What makes populists tick, and what can be done to fight their policies? Since populist parties have appeared across Europe – and are now either in government or not far from it – these questions are more urgent than ever. The concept of ‘the people’ is central to the world image of the populist; however, instead of adopting the populist definition of ‘people’, we should contrast it with a different one. Erica Meijers turns to Biblical and theological sources to do just that.

The Christian People

It is well known that the word ‘people’ plays a decisive role for populists, often linked to ‘Christian culture’. Populists across Europe claim to be defending Western Christian culture, just as the South African apartheid regime once claimed to be seeking to do. The combination of ‘Christian’ and ‘the West’ was a popular phrase during colonial times, used to fundamentally distinguish and separate oneself from the ‘others’.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders even talks about ‘Judeo-Christian culture’, apparently unaware – or simply in denial – that this concept was coined after the Second World War by Christian theologians to make clear that the anti-Semitic tendencies in Christendom were part of the prehistory of the Shoah, and that both the Church and theology should always remember the close connection between Christianity and Judaism, in a spirit of ‘Never Again’. Using the expression ‘Judeo-Christian culture’ to exclude minorities means equating the victims and perpetrators of the past, which means a denial of the history of antisemitism. ‘Christian’ in the populist use of the phrase ‘Christian culture’ has nothing to do with the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who was known for freely socialising with the outsiders and stigmatised.

Unfortunately, the populist image of both Christianity and ‘the people’ is all too often accepted without question; by briefly considering the Biblical and theological view of the topic the People and the Others, I aim to correct this image.

Henk and Ingrid

Populists cannot exist without the word people. In his book What Is Populism[1], political scientist Jan Werner Müller defines populism as anti-elitist, with populists claiming to represent the one true people which they themselves construct and define, a definition generally accepted by political scientists. More than others, though, Müller emphasises that this claim to represent the one true people logically entails that populism is always anti-pluralistic. It excludes all those whom populists do not regard as part of the true people. (Consequently, left-wing or green populism would be impossible; can a party rejecting pluralism and internationalism still be a green or left one?)

Briefly, the word ‘people’ is used by populists to exclude others and establish a new nationalism under which the people is only one ‘chosen’ group. In the final debate of the Dutch election campaign on March 14th, Geert Wilders responded to the statement “the Netherlands belong to all of us” by saying that this could not, of course, be true, as the Netherlands only belongs to the people. To him, the Dutch people does not include all Dutch citizens.

When he wants to define ‘the people’, Wilders always talks about Henk and Ingrid; to him they embody ‘Judeo-Christian’ culture (although he never talks about any Jewish values and his version of ‘Christian’ has nothing to do with loving one’s neighbour). But actually, Wilders does not show much interest in the question of who ‘the people’ includes; he is far more focused on who it does not include: refugees, migrants, and Dutch citizens with a migration background, particularly Muslims. They represent the ‘other’. Populists might not think the ‘other’ is as responsible as the elite for everything that is going badly, but it still represents everything that the people is not.

In the populist world view, the ‘other’ has been assigned the role of barbarian, just as the Black population in South Africa during Apartheid.

Populists need barbarians; they are the counterweight to the good people, a place onto which they project everything they do not want to be and everything they abhor. Liberal democrats, Greens and Leftists do not have an easy time with these ‘others’ either. Populism relies on archetypes from modern history, which have, for some time now, come to be regarded as politically incorrect, but which have yet to be overcome. The Muslim as an aggressor against the West evokes images of savage men at the gates of Vienna; the dark-skinned migrant harassing ‘our women’ is an even bigger clichéd view of uncivilised Black people. These images of ‘others’ are still powerful in our allegedly enlightened society, and are often thoughtlessly adopted by liberal politicians and the mainstream media.

Original sin

This is surely partly due to the fact that the word ‘people’ does not actually refer to an empirically observable reality, although the temptation to pin down the word to something concrete is always present. This might be called the ‘original sin’ of populism: that it fixes something that cannot be fixed without excluding people. By fixing who the ‘people’ are, populists place themselves at the centre and exclude others, which makes their definition of the ‘people’ unfit for a pluralistic democracy. The sovereignty of the people is a problematic concept because it is difficult to define, but we cannot make do without it. Can there be a democracy without a demos (people)? Otherwise we are left with the second half of the word, kratos – meaning power. The word ‘demos’ in ‘democracy’ is meant to be a counterweight preventing power from being concentrated within one person or a small group. It is precisely this meaning of ‘people’ that populists are undermining by seizing the power to define who belongs to it and who does not. However, the concept of ‘the people’ cannot be left completely devoid of meaning and symbolic, as ‘the people’ can only fulfil their role of being a counterweight if it is made up of real people of flesh and blood and spirit. It is therefore a question of developing a dynamic concept of the people that is not completely limitless, but also cannot be fully defined.


At this point the concept of aniconism, which exists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, may be useful. It is the prohibition of making an image of anything “that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them” (Ex. 20:4-5)

The word ‘people’ is not a word like ‘citizen’, which is defined by modern law; it is a word that has changed its meaning many times, depending on who defined it. It has been proven to be a dangerous and fragile word (like the word god), that cannot be owned by just one group. By claiming the word ‘people’ for only a part of the citizens of a country, populists create a fixed image of who ‘the people’ are. The people become an unchangeable category which resists the ongoing change of our societies.

Dutch theologian Theo Witvliet has thoroughly grappled with the concept of banning images in our plural modern society[2]. Aniconism stems from the awareness that God can never be defined as God will always be a puzzle, and man can never truly know God. The same is true of other living creatures or creation as a whole (including ourselves). Men should never bow for the fixed images they have made themselves, whether of God or of anything else. The unknowability of God and of others is a source of fascination and sometimes even love. As soon as we think we know who the other person is, the love is gone. Witvliet quotes the Swiss writer Max Frisch, who spoke of people as an exhausting and sometimes annoying puzzle that we sometimes cannot stand any more: “then we create an image. That is lovelessness, that is betrayal.”

A modern interpretation of aniconism may help us deal with the mysteriousness of the other, or in any case to reconsider the image each time and to destroy it from time to time (no aniconism without iconoclasm). It is only by accepting that there will always be something we cannot understand when dealing with others that we can really be brought together. This implies that freedom is always the freedom of others, as Rosa Luxemburg said; the freedom to be different. It emerges almost as an empty, secret, inaccessible space; and this is the space which is at the beating heart of every democracy, as French philosopher Claude Lefort wrote.[3] Those who occupy this space by claiming the power to define who ‘we’ are, are acting not only against other people, but against democracy itself. Democratic power is intangible, as it is always in constant movement, like a bird in flight. If you lock the bird in a cage, you betray and kill it.

Democracy, then, requires an epistemology of the unknowingness and incomprehension. Developing this in theory and in practice would be a fine task for Green parties which love diversity.


For populists, ‘the people’ is not a pluralistic idea, but an exclusionary one: they and they alone define the people. This recalls the concept of divine election. In contrast to the Afrikaners during Apartheid, populists do not define themselves as God’s chosen people, perhaps because they consider themselves to be secular, but as the self-appointed guardians of Christian culture against ‘the other’, they embrace the same logic.

From a Biblical perspective, being chosen means that one has been called and has taken on a task – not the task of protecting an existing order, but the task of creating an order of peace and justice. The chosen cannot be exclusive and separate, as the end point of the task must include all of humanity; the Kingdom of God, as it is known in Christianity, is for the whole world, not just for one chosen group. God’s people includes everyone. It is precisely the universal nature of this vision, this desire if you like, that makes the concept of ‘the people’ a fundamentally open one and even, figuratively, an outwards-looking one.

Who the people are and who they are not can never be morally and democratically defined; only populists think they can do this. This lack of definition, the fundamental openness of the people, is their moral value. This leads to Pierre Rosanvallon’s plural idea of the peoples[4]: Henk and Ingrid, but also Hassan and Fatima. The people’s border is, in principle, a permeable one. On everyday policy, in Realpolitik, when and where they can and should be permeable must be defined.

Those who seek to fight against the populist idea of the people, without letting go of the idea of ‘the people’, should never forget this eschatological dimension of the people. Eschatology is about the end days and about our hopes for the future. Those who wish to know who the people are should not look to the past, but rather look forward into the future. Who do we want to become? What are our hopes?

Some propose to do away with the word ‘people’, even if it is hard to imagine what could replace this word so central to democracy. But we can do better than that. Instead of following the populist definition of ‘the people’, we could also see it as an open, forward-looking concept, which can be linked to green values such as pluralism and, not least, solidarity. Then, even Greens can embrace the people.


[1] Jan Werner Müller, What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Pres 2016. (Also available in German and Dutch)

[2] Theo Witvliet, Het geheim van het lage midden, Over de identiteit van het western Christendom [The Secret of the Low Centre, on the identity of western Christendom], Meinema, Zoetermeer 2003; Theo Witvliet, Gebroken traditie. Christelijke religie in het spanningsveld van pluraliteit en identiteit [Broken tradition. Christianity in the tension field of plurality and identity], Ten Have, Baarn 1999.

[3] Cf. Claude Lefort, Essais sur le Politique, XIX-XX siècles [Essays on Politics, XIX-XX centuries], Editions du Seuil, Paris 1986.

[4] Cf. Pierre Rosanvallon, Le Peuple introuvable: Histoire de la representation démocratique en France [The Unfindable People: History of Democratic Representation in France], Folio Histoire, 1998.

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