League, Matteo Salvini, who was the country’s deputy PM until this summer, frequently refers to the Gospel in his political speeches, holds crucifixes and rosaries in his hands, and publicly declares his devotion to Mary. He calls for the defense of so-called “traditional families” (that is, heterosexual married couples plus their naturally conceived children). Given that Salvini is a divorcee with a child born out of wedlock, his religious rhetoric suggests a certain degree of hypocrisy. (Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, also presents himself as a guardian of traditional family life and numerous offspring, despite the fact that he’s a bachelor living alone with a handful of cats). Even in countries with few practicing Christians and strong secular traditions, such as Holland or France, references to religion abound. Here, though, religious rhetoric is being used not to defend the prescriptions of the Church, but to defend the traditionally secular way of life there, against the supposedly damaging influence of “overly-religious” Muslim migrants.

The anti-liberal surge in Europe is not merely against open borders, migration, and free trade, nor is it only directed against jet-setting bankers, journalists, and experts. Witold Waszczykowski, a leading figure in PiS, has gone so far as to publicly mock “a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and fight all forms of religion.” Nativists reject the liberal notion of what is sensible, appropriate and desirable. The nativist objective is not merely political or economic but ideological. Nativists want to establish a new definition of truth, political correctness, and acceptable social behavior. They want to impose their own interpretation of history, their favorite films, fashion, and even eating habits. Above all, they want to define what a natural model of family life and “appropriate” sexual behavior is. Like all ideologues, they want to introduce a new, anti-liberal notion of normalcy.

Poland is in this sense a trendsetter; a kind of living laboratory where the creation of a new man is being experimented. Therefore, the result of Poland’s parliamentary election on October 13th will have a broader socio-political impact in Europe and beyond. A PiS victory will not only represent a challenge for atheists and LGBT+ citizens. Millions of ordinary Catholics in Poland will be forced to choose between the liberal and nativist versions of normalcy. The European Union and the Vatican do not seem prepared to face this challenge.

Stefania Bernini studies families and migration at the University of Venice, Ca’ Foscari. Jan Zielonka is a professor of European Politics and a Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

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