Christian democratic parties limit far-right’s appeal

February 12, 2021

Christian-Democrat candidates still pull in the majority of religious voters. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Religious voters are less likely than their secular counterparts to back Europe’s far-right parties when they can choose a mainstream Christian democratic alternative, depriving the far-right of crucial support despite their attempts to appeal directly to those voters.

According to research published Jan. 20 in Party Politics, churchgoing voters in Poland and Hungary are more likely than more secular counterparts to vote for a populist, radical-right party in their countries, while in Western European nations — where there are more political options for religious individuals — the relationship is reversed.

These findings suggest that the far right can invoke religious themes to win support among the devout, but only where mainstream, right-of-center parties aren’t already speaking to religious values in ways those voters tend to prefer.

Christian democracy is a political ideology inspired by Christian values that emerged in the 19th century, incorporating traditional church and family values alongside progressive values such as social welfare.

“The party family of Christian democratic parties, despite their decline over time … will continue to play a really crucial role in ensuring that religious voters aren’t drawn to radical right-wing populist parties,” co-author Ruth Dassonneville told The Academic Times.

Dassonneville and co-author Kamil Marcinkiewicz set out to investigate whether a person’s religiosity made him or her more likely to vote for political parties on the “populist radical right,” an ideology centered around nativism, authoritarianism and populism.

Such parties have enjoyed growing popularity in recent years, nabbing substantial vote shares in countries across Europe and especially in the continent’s center. Given their extreme political agendas, Dassonneville said the groups are “a concern from a democratic perspective.”

Marcinkiewicz and Dassonneville hypothesized that the radical right could be appealing to Europe’s relatively small but important religious electorate through their alignment with Christian symbols, faith-centric rhetoric and conservative positions on issues like gay marriage. To that extent, religious people could be motivated to support the far right.

On the other hand, they noted, populist radical right groups often take policy stances deeply at odds with Christian values espoused by Europe’s religious leaders — particularly on issues such as immigration, where such parties’ nativist rhetoric is likely to clash with the messages many European Christians receive from their churches. That could generate a negative relationship between religiosity and support for a populist radical right party.

The researchers expected that they would find a “context-dependent” relationship between religiosity and support for far right parties, varying between countries. 

That’s because Christian voters have different political options depending on where they live. In places where competitive Christian democratic parties give faithful voters an attractive alternative to the radical right, they argued, those voters will take it.

“In countries where strong Christian democratic parties exist, the negative relationship between religiosity and supporting [populist radical right] parties may be observed — regardless of the level of progressiveness of religious voters,” Marcinkiewicz and Dassonneville wrote. “In contrast, where no strong Christian democratic parties compete, the effect of religiosity on voting for populist radical right might be positive.”

To test this hypothesis, the researchers used data from the 2016 European Social Survey, confining their analysis to survey responses from 15 countries where at least one populist right-wing party was active at the time. They used respondents’ self-reported church attendance rates as a proxy for religiosity, the independent variable.

Across western European countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, they found that the more often a person attends church, the less likely he or she is to vote for a populist radical right country in national elections — an effect which was “particularly large” in countries where the radical right was relatively strong.

In the Netherlands, for instance, voters who never go to church had an 11% probability of supporting the radical right Party for Freedom, as compared to just 1.7% among voters attending church services once a week.

In contrast to the western European nations the researchers studied, religiosity seemed to drive increased radical right support in two of the four central and eastern European countries under analysis. 

For populist radical right parties in countries from central and eastern Europe — particularly Poland’s Law and Justice Party and the Hungarian parties Fidesz and Jobbik — support was positively correlated with church attendance. 

Law and Justice exerted the strongest pull on religious voters, the researchers found, with weekly Polish churchgoers associated with a 49% likelihood of backing the party. The most secular Poles had a 23% probability of voting for Law and Justice.

Fidesz, the Hungarian relative of Law and Justice, also draws substantial support from among the faithful. The probability that Hungarians vote for the party “increases from 64% among the most secular voters to 73% for weekly churchgoers,” according to Marcinkiewicz and Dassonneville.

Further analysis revealed that the divergent effects hinged on whether or not a Christian democratic party — not a secular right-wing party — was competitive in a given nation. 

In countries where Christian democratic parties earned about about 30% of the vote in recent elections, people who participated in daily religious services had a 1.9% probability of casting a vote for right-wing populists, “which is significantly lower than 10.2% in political systems with very weak or nonexistent Christian democratic parties,” the researchers said.

The findings lend support to the idea that Christian democratic parties serve as a “vaccine” for voters who might otherwise back the radical right, according to Marcinkiewicz and Dassonneville.

By offering religious voters the chance to back a party that eschews nativism while still championing mainstream Christian values, Dassonneville said, Christian democratic parties limit the inroads populist radical right parties can make.

Christian democratic parties “don’t share that anti-immigrant set of values that radical right parties stand for,” she said. “So in terms of their values, there’s another option that [is] a better fit [for many religious voters], that shares their concerns about moral values … but on the other hand, is more compassionate towards immigrants.”

That dynamic is a hopeful sign for the future of Europe’s centrist coalition, according to Dassonneville. But if Christian Democrats perceive a threat to their viability from the radical right, there’s a risk that they’ll come to resemble their extreme rivals in a bid to retain voters.

“The more that Christian democratic parties are under pressure, and the more they lose voters, the more they will look for alternatives to try to find new [ones],” she said. They could “opt for strategies that bring them closer in ideological terms to what breakaway populist parties are doing.”

The article “Do religious voters support populist radical right parties? Opposite effects in Western and East-Central Europe,” published on Jan. 20 in Party Politics, was co-authored by lecturer Kamil Marcinkiewicz, University of Hamburg and associate professor Ruth Dassonneville, University of Montreal.

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