Finnish New Right and religious right converge

The New Right is increasingly lumping politics and religion together in its rhetoric. According to Professor Risto Saarinen, the idea is to bring the entire spectrum of conservatives together.

Risto Saarinen, professor of ecumenics at the Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki, has recently been observing the emergence of the New Right and what is known as the Identitarian movement from the perspective of intellectual history and religious studies. With the term ‘New Right’, Saarinen is referring to new populist parties that have emerged alongside traditional right-wing parties, such as the Finns Party in Finland and the Sweden Democrats in Sweden.

The Identitarian movement is a patriotic and anti-immigrant movement underlying the New Right. According to the movement’s manifesto, it wishes to preserve a European identity which, the movement believes, is threatened by Islam gaining a foothold in society, among other factors.

“The fundamental idea behind the Identitarian movement is the defence of the nation state. The movement believes in the central importance of their own ethnic group, while the mixing of nationalities is considered a bad thing. Furthermore, opposing the European Union and immigration, particularly across the Mediterranean, is typical of the movement. All this is aimed at defending European cultural heritage by protecting the educational and cultural heritage of each individual nation state,” Saarinen explains.

He considers the rise of the Identitarian movement a significant phenomenon which has gained prominence, especially after the large influx of immigrants in 2015, both in Europe and North America.

“Sociological causes for the rise of the New Right can be looked for in many directions, such as the discontent, marginalisation or, perhaps, the nostalgic longing for the olden days of modern people. As for myself, I want to highlight religion’s role as a background cause of the phenomenon.”

Intellectual roots of the networked New Right in 1980s France

According to Saarinen, the European New Right is backed by strong ideological motives. Even though each Identitarian group is promoting the primacy of their own state with an anti-globalist attitude, these movements comprise a Europe-wide network with a shared nationalist and ethnocentric ideology.

“In the media, it is often claimed that the movement is spreading through local bars, fuelled by spontaneous annoyance. Of course, there is some truth to this, but according to the latest research, the intellectual roots of the New Right appear to be in France and in the writings, in parts even fairly academic in nature, originating in the country from the 1980s onwards. Central eminent intellectuals behind the movement include Alain de Benoist and Jean-Claude Valla, as well as Pierre Vial and Renaud Camus among the latest names.

Furthermore, all of these figures have been influenced by the French non-fiction author Dominique Venner, who in 2013 committed ritual suicide in the Notre-Dame cathedral to draw people’s attention to Europe's poor state in a protest against allowing Muslims to immigrate to the continent and against enacting gender neutral marriage legislation in France.

“The movement inspired by Venner’s thinking in France has for a long time been known as Bloc Identitaire, while its younger sister organisation is known as Génération Identitaire. Both of them have loose connections to Rassemblement National, the movement led by the right-wing politician Marine Le Pen,” Saarinen says.

“You could say that the French Identitarian movement is a kind of ideological think tank for populist parties. The movements in Germany, Hungary and Italy, for example, seem to make use of this French point of origin.”

‘Unholy alliance’ between Identitarians and conservative Christians

In connection with the New Right, Saarinen has paid particular attention to the Identitarian movement’s relationship with religion and religious questions. For instance, José Pedro Zúquete, a Portuguese sociologist, has stated in his book The Identitarians that the literature that influenced the early French Identitarian movement had a critical outlook on the global Catholic Church.

“At the time, it was thought that Catholic social teaching panders too much to the word’s poor and that it’s best for ethnocentric nationalism to remain non-religious. The situation has since changed,” Saarinen says.

In France, the religious right opposed the equal marriage act that came into force in May 2013, finding allies in the Identitarians who wanted to re-establish an old-fashioned heteronormative concept of the family.

This coalition established a movement called La Manif pour Tous (‘a demonstration for all’), under whose auspices people took to the streets to vehemently protest against a gender neutral definition of marriage. At the same time, the movement took a tough stance against Islam and for Christianity.

Saarinen is interested in whether this ‘unholy alliance’ formed by Identitarians and Christian conservatives is part of a Europe-wide domino effect.

“At least in Poland and Hungary, the trend is apparent as regards the Roman Catholic Church. In these countries, right-wing ruling parties are undeniably invoking Christianity in their anti-immigrant arguments.”

In terms of other churches, the professor believes there is still much to investigate, also in the context of Nordic Lutheranism.

“It has been interesting to observe how the language and world of religion have lately been emphasised in the Finns Party led by Jussi Halla-aho. The party chair himself has frequently stressed that he is unreligious or an atheistic agnostic,” Saarinen points out.

Oikea Media – the voice of all conservatives

The first signal of a connection between the New Right and conservative Christians in Finland emerged in conjunction with the new Marriage Act, enacted on 1 March 2017. An association with the name of Aito avioliitto (‘Genuine marriage’) was established to oppose the amended law.

“The association directly adopted the logo of the La Manif pour Tous movement for its own use, for example, and other ideas were also clearly appropriated from France,” Saarinen notes.

The Finnish right-wing online publication Oikea Media (‘Right Media’) is a more recent example of this phenomenon. According to the publication’s declaration, it is “following and commenting on public discourse and news flow from a conservative perspective, as well as supporting patriotic values, individual freedom and the market economy”. Jukka-Pekka Rahkonen, the editor-in-chief of Oikea Media, has also been one of the figures behind the Aito avioliitto movement.

Saarinen believes that Oikea Media has assumed the role of a New Right ideological think tank of sorts in Finland.

Oikea Media gained more prominence in August 2018, as it started promoting an article by Tapio Puolimatka, professor of education at the University of Jyväskylä, which stated that sexual liberation may lead to the acceptance of paedophilia. After Rector Keijo Hämäläinen of the University of Jyväskylä noted that the professor should think twice about what to say in public, Oikea Media began challenging the university for curtailing Puolimatka’s freedom of speech.”

“What particularly drew my attention was that right after the Finnish parliament had reconvened after the summer holidays, Päivi Räsänen, a member of parliament from the Christian Democrat party, submitted a question to the government. Räsänen demanded that the rector of the University of Jyväskylä explain his stance on freedom of speech,” Saarinen continues.

In public, nearly all media outlets, researcher organisations, as well as the Finnish Union of University Professors and the Finnish Academy of Science defended Rector Hämäläinen.

“However, it was interesting to see Oikea Media giving voice to several evangelical Christian writers after the Puolimatka case. For example, Juha Ahvio, research director of the conservative Patmos Foundation for World Missions and docent of dogmatics, these days discusses in his writings published by Oikea Media the historical and biblical-Christian roots of the ideology of Finnish nationalism, as well as why Christians should be nationalist patriots,” Saarinen explains.

According to Saarinen, Ahvio does not hesitate to link the ethnocentric nationalism of the Finns Party with conservative Christianity. Furthermore, he leans on theorists of the French New Right, also naming them, in addition to which he shows off his support for Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and Jair Bolsonaro.

“From a research perspective, Oikea Media is continuously producing a written tradition and documentation on the convergence of the Finnish New Right Identitarian movement and conservative Christians. This is no mere grass-root delegation of the forgotten people that are opposed to the elite; rather, some of the writers are doctoral graduates and professors. They represent the intellectual New Right which wants to claim the playing field from the elite for itself.”

Rhetoric that emphasises opposition lumps religious and political polarisation together

According to Professor Risto Saarinen, the opposition of evangelical movements and the more moderate national church go back far in the history of Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. At the moment, this polarisation is intensifying, as it expands to political contexts.

“On social media, the opposition between the ‘tolerance brigade’ of the green left and the conservatives does not directly begin with religion. However, Christians who consider the world too liberal and pluralistic can pretty easily identify with rhetoric that feeds nationalistic polarisation,” Saarinen assesses.

What Saarinen finds essential in the polarisation phenomenon is that sides are not chosen on the basis of what one is endorsing, but rather on the basis of what one is opposed to.

“This is by no means anything new. The most recent examples can be found in the United States, where the Republicans and Democrats are waging a culture war of their own between traditional values and the progressive ideas promoted by the green left. Trump is very popular in religious circles.”

“As regards Finland, I’m wondering whether the Finns Party, for example, could gain significant support from conservative Christians. Ideological convergence towards nationalism and anti-immigration views is also taking place among the Christian Democrats.”


Read more: An article entitled Recognition, Religious Identity, and Populism: Lessons from Finland by Risto Saarinen and Heikki J. Koskinen will be published in a project under the Protestant Legacies in Nordic Law network.