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April 18, 2024

Kiran Subramanian

Comparing and Contrasting the Impact of Religious Nationalism on Right-Wing Populism in the United States and India


Source: CNBC

One of the most noticeable political trends has been the emergence of right-wing populism. One prominent event that showed this trend was the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Trump’s populism centered on the belief that the government stopped caring about the common man’s interests and that he would be a true representative of the people. This election has shaped the modern Republican Party with figures such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA-14) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL-1). This has also become a global phenomenon. One of the best examples of this is Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. During his run for Prime Minister, Modi frequently bashed the economic stagnation under the ruling Congress Party and framed himself as the champion of the urban middle class and the peasantry.

Along with this trend of right-wing populism, there has also been a rise in religious nationalism. In the United States, the religious right have pushed for America to become a more Christian nation, essentially meaning that to be an American, one has to be Christian. This has culminated in the erosion of the barrier between church and state, restrictions on abortion, and LGBTQ+ content in schools. In India, a prominent ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is Hindutva, the belief that India is to be a Hindu nation. This has materialized in policies that favor the Hindu majority, such as building a Hindu temple on the disputed land of Ayodhya. 

Given the similar political environments that both the United States and India have, it is worth comparing both countries to see what the effect of religious nationalism has been on their respective versions of right-wing populism and the policy implications that come from this ideology. To do this, it is important to start with the origins of religious nationalism in both nations.

Origins of Religious Nationalism in the United States and India

Religion in the United States is not a foreign concept. In its founding, many of the people that first settled in what would become the United States were religious groups that wanted to get a new start (a notable example being the pilgrims in New England). Though America may have had religion in its background, the founders of the United States made it clear that the nation was intended to be secular. For example, in the Treaty of Tripoli, the second President of the United States, John Adams, wrote, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” For a long time, America has held onto secular beliefs. For example, the Supreme Court case of Engel v. Vitale (1962) ruled that schools cannot force students to engage in a school prayer. This decision struck many Christian nationalists. They feared that the removal of God from society, especially from children, would generate immoral individuals. This was fueled even further by the election of Jimmy Carter as President of the United States. Many Christians were upset that Carter refused to push harder for moral legislation. This fused Christian nationalism with the political right as Ronald Reagan actively courted these dissatisfied voters with his support of prayer in schools and his promise to appoint many evangelicals to positions in the government. This led to the evangelical community siding with Republicans, which has stayed true since then. 

Similar to the United States, India was founded as a secular nation. In the preamble of its Constitution, India declared itself to be a “…sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”. However, the root of hindu nationalism came from religious conflicts during the 1930s. British leaders sought to exploit the religious conflicts in the area to divide the local populace, especially by keeping Indians poor through exploitative lending and tax practices. Around this time, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was created by a group of Brahmins who feared that a long period of non-Hindu leadership in India had removed the populace from their roots. This organization works to preserve Hindu values and scorns the multiculturalism that India has, with Nazi Germany serving as a model to follow. The RSS started to activate as a more potent political force, forming the Jan Sangh Party in 1980, which promoted Hindu nationalism. Its modern iteration, the BJP, formed as a merger between the Hindu nationalist Jan Sangh Party and the Janata Party, a political party created in opposition to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil liberties during the Emergency. Since then, the BJP has been a prominent political party. The 2019 Lok Sabha (lower house) elections further proved this point, with the BJP winning over 50% of the seats.

There are some notable similarities between the United States and India. One of the most notable is that both nations were founded on the belief of a secular government. Each nation’s religious nationalism formed to contest this belief. Notably, while the United States formed as a nation earlier than India, both countries experienced this modern wave of religious nationalism around the 1980s. One explanation for this may be the economic stagnation in both countries. In the United States, the recession in the 1980s fueled anti-Carter sentiments, allowing the Republican Party to bring Ronald Reagan into the Presidency under the promise of economic liberalization. Similarly, in India, the 1980s marked a period of economic liberalization, especially with the deregulation of foreign trade. This economic liberalization contrasted with the Congress Party’s rule during economic stagnation. By this time, religious nationalism was tied with each nation’s right-wing, bringing the ideology into the government through economic liberalization. 

Religious Nationalism and Right-Wing Populism

 To truly understand right-wing populism, there needs to be a clear definition. For this paper, the definition of populism comes from Professor Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist at the University of Georgia, in his influential paper The Populist Zeitgeist. Mudde defines populism as “…an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” From this, there are clear connections between religious nationalism and right-wing populism.

In the United States, the synthesis of religious nationalism and right-wing populism comes from premillennial thinking. This ideology centers on the belief that Jesus will return to Earth before the millennium to set up a holy kingdom and that society is in tribulation to prove itself to Christ. This creates a situation where premillennial believers see the world as a fight between believers of Christ and those who do not believe. With Trump, he is a figure that spent much of his time talking about the nation’s decline. His main campaign slogan was Make America Great Again, explicitly stating that the United States is degenerating. When talking about the groups that are culpable for America’s decline, one of his main targets is Muslims, claiming that Islam is against the West. This distinct religious distinction between good and evil feeds into the premillennial narrative. Trump also pledges himself to be the people’s voice but takes it further by declaring that he will be their retribution against those who have wronged them. This statement feeds into Trump’s messianism, a key component in religious nationalism. Trump’s populism is impacted by religious nationalism by setting up the framework for this battle between good and evil and how he is the only person who can fix it. However, this battle of good and evil is not just relegated to surface-level beliefs but a larger war about morals in which Trump positions himself as a bulwark against the immoral. This unique blend explains how Trump garnered much support from evangelical Christians.

  Narendra Modi’s outlook on religion greatly influences his populism. Modi is no stranger to Hindu nationalism as he was a member of the RSS. Modi’s form of populism was fusing economics with religion. During his 2014 run for Prime Minister, Modi positioned himself as Vikas Purush (development man) and pledged to replicate the economic development in Gujarat, where he was the Chief Minister. Many of Modi’s policies also have their roots in hindu belief, with one notable example being “…the panchamrut plan, Modi said it rested on the five major planks of gyan shakti (power of knowledge), jal shakti (power of water resources), Urja shakti (power of energy resources), jan shakti (power of human resources) and raksha shakti (power of defense).” By injecting hindu beliefs into public policy while also positioning himself as an economic developer, he made hindu nationalism much more palatable to the general public. Modi has also positioned himself as a political outsider with a track record of economic success as an alternative to the Nehru-Gandhi corruption, making himself look more like a man of the people. During the 2019 elections, Modi fed into the two antagonistic groups that Mudde talks about by focusing on national security and the threat that Pakistan presents to India, specifically concerning the Jammu and Kashmir conflict. This feeds into the Hindutva narrative about India being a Hindu nation and that Islam is a group bent on destroying the nation. 

The main similarity between these populist leaders is that they paint their nations as in decline. With Donald Trump, he frequently comments about how the United States is in decline due to the establishment no longer working for the American people. Modi has frequently attacked the Congress Party and the Nehru-Gandhi political family for its corruption and the years of economic stagnation they have caused. Both figures then present themselves as messianic figures that can save their countries. Trump ran under the slogan of Make America Great Again. Similarly, in 2014, Modi ran under the slogan of ‘acche din aane waale hain’ (good days are coming). While Trump may be harkening back to the past and Modi is looking towards the future, both present themselves as problem solvers who can save their nations. This messianism attracts many religious nationalists because they often paint religious minorities as threats to their respective nations, with both leaders focusing on the threat of Islam. Both Trump and Modi create an environment where religious nationalism can be supported, as well as influence policy decisions.  

Religious Nationalism and Policy

Both Trump and Modi have been able to push religious nationalism through the court system. For example, many of the justices that Trump has appointed to the Supreme Court have worked to erode the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. One notable case has been Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022). In this case, a high school football coach was fired for performing a silent prayer after school games. In the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch (a Trump appointee) claimed that the firing violated the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. The Court also went one step further to overrule Lemon v. Kurtzman formally. Lemon v. Kurtzman established a three-pronged test to see whether a law violated the Establishment Clause, which goes as follows “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, Board of Education v. Allen; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” This rigid test ensured that the Establishment Clause would be hard to violate. Removing this test erodes the separation of church and state and opens the door for Christian values to be promoted by the government. 

In India, their Supreme Court has also supported Hindu nationalism. In 2019, the Supreme Court of India ruled in favor of Hindus in the Ram Ayodhya temple dispute. This dispute was caused by Hindus wanting to build a temple on a specific portion of land because they viewed it as a holy site where Lord Rama (a major deity) was born. However, in the 16th Century, the first ruler of the Mughal Empire built a mosque on the land. This eventually led to a group of Hindus destroying the mosque in 1992 with the hope that a temple would be built on the land. The Indian Supreme Court’s ruling favoring Hindus supported Modi’s wishes to build a temple on the land. The Supreme Court of India also gave Rama legal standing, which effectively pitted a Hindu god against the Muslim population. The main takeaway from this case is that the Supreme Court of India has seemingly moved past the secular foundation of India to favor Hindu interests and push the Hindutva agenda.    

Both Kennedy v. Bremerton School District and the Ram Ayodhya dispute show that the highest court in India and the United States is willing to challenge the secular nature of their respective country to advance religious nationalism. Unsurprisingly, the executive branch in India and the United States have had a major role in influencing their respective Supreme Courts in this direction. Donald Trump was able to appoint three justices to the Supreme Court, and the Federalist Society influenced his decisions. This conservative legal organization was created to counter perceived liberal bias in the legal profession. The President appoints justices with the Supreme Court of India, as stated in the Indian Constitution. Since the BJP controls the Presidency, they can advance their interests by appointing pro-BJP justices. This system gives more power to the President because they do not need to seek approval from the rest of the legislative body to make these appointments. This wider discretion makes it easier for Hindu nationalism to be more overt, whereas Christian nationalism has to be much more covert. 

Source: NBC News

From a legislative standpoint, religious nationalism has sprung up at the state level rather than the national level. For example, in the United States, 22 states (all of which have Republican-dominated state legislatures) have passed laws excluding transgender youth from seeking gender-affirming healthcare. This is a product of Christian nationalism, where believers in this ideology see being transgender as against Christian values. Similarly, in India, eight states and New Delhi banned the slaughtering of cows. These laws push Hindu values as the cow is a sacred animal in Hinduism, and Hindus are not allowed to consume beef. The reason for the state-level legislation succeeding is that there is less national focus on state legislation until it gets passed, allowing religious nationalists to use the process to pass their policies. Furthermore, state-level legislators are more connected to their voters due to their proximity to voters and smaller constituent size, meaning that religious nationalist rhetoric will have a far greater impact. At the national level, there has been more success in India than in the United States. Notably, in India, the BJP-led government has been able to pass a controversial citizenship bill that makes it harder for Muslims to get citizenship if they enter the country illegally. In the United States, Christian nationalism has had a much more difficult time succeeding in Congress, with the most notable national policy, Trump’s Muslim Ban, happening through executive order. The reason for success in India is that the population is significantly more Hindu. 80% of the population is Hindu, and the majority in 28 of India’s states. Furthermore, many of these Hindus tie religion to national identity, with 64% of them saying that it is very important to be a Hindu to be an Indian. This broad majority, tied with the link between religion and national identity, allows for Hindu nationalism to be enacted much easier. In contrast, while America is still a majority Christian nation, that majority is far more subdivided among the different sects. These different Christian sects are not all in agreement on what policies need to be enacted, weakening the efficacy of Christian nationalism at the federal level. Furthermore, a majority of Americans disagree that the United States should be a Christian nation. Those who do agree with America being a Christian nation see that as being guided by a belief in God or Christian values, not necessarily being Christian to be American. The lack of support for Christian nationalism makes it harder for legislation to pass at the national level.

Counter Argument

Some might argue that former President Donald J. Trump is not a populist and claim that he is just a reflection of the will of the people. However, this is the definition of populism. Returning to the definition of populism that Mudde provides, Trump fits the bill. Much of Trump’s language from 2016 to now has focused on creating an us versus them mentality. From the threat of illegal immigrants to journalists, Trump has used this framework to mobilize a base of voters that Republicans could not have reached previously. What separates Trump from past Republicans stems from his messaging and cult of personality. Regarding his messaging, Trump has been more explicit with his messaging around Christian nationalism than that of previous republicans. For example, in March 2024, Trump announced that he was selling a $60 bible. In this announcement, Trump stated that “Religion and Christianity are the biggest things missing from this country, and I truly believe that we need to bring them back and we have to bring them back fast.” Furthermore, Trump has made christian nationalism a stronger part of his 2024 Presidential campaign. One example of this comes from Project 2025, a policy agenda created by many conservative think tanks, most notably the Heritage Foundation. Project 2025 contains many elements of Christian nationalism, such as encouraging the government to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military, allow religious employers to run their businesses however they want, even if it violates general anti discrimination laws, and limit government funding of abortion. The link may not seem clear between this policy agenda and Trump, but many of the contributors to Project 2025 are Trump officials, such as Kiron Skinner, the Director of Policy Planning at the United States Department of State. Ken Cuccinelli, acting leader of the Department of Homeland Security, and Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Many of these officials are still very close to Trump and could be very influential in a second Trump Administration. Thus, it is likely that the christian nationalist elements of Project 2025 can come into fruition under another Trump presidency.

Trump has also cultivated a strong cult of personality. Many of his supporters are die hard fans of Donald Trump. Many Trump supporters view his presidency as a time when the economy was better, America had more respect in foreign affairs, and his willingness to say the truth out loud. Trump’s cult of personality stems far beyond just mere support. According to a CBS/YouGov poll, Trump supporters were more likely to trust Trump to tell the truth over their friends, families, and religious leaders. This is emblematic of the messiahism that Trump invokes, as discussed in previous sections. While not all Trump supporters may be die hard christian nationalists, they are very much supporting someone that is supported by and will support if put in office.

Concluding Thoughts

The link between religious nationalism and populism is clear. With populism focusing on the divide between the pure people and the corrupt evil, religious nationalism can define those groups. The pure people are those who are believers in the religion, and the corrupt elite are those who are not believers or actively work against the nationalists. While the policy impacts of religious nationalism have not yet been seen on a broad scale, the bigger impact is more rhetorical. With the greater acceptance of religious nationalistic rhetoric in both nations, it provides fuel to these movements. The danger that comes from this rhetoric is seen in broadscale attacks on democracy, such as January 6th, or political violence, such as the 2002 Gujarat Riots. What this leads to is further democratic backsliding, where civil liberties and democratic processes are under attack by these populist leaders. What is clear is that this phenomenon is unlikely to subside even with broader secularization; it might just empower religious nationalism. If the democratic processes are broken, then it is likely that these leaders will be able to make religious nationalism policy, ensuring that civil liberties for religious minorities get eroded in favor of a nationalistic state. 


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