In last week’s provincial elections in the Netherlands, the right-wing populist Forum for Democracy emerged as the largest party. As was widely noticed, its leader Thierry Baudet held a victory speech that referred to Roman mythology, among other things.
The political impact of the victory may well turn out to be reasonably limited after all. Simultaneously at stake, was the composition of the Senate of the Dutch Parliament. Given the way the political system functions, however, the current Rutte cabinet will probably be able to proceed as a semi-minority government for some time.
From a different perspective, the event is more remarkable. In his elaborate speech, Baudet of Forum for Democracy did not just reference Roman mythology, but also integrated numerous political-theological elements.
Thus, without necessarily accepting the metaphysical foundations of Christianity, Baudet claimed that it was possible to see the value of its concept of resurrection. In his case, the populist leader aims at a renaissance of Western civilization which he believes has come under stress because of the policies from the ruling parties. Examples include immigration. Baudet characterizes the more recent climate policies also in religious terms, with Green and other politicians kneeling before the altar of the climate God.
It has been noted before that populists use religion for political purposes. Still, Baudet’s speech contained a relatively high degree of political-theological content, even taking into account that the Netherlands has several Christian political parties.
Baudet’s use of theological language and his appeal to a shared past can arguably be explained at least in part by the lost sense of direction among the population. Forum for Democracy would then fill the void that globalization and secularization have left behind.
True or not, there is also more generally a renewed interest in political theology. Sometimes, as in the cases of Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan and Neo-Calvinist philosopher James K.A. Smith, it is stressed how intimately Christianity and liberalism have historically been connected.
This connection leads Smith in his recent book Awaiting the King. Reforming Public Theology (2017) to propose a genuinely evangelical political theology for the 21st century. In a forthcoming review essay in the Journal of Markets and Morality of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies, of which this volume forms a part, I analyze which theological medicine for liberal democracy he deducts from this political theology for the present.
Smith might be criticized for putting forward such a political theology in a secularized time. He is aware, however, that what we are instead witnessing is a post-secular age, in which different kinds of political theologies can be proposed again, including authentically Christian ones.
As Baudet’s victory speech demonstrates, it is indeed no longer a question whether political theology still has a role to play today. Instead, the issue is which political theology holds the most promise for our ailing Western liberal democracies.