This article investigates the way in which religion is understood and used in election manifestos of populist and nationalist right-wing political parties in Germany and the Netherlands between 2002 and 2021, see Table 1
. The impetus for this explorative research is the rise of nationalist and populist voices around the globe and more specifically, in Dutch and German politics as well as the current academic discussion on the entanglement of religion and the rise of populism (Nillson and Shterin 2019
). In both countries, Christian-democratic political parties have exerted great influence in the political arena (again, in the Netherlands, since 2002, after the two purple coalition governments; in Germany, since 2005). Moreover, both countries have generally worked well together as partners in the European Union. In both countries, populism and nationalism are not new phenomena, but today they form their own societal, socio-economic and (geo-)political context. They are reactions to the (geo-)political and socio-economic developments that have taken place since the early 20th century. They oppose national and European governments, societal aspects such as (in)security and terrorism following the attacks on 9/11, the Islamization of society and the European migration crisis of 2014/15 and beyond.
) distinguishes between three populist eras in the Netherlands: 1916 to 1918 (The First World War), 1963 to 1967 (the 1960s) and finally, the period beginning in 2001/2002 (9/11 and the murder of Pim Fortuyn). On 20 August 2001 Fortuyn publicly declared that he wanted to become involved in Dutch politics. It was three weeks before the 9/11 attacks on the United States of America. Eight months later the promising, popular and controversial politician Fortuyn was assassinated.
In Germany, Dutch politics and the murder of Fortuyn garnered much attention but was considered to be a particular Dutch phenomenon rather than expressing a general development (see, e.g., headline Der SPIEGEL 5 May 2002: “Der erste politische Mord der Niederlande” (“first political murder of the Netherlands”): https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/fortuyn-erschossen-der-erste-politische-mord-der-niederlande-a-195099.html
, accessed on 30 January 2021). Such assessment was incorrect and this became clear in the time that followed. Nationalism and populism are on the march not only in the Netherlands, but also in Germany and in the rest of the world.
Although the Netherlands and Germany are political neighbors with many cultural points of convergence and similar European political interests, the emergence of right-wing populist parties and movements in the two countries shows the differences between them. In 2011, Wielenga and Hartleb
(2011, p. 8
) stated that the most noticeable difference between the Netherlands and Germany is that right-wing populism had seemly gained a secure place within the Dutch political party spectrum since the meteoric rise of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 (Fortuyn 2002
), and this is not the case in Germany. The latter’s history of National Socialism from 1933 to 1945, the reunification of Germany in 1990 and a strong Federalism had delayed the development of right-wing populist parties. The different voting regulations of the Netherlands and Germany with regard to the rights of smaller parties also played a role. Only with the foundation of the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) in 2013 and its entry into the German Parliament, one can speak of a nationally successful populist right-wing party. Even if the history and political structures of the two countries are very different, it is worthwhile taking a comparative look at the position of religion in the party programs. This comparison, which is based on a selected source available in both countries (election manifestos of populist parties), also appears instructive because populism researchers like Roger Brubaker distinguish a distinctive difference between the two countries: while in the Netherlands he sees the new populist type of civilization rhetoric (Brubaker 2017, p. 1196
), Germany falls out of this framework (Brubaker 2017, p. 1193
The main theme of this article is to show how the notion of religion appears in the election manifestos of populist and nationalist parties in Germany and the Netherlands, and to answer what such appearance reveals about the connection between religion and populist parties.
What is subsumed under religion? Which religious arguments arise in the party manifestos? Which relationship between Christianity, Judaism and Islam is shown to the outside world? To what extent does religion have a cultural component, and if so, is it used strategically? And how clearly do the manifestos openly express their anti-Islamic stance? With these questions, too, one should keep an eye on the extent to which religion, especially Christianity, is used in the Party Manifestos in the sense of “othering” and to what extent a new “identitarian Christianism with secular and liberal rhetoric” (Brubaker 2017, p. 1194
) is constructed.
This article answers these questions in the following sections. Part two focuses on party manifestos as historical and political sources in general. In section three the party manifestos of three Dutch populist and nationalist parties in the period between 2002 and 2021 are examined regarding the notion of religion. Part four pursues the same question regarding German politics and the final part of the article answers the questions posed and presents the conclusions of the research.
2. Election Manifestos
This study is based on the election manifestos of populist right-wing parties in Germany and the Netherlands. As already noted in the introduction, the historical preconditions for the emergence of populist parties are different in the two countries and the election manifestos therefore cannot be compared and contextualized on the same empirical basis. For example, right-wing populist parties emerged and successfully gained entry into parliament earlier in the Netherlands than in Germany as well as gaining wider national and international media attention. The elections did not take place at the same time and the party programs differed in terms of publication dates and cultural origin.
Nevertheless, it can be said for both countries that election manifestos are an important socio-scientific and historical source. They are ‘coherent statements of policy (…) [and] they indicate which populations are most significant to the party’s desired electoral outcome’ (Harmel 2018, p. 230
). These functions represent the outward face of manifestos, seeking to appeal to voters (cf. Harmel et al. 2018, pp. 278–88
There are further two functions that can be distinguished: an internal focus, wanting ‘to smooth over internal differences’ and an agenda-setting focus, attempting ‘to help shape the broader issue agenda over which an election is fought’ (Harmel 2018, p. 231
). Considering these three foci, party manifestos reflect that which a party deems important, give an insight into internal party debates and point to the issues which party supporters consider to be important electoral issues. In research, different methodical approaches are used to understand and analyze election manifestos: In the political and social sciences, quantitative and empirical election manifestos research has prevailed (Volkens et al. 2013
; Merz and Regel 2013, pp. 146–68
). Here two major directions are dominant: Comparative Manifesto Project (Franzmann and Kaiser 2006
) and the word score analysis (Bräuninger et al. 2012
). In historical sciences, where party programs function as historical sources, hermeneutic and semantic approaches are used in addition to the social science methods mentioned, such as discourse analysis. The latter is also used in the social sciences. In honoring the interdisciplinary character of the article, it makes use of both empirical and cultural-historical methods. By combining these methods, the discourse analysis explores the parties’ views on religion embedded within a cultural framework, revealing fundamental ideas about what they consider to be the ideal and desirable character of today’s Europe, nation and society.
This raises the issue of the relationship between election promises made in the manifestos and the political reality arising when political parties become part of a new government. The issue of breaking promises should not be ignored and Naurin
(2011, p. 23
) concludes that parties ‘risk not only their voters but also their own party members’ when breaking promises made in election manifestos. Moreover, Naurin
(2011, p. 3
) states that:
“The levels of congruence between promises and actions differ among the different systems that are studied, but there is a clear common denominator in the conclusions that are drawn: promises given in election manifestos are taken seriously by the governing political parties.”
Still, Erin Naurin
(2011, p. 20
) points out that manifestos are important in relation to election promises and the perception of voters:
“Richard Rose, who has published one of the British studies on election promises, even describes election manifestos as more important to the party itself than to its voters: ‘the drafting of a manifesto is first of all a search for consensus within each of the parties. The resulting document is not so much a statement of what the voters want as it is a proclamation of what a party’s leadership agrees to want’ (…). The process of deciding policy programmes in this way is in itself a way to tie the more or less divided party together. If a party succeeds in writing a coherent and credible election manifesto, it can be assumed to be strong in the respect that it will hold together and work towards a collective goal. The writing of the election manifesto therefore provides important information about the party.”
Election manifestos are ideal-typical. They contain the ‘ideal’ society in the vision of the specific political party. However, it is the society of a broken world and an imperfect society which contains much diversity and conflicting political, social, economic, religious and cultural standpoints and world views. Manifestos are not always applicable to the political arena and to public life. Still, they provide a vision of an almost perfect society.
Nonetheless, their value should not be underestimated: “They can be understood as the political parties’ most important priorities” (Naurin 2011, p. 19
) and they can be considered ‘as an important tool for the parties in trying to understand citizens’ priorities” (Naurin 2011, p. 18
A last remark on party manifestos is fourfold. In order to be compared to manifestos of other parties they should be an ‘election program’ or ‘electoral manifesto’ (Merz and Regel 2013, p. 149
). Two, the manifesto should reflect the position of the whole party. Three, the manifesto needs to be related to elections and finally, the document should ‘reflect the party’s programmatic profile’ (Merz and Regel 2013, p. 150
4. German Populist and Nationalist Parties
As briefly explained in the introduction, the situation in Germany differs from that of the Netherlands in as far as a broad, politically successful right-wing populist party only emerged with the foundation of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2013. Nevertheless, the Western part of Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), has seen precursors such as the nationalist, right-wing extremist “Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands “(National Democratic Party of Germany, NPD), which was founded in the tradition of German National Socialists in 1964. Another right-wing extremist movement with populist features was the “Deutsche Volksunion” (German People’s Union”, DVU) founded in 1971. The DVU changed its organizational form from being an association (Verein) into a party in 1987 and was subsequently successful in nine state elections, but then merged with the NPD in 2010. Four years earlier, a right-wing Conservative split-off from the Christian Conservative regional Party of the Federal State of Bavaria, the “Christlich Soziale Union” (Christian Social Union, CSU) formed the party “Die Republikaner” (“The Republicans”, REP).
They were, as the DVU, unsuccessful in federal elections, but successful in regional state elections, especially in Southern Germany in the 1990s and in the European elections in 1989. In terms of content, they increasingly orientated themselves towards the DVU and the NPD and represented nationalist-ethnic positions in their party programs (Butterwege and Meier 1997, p. 62
). Its original roots in Christian (especially Catholic) social ethic is then also expressed in the fact that the Christian religion is still addressed in their federal party manifesto of 2002, divided into four sections: (1) In the area of school education, priority should be given to “Christian-Western” culture (Bundesparteiprogramm 2002, p. 19
), (2) in the section “Foreigners “ where they state that if foreigners are unwilling to integrate, especially Islamist fundamentalists, they should have their residence permit withdrawn (Bundesparteiprogramm 2002, p. 20
), (3) in the “Animal protection” section, they make, with regard to the German Constitution of Article 4, Paragraph 2a, a strong plea for animal protection—that is here related to the ritual slaughtering of animals without stunning as it is used in Islam and Judaism (Bundesparteiprogramm 2002, p. 49
). Finally, a section about religion and the churches, which concludes the party manifesto (Bundesparteiprogramm 2002, p. 50
). This section stresses the special role of religion for a “vigorous” (“lebenskräftiges Volk”) people and emphasizes that for Germany this can only be Christianity. Judaism and Islam thus do not belong in Germany, whereby in the context of the party manifesto of the DVU, it is more about Islam than Judaism. A multicultural society is expressly rejected. Germany’s Christian character, which is interpreted as an expression of Western culture and regarded as the foundation of state and society, of family, democracy and social justice, should be defended. The election manifesto is critical of churches as the institutional formation of Christianity in Germany if they are not focused on preaching the Gospel, but on “preaching” social-ethical issues. This is interpreted as an “adaptation to the Zeitgeist” and as a “left” orientated church. In its federal party manifesto the “Republikaner” call the churches to return to their mission and plead for the separation of church and state. In this context they also speak against a state organized church tax (which does not exist in the Netherlands) and against church asylum (“Kirchenasyl”). Church asylum is the last, legitimate attempt (ultima ratio
) of a community to help refugees by granting them temporary protection in order to work towards a renewed, careful review of their situation and this was first applied in West Germany in 1983.
While the federal party manifesto openly opposed Turkey’s accession to the EU, it did not justify its opposition on religious grounds; the European Party manifesto now expressly names Islam as a reason. Islam is equated with Islamization as the manifesto states that if Turkey would join the EU, Europe would become inexorably Islamized. This explains why the Republikaner demand that Turkey’s accession to the EU must be stopped in order to preserve Europe’s identity as a Christian Occident (Europaprogramm 1989
). Several aspects follow the federal party manifesto, but overall Islam is more clearly emphasized as a religious and cultural threat. For example, the term “Muslims” appears for the first time. On the other hand, fewer references are made to a Christian dominant culture.
At the same time as “Die Republikaner” formulated their ideas in their federal party manifesto, another, newly founded populist party came into the public eye: the “Partei Rechtsstaatlicher Offensive” (Rule of Law Party) of the Hamburger judge Ronald Schill. Founded in 2000, it was part of the Hamburg government from October 2001 to March 2004 but failed to move into the Bundestag and was dissolved in 2017. In public, the party focused on inner security, i.e., law and order and spoke out in favor of a restrictive “foreigners’ policy” and rejected the current asylum law. It refused to allow Turkey to join the EU. However, at this point in time—before September 11, 2001—the discussion of these topics did not take place under the heading of “religion” (Schmitz 2002
). This marked a clear difference to “Die Republikaner” and programmatically showed a more religiously distant urban character.
While the above-mentioned right-wing populist and right-wing extremist parties were only successful regionally in federal state elections, the “Alternative für Deutschland” (“Alternative for Germany”, AfD) founded in 2013, was the first right-wing populist and partly right-wing extremist party that was successful nationwide in the 2017 federal election to the “Bundestag” and in the 2019 European Union elections. It has since then been represented in the German Parliament. Religion appears as a central factor in their party manifestos of 2017 (Federal) and 2019 (Europe); in both with specific sections on “Religion”. However, the headings of these sections and the word score analysis clearly shows that the keyword “religion” is fundamentally only about Islam. This appears 12 times in both election programs, followed by the term “Moschee/vereinigungen” (“mosque/associations”), which is used 5 or 3 times in both programs. All other terms appear only once, whereby terms associated with Islam such as “head scarf”, “burqa”, “niiqab” (only once) have no Christian-Jewish equivalents.
Section 6 of the federal party manifesto of 2017 provides the guiding principle (Programm für Deutschland 2017, Section 6, pp. 33–34
): “Islam is in conflict with the “freiheitlich-demokratischen Grundordnung” (“free and democratic basic order”). Right at the beginning it is stated that Islam, with its five million Muslims in Germany, does not belong to Germany and represents a great danger to the state, society and German values. However, it is acknowledged that many Muslims are integrated in Germany and live in accordance with the constitution. However, the AfD wants to prevent “Muslims becoming radicalized to violent Salafism and terror” and “isolated Islamic parallel societies”, in which Islamic law, the “Sharia”, applies. Therefore, only the civil marriage (under the auspices of the state) should be binding; religious weddings and pre-weddings, compulsory ceremonies conducted abroad, child marriages or polygamous marriages should not be recognized in Germany. The AfD recognizes the freedom of belief, conscience and confession anchored in Article 140 of the German Constitution. However, they assume that Islamic organizations in Germany do not meet the legal requirements of the free state church law and should therefore not be granted the status of a corporation under public law (“Körperschaft Öffentlichen Rechts”). In cases where religious traditions and commandments come into conflict with state law, the practice of religion should be restricted. In this context, criticism of Islam and religious satire are also permitted; it should not be defamed as “Islamophobia” and “racism”.
With regard to the practical exercise of religion, the AfD rejects the minaret and the muezzin as Islamic symbols of power and “religious imperialism”; in their opinion, they contradict a tolerant coexistence of religions, as practiced by Christian churches, Jewish communities and other religious communities. Sermons in mosques are to be given in German, sermons that are unconstitutional must be prohibited from being preached and imams deported from Germany. The construction, operation and financing of mosques supported by anti-constitutional associations or Islamic states should be prohibited. A “culture war” is being waged here from outside, especially due to the dependence of Turkey’s state “Office for Religious Affairs” (Diyanet). In order to prevent this, all Islamic theological chairs at German universities should be abolished, instead denominationally neutral Islamic studies should be established at universities. Finally, the AfD advocates a general ban on full veiling in the public area and in the civil service. Burqa and niqab are obstacles to a successful integration due to their religious and political subordination.
In addition, religion in general or apart from Islam is only referred to twice in the federal party manifesto. Once in the section on “German Leitkultur” which is built on the values of Christianity, antiquity, humanism and the Enlightenment. Additionally, once in Section 10.1 where a subtle criticism of the Christian churches is evident upon their abolishment of the payment of church representatives, such as bishops, being taken from the general tax bill.
In comparison to the statements in the party manifesto of the “Republikaner” it is noticeable that the AfD focuses primarily on Islam as a culturally strange value system and tradition and as representing a politically dangerous power. Christianity, Judaism or other religions are not considered as religious factors; likewise, reference is only made once to the “Occident” as a cultural horizon. Rather, the party manifesto tries to avoid a Christian-religious undertone and is more religiously neutral or non-denominational. In its program for the European elections to the 9th European Parliament, currently the most recent election program, the AfD largely follows the lines of the federal election program of 2017. However, it is interesting that the AfD for the first time here refers to the danger of Islam to anti-Semitism, which must be consistently fought in word and deed. In addition to Islam, reference is only made once to Christianity and the churches are explicitly named; in the context of development aid, they should provide humanitarian aid (Europawahlprogramm 2019, p. 21
The German AfD is less focused on religion than the three Dutch political parties, although their party manifestos have particular sections on religion, explicitly on Islam. A certain reluctance to make religious statements, also with regard to an evaluation of Christianity, can be seen clearly if one compares the AfD party manifestos to those of the “Republikaner”. With the “Republikaner”, a Christian dominant culture is clearly being played off against an Islamic threat. In the AfD party manifestos, Islam is referred to as a religion, but in terms of content, religious characteristics and influences play no role. The lack of any reference to Jewish life in Germany, Israel or, with one exception, the increasing anti-Semitism evident in Germany is also striking. Religion is limited to the descriptive. In fact, this finding fits with Brubaker’s thesis that populist movements in Europe emphasize Christianity as a cultural and civilizational identity (Brubaker 2017
). The fact that the AfD has much support in the former Communist and anti-religious areas of Eastern Germany plays an important role here. If one wants to gain voters here, overly religious and Christian traditions should be avoided. Obviously, this also applies to AfD voters in Western Germany, where research has identified a high proportion of non-denominational voters (Hirscher 2020
; Pfahl-Traughber 2017
). In contrast to the “Republikaner” in the 1980s and 1990s, the success of the AfD voters shows not only the strategic absence of a religious word framing, but also a factual one: since the 1990s, the number of leavers from the two Christian churches in Germany has increased rapidly (Fowid 2020
). This observation does not only apply to Christianity, but also to the notion of other religions than the monotheistic ones. In the election manifestos of both the German and Dutch political parties, Buddhism and Hinduism are completely absent. In comparison to the German AfD, the election manifestos of the three Dutch political parties contain a few more references to religion, but mainly in the service of taking a standpoint against Islam and/or to emphasize the Jewish-Christian-humanistic nature of the Netherlands. There are no specific chapters on religion. The manifestos include a few references to ‘church’ in the sense of the separation of or the relationship between faith community (church) and state, and the care for the historic-cultural heritage of church buildings. This finding also fits with Brubaker’s thesis, whereby the Party Manifestos of the Dutch populist parties actually emphasize the “otherness” of a Christian-Jewish culture towards Islam more than the German ones (Brubaker 2017
When looking at the first two decades of the 2000s, we see in the election manifestos different phases in the manifestation of populist political parties. In the manifestos of the LPF, the notion of religion is hardly present. The PVV especially is the
anti-Islam political party. The keyword is ‘Islam’ and then, in the context of an anti-Islam attitude in view of mosques, headscarves and in general, the view that Islam is not a religion, but an ideology. The appearance of the keywords ‘Israel’ and ‘Jerusalem’ in manifestos (De agenda van hoop en optimisme 2010
(PVV), Hún Brussel, óns Nederland 2012
(PVV), Het gaat om u 2021
(PVV); Verkiezingsprogramma FvD 2017
; Stem Nederland terug 2021
(FvD)) was unexpected.
This research forms the starting point for further research. On the basis of our current research, we conclude that populist political parties are also about religion, although the notion of religion is virtually absent in their manifestos apart from an anti-Islamic standpoint and/or a few references to the Jewish-Christian-humanistic nature or culture of the Netherlands, as evident in the religious keywords search. Populist political parties frame religion for strategic, political and societal reasons. Nevertheless, in an upcoming article, we will present the results of further research on the question and answer of whether the same religious keywords, as applied in this article, are relatively absent or more manifest in the election manifestos of several other Dutch and German political parties.