Religiosity and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy

Organizers: The Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives (EuroStorie) and the Fulbright Finland Foundation

Time: 2-3 December 2021
Venue: Johan Ludvig Runeberg Hall (2089), Unioninkatu 34, University of Helsinki

Thursday 2.12.2021

13:00-14:00 Opening and Challenge

  • Kaius Tuori
  • Steven Livingston

The intellectual backdrop for our discussion of religiosity and politics is the current crisis of liberal democracy.  A greater number of liberal democracies are under duress in 2021 than at any other time since 2006 when Freedom House began collecting data.  Finding similar trends, the V-Dem Institute of Sweden concluded, “In North America, and Western and Eastern Europe, no country has advanced in democracy in the past ten years (2010-2020) while Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, and the United States of America have declined substantially.”  How might religiosity play a role in these trends?  Here is one possibility.

Harvard political historian Daniel Ziblatt argues that successful democratic consolidation hinges on the confidence economic elites have in winning elections.  To do so, conservative parties must find effective “cross-cutting cleavage issues,” issues that appeal to potential supporters from across class divides.  They tend to be non-materialist in nature, focusing more on identity and culture.  Secondly, parties must strike balanced relationships with allied organizations – civil society groups, media organizations, and cultural institutions such as churches -- to help promote cross-cutting issues. If successful, if they believe they have a shot at winning elections fairly, conservative parties will be less inclined to undermine liberal democracy. If, however, they lose confidence in their ability to win, or if they lose control of the issues they adopt and the relationships they form with their allied organizations, they run the risk of being pulled into extremist positions.  German conservatives in the late Weimar period, for example, aligned themselves with powerful organizations that embraced anti-Semitism as a “cross-cutting issue.” As we know, liberal democracy collapsed as a result.

We can think of contemporary religious narratives in the US and Europe as “cross-cutting cleavage issues.”  Race, ethnicity, immigration, and gender identities are at the top of the list.  Extant literature suggests contemporary political extremism, perhaps especially in the US, involves religious narratives that cast political differences in apocalyptic terms.  A significant body of research – much of it done by those joining the workshop -- suggests that, at least in the United States, religiosity celebrates militant masculinity and traditional gender roles, fixed and normatively uncontested social/racial hierarchies, and hyper-libertarianism. This is often paired with an embrace of Dominionism – a belief in the desirability of a theocratic state. Among traditional conservative Catholics, a similar belief is found in Integralism.  Meanwhile, lacking the theocratic anchors provided by a fixed church doctrine (the situation is perhaps different with Integralism), White Christian Nationalism overlaps with QAnon conspiracy theories in online organizational morphologies.  QAnon and similar quasi-religious belief systems have also had a growing presence in far-right European politics.

Our central question is: How do religious narratives affect the stability of liberal democracy?  There is a large and robust scholarly literature devoted to explaining the nature of democratic backsliding – the erosion of liberal democratic norms and practices.  With a few important exceptions, this mostly political science literature is inattentive to the role of religious narratives.  This is the research gap we hope to address. Your individual expertise on religion will help us understand the role of religious beliefs and practices in liberal democracy.

14:00-17:00 Session 1: Split Vision: Is Religion the Foundation of Liberalism or Its Nemeses?

Prominent scholars argue that the rise of far-right Christian identity movements threaten the core principles of liberal democracy. In this view, far right political movements have adapted religious narratives to frame their illiberal political projects.  One must look no further than the January 6th Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol for evidence of the importance of religious narratives in illiberal politics.  On the other hand, other prominent scholars note the broad historical, philosophical, and even anthropological literature that emphasizes the necessity of religious convictions in a liberal democracy.  Religious convictions support the essential conditions that sustain liberal democracy.  The point of this opening session is to surface these contrasting understandings of religion in liberal democracy.

  • Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Mainstream and Fringe, Resistance and Complicity: Assessing White Evangelicalism and the Fate of American Democracy
  • Katherine Stewart, The ‘Supply-side of Christian Nationalism in the United States: Leaders, Organizations, and Networks Behind Religious Nationalist Movements
  • Stefan Gosepath, The Relationship Between Liberalism and Religion
  • Gregor Walter-Drop, Religion and the Liberal Script

15:30 Coffee break

Friday 3.12.2021

10:00-13:00 Session 2:  Contrasting Experiences? Lived Religious Experience in Europe and North America

The point of the first session was to surface tensions found in the established literature on religion and politics.  Religion, or at least some forms of religious identity, is often understood as revanchist and intolerant of non-patriarchal social orders.  Andrew Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry argue that Christian nationalism involves a cultural framework built around a “collection of myths, traditions, narratives, and value systems that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (p. 10).  This framework includes, “assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism” (p. 10). Kristin Kobes Du Mez cogently argues that much of this cultural narrative can be characterized as a nostalgic longing for a mythical lost hyper-masculine past. “It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, two justifications for the use of excessive force against Black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology” (p. 4).  Katherine Stewart points out that these church “surrogate organizations,” to use Ziblatt’s term for civil society organizations allied with conservative political parties, have not been created ex nihilo. “It consists rather of a dense ecosystem of nonprofits, for-profits, religious, and non-religious media, and legal advocacy groups, some relatively permanent, others fleeting.  It's leadership cadre includes a number of personally interconnected activists and politicians who often jump from one organization to the next.  It derives much of its power and direction from an informal club of funders, a number of them belonging to extended hyper wealthy families” (p. 4).  Is there a European equivalent to these movements?  If not, why not?   This session takes a closer look at the contrasting experiences of religion in North America and Europe.

  • Tobias Cremer, Contrasts Between the European and American Experiences
  • Andrew Whitehead, Liberal Democracies in the Crosshairs: Ethno-Nationalism and Religion in the U.S. and Europe
  • Risto Saarinen, Päivi Räsänen and her transatlantic advocates. A Finnish case of conservatism
  • Kaius Tuori, The Far Right and Human Rights Theory
  • Titus Hjelm, Political Symbols and Symbolic Politics: A (European?) Case for Talking about ‘Religion’ instead of ‘Religiosity’ and Political Discourse

13:00-14:00 Lunch break

14:00-17:00 Session 3: Religious Networks

According to a Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults described themselves as Christians, down twelve points from a previous survey a decade earlier. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” stood at 26%, in the 2018/19 surveys.  In 2009, only 17% described themselves in this way.  Similarly, the 1981 and 1984 World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Study (EVS) found that “nones” were 11.3% of world’s population.  In less than four decades, the percentage of “nones” had expanded globally to 25.9% and tripled in Europe to 30%.  The world, it seemed, was secularizing.  But as several scholars have observed, to self-identify as “none” is not the same as saying that one is without “spiritual” convictions and beliefs.  As Peter Berger tells us, without nomos (systems of meaning and purpose) life is filled by anomie and chaos.  “The sacred cosmos, which transcends and includes man in its ordering of reality, thus provides man’s ultimate shield against the terror of anomy. To be in a ‘right’ relationship with the sacred cosmos is to be protected against the nightmare threats of chaos. To fall out of such a ‘right’ relationship is to be abandoned on the edge of the abyss of meaninglessness” (Berger, The Sacred Canopy, p. 39).  The New Age wellness industry, QAnon and other conspiracy theories, plus transhumanism and other fixations on technology all provide nomos.  So, too, do angrier forms of Christian religious identity.  What stands out perhaps most of all about these belief systems is their syncretic nature. Yet synthetic as they may be, they also have common themes, with a deep mistrust of conventional liberal institutions, science, and “elites” among them.  In the U.S., nearly half (45%) of white evangelicals said they will not get the COVID-19 vaccination, compared with 30% of the general population. But how do these newer synthetic religious identities arise and how do they sustain themselves? This session looks at these themes.

  • Katja Valaskivi, Modernization Theory, Circulating Affective Nationalist Imaginaries and Mediatization of Religiosity
  • Emilia Palonen, Contemporary Hegemonic Battle
  • Minna Ruckenstein, Responding to the Deification of Algorithms
  • Pamela Slotte, Some Results from Finnish Studies of Vaccine Attitudes

17:00-18:00 Wrap up session


Tobias Cremer is a junior research fellow in the Religion and the Frontier Challenges program at Pembroke College Oxford. He was a visiting research fellow at the Berkley Center at Georgetown University from October 2019 to January 2020.

Stefan Gosepath is Professor of Practical Philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin and associated with the Departments of Politics. He is also co-director of the Centre for Advanced Studies "Justitia Amplificata: Rethinking Justice: Applied and Global" (together with Rainer Forst). He writes about political philosophy/theory, social philosophy, action theory, moral philosophy and ethics. He is also associated with the Contestations of the Liberal Script Center of Excellence.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a New York Times bestselling author and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, Religion News Service, and Christianity Today, and has been interviewed on NPR, CBS, and the BBC, among other outlets. Her most recent book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

Titus Hjelm joined the University of Helsinki in January 2019 as Associate Professor in the Study of Religion. Previously, he was a Reader in Sociology at University College London (2007–2018) and is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at UCL.  He also held post-doctorate positions at the University of Amsterdam and University of Helsinki, and visiting fellowships at University of California, Santa Barbara, and University of Uppsala, Sweden. His publications include Peter Berger and the Sociology of Religion: 50 Years after The Sacred Canopy (ed., Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).

Steven Livingston is a Fulbright Scholar at the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narrative at the University of Helsinki. He holds an inaugural “Seeking Solutions for Global Challenges Awards,” which is supported by the Fulbright Finland Foundation.  He is also the Founding Director of the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics (IDDP) and Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC. His most recent book is The Disinformation Age (with W. Lance Bennett).

Minna Ruckenstein is an associate professor at the Consumer Society Research Centre and the Helsinki Centre for Digital Humanities. Her ongoing research focuses on digitalization/datafication by highlighting emotional, social, political, and economic aspects of current and emerging data practices.

Emilia Palonen is a University Researcher in Political Science, University of Helsinki and leader of HEPPsinki research group, and the Principal Investigator of the Academy of Finland project WhiKnow and Kone Foundation project Now-Time Us Space, University of Helsinki (2020-24). 

Risto Saarinen is Professor of Ecumenics (tenured) and Director of Academy of Finland's Centre of Excellence "Reason and Religious Recognition" (2014-2019). His research and teaching deals with ecumenism, the European Reformations and contemporary systematic theology.

Pamela Slotte is Professor of Religion and Law at Åbo Akademi University and a member of the steering group for the ÅAU Strategic Profiling Area in Minority Research. Prof. Slotte is also Vice-director of the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives ( 2018-2025, at the University of Helsinki.  She is also the Principal Investigator in the HERA funded research project Protestant Legacies in Nordic Law: Uses of the Past in the Construction of the Secularity of Law; and an affiliated senior research fellow at the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Helsinki.

Katherine Stewart is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury). She writes about politics, policy, religion and education for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic among others.  The Power Worshippers was awarded First Place in the Excellence in Nonfiction Religion Books category by the Religion News Association. Her previous book, The Good News Club, was an investigation of the religious right and public education.

Kaius Tuori is Professor of European intellectual history, Faculty of Social Sciences. Until 2025 he is also Director of the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence for Law, Identity and the European Narratives ( as well as Director and Principal Investigator, ERC Consolidator Grant Project “Law, Governance and Space: Questioning the Foundations of the Republican Tradition” (

Katja Valaskivi is Associate Professor at the University of Helsinki where she heads the new Helsinki Research Hub on Religion, Media and Social Change (Heremes). Her research focuses on belief systems, world views and ideologies in the context of the contemporary media environment from media studies and sociology of religion perspectives. She currently heads research projects on mediatized religious populism, politics of conspiracy theories as well as circulation of extremism in the dark web and beyond.

Andrew L. Whitehead is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Association of Religion Data Archives ( at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. Whitehead’s research focuses on religion, politics, and power in contemporary American culture. He is the co-author of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2020)—along with Samuel Perry—which won the 2021 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Gregor Walter-Drop is a political scientist by training, he holds a Doctorate in International Relations and has worked in different capacities at Freie Universität Berlin since 2006. Currently, he is the Director of the Knowledge Exchange Lab of the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)”. Gregor has published and taught primarily in the fields of globalization, governance, development, and limited statehood.  Among his publications is Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood (with Steven Livingston).