Question: "What is populism? What is a populist?"
Answer: Webster’s Dictionary defines a populist as “1) a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people, and 2) a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people” (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/populist, accessed 8/25/21). Populism is often associated with grassroots movements, working-class engagement, and antiestablishment sentiments. There is little that unites populism politically, and populists can come from both sides of the political spectrum.
As a political outsider who ran afoul of both political parties, Donald Trump was considered a populist President. Other examples of people and movements that have been labeled “populist” in the United States include Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, George Wallace, Ross Perot, the Tea Party (on the right), and Occupy Wall Street (on the left). Populistic ideology appeals to the common sense of the common people, those who feel disenfranchised by an elite “ruling class” and who feel victimized by the excesses of current political or economic powers. Populism purposefully sets up a clash between “the people” and “the system,” promising to represent the interests of the average person. Aspiring politicians can and have used this ideology to rally supporters to their movement, challenge the status quo of the elites, and work toward societal change.
An example in the Bible of someone who used a form of populism to get ahead is Absalom, King David’s son. Desiring the throne for himself, Absalom hatched a plan to ingratiate himself with the common people. Disputes in Israel were settled every morning outside the city gates of Jerusalem, and so Absalom “would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, ‘What town are you from?’ He would answer, ‘Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.’ Then Absalom would say to him, ‘Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you’” (2 Samuel 15:2–3). After sympathizing with the person’s grievance, Absalom would plant a suggestion: “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that they receive justice” (verse 4). In posturing as a king who would “look out for the little guy,” Absalom was painting himself in populist colors.
Not only did the populist Prince Absalom hold out the promise of quick and agreeable judgments, but he also turned on the charm: “Whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him” (2 Samuel 15:5). This welcoming, humble action was meant to show that Absalom was on the common person’s level. After four years of behaving this way, Absalom “stole the hearts of the people of Israel” (verse 6). The people, who had no inkling of Absalom’s devious and selfish motives, were won over with a populist appeal.
We must be careful. Following a crowd, even a well-intentioned Christian crowd, can be a dangerous thing. History has shown that populist politicians can be freedom-loving patriots, or they can be brutal dictators. Some populists see Christianity as a powerful tool and, whether or not they are sincere in their faith, have been known to use Christian terminology to win the hearts of the people. In the end, our hope is not in men or in princes (Psalm 118:8–9; 146:3; Jeremiah 17:5), but in the Lord alone (Psalm 62:8; Isaiah 26:4).
We need wisdom. Christianity is more than an ideology. It is the one true Faith that is rooted in the Way, the Truth and the Life, Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Biblical Christianity is bigger than politics and cannot be reduced to a political, economic, or social system.