The Populist Revolt

July 04, 2018

The Populist Revolt

Image: John Gomez /

Andrew Schmidt


Many people are talking about a populist backlash against the globalising policies of Western governments in recent years.  Brexit and Trump are said to a part of this phenomenon, as well as strong showings by right-wing, anti-immigration parties in Europe.[1]

How should Christians understand, and speak to, the populist revolt?  At first blush, it might seem irredeemably wrong ever to oppose immigration, considering that God is in the business of building a ‘great multitude… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…’ (Rev 7:9).  This passage shows that multicultural harmony is indeed God’s ultimate purpose for humanity, which means that Christians should desire it both and now and in eternity.  However, it is possible to agree on the destination while differing as to the route.  There are differing beliefs about the right pathway for achieving social change, and these reflect the divide between Enlightenment liberals and conservatives.

Enlightenment liberal thinking, in its purest form, says that the world’s problems are caused by ignorance, and can be fixed by education.  This has its roots at least as far back as Plato, who wanted philosopher-kings to get to the truth through philosophy and then rule society accordingly.  If it is true that ignorance is our only problem, then ‘enlightened’ Western societies should in principle be able to accept all and any seeking to immigrate, and everyone will learn to live together.

Conservatism differs in its view of human nature.  Conservatives say that we are more than our brains, which means that mere education is not enough.  The wise ruler must also attend to the traditional, the habitual and the passionate aspects of human nature, which make rapid change so difficult for individuals as well as societies.  Aristotle is in a conservative vein when he writes that ‘change is a matter which needs great caution’.[2]

For the conservative, the populist backlash is not surprising, but rather a natural reaction to rapid change, or the fear thereof.  (To say that it is a natural reaction is not the same as saying it is morally good.)  Meanwhile, enlightenment liberals react with anger and scorn, because their system has no way to make sense of this phenomenon, other than to attribute it to selfishness or ignorance.

What light does the Bible shed?  Well, on the question of human nature, the Bible is certainly bleaker than the optimistic liberal, and goes further even than the conservative.  While speaking to his disciples, Jesus casually called humans ‘evil’ (Lk 11:13)!  He was under no illusions about human nature: ‘he did not entrust himself to them… because he knew what was in a man’ (Jn 2:24-25).  Indeed, the whole story of the law of Moses, which failed to change Israel’s hearts in the absence of the Holy Spirit, teaches that guidance—however good it is—is not sufficient to transform human society. 

Christians certainly must yearn to see God’s children of different tribes and nations living together in harmony.  But it is not an easy goal.  It is important to remember that the great multitude of Revelation 7 will come about by the great power of God, who saves and calls people to himself and reconciles them with each other.  It will not be achieved merely by clever policy and human goodness. 

We have good reason to be grateful to God for the harmony which is vastly prevalent here in Australia.  If we as a nation want to continue welcoming people from across the globe, we must continue being a strong and robust society.  With this goal in mind, any ‘populist revolt’ should not be ignored or ridiculed.  The fears and concerns of reasonable people should be respected, and brought into calculation when immigration policy is considered.


[1] For example:

[2] Politics 1269a

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