(Presented for Delivery at the 2019 Henry Institute Symposium on Christianity and Politics, Calvin College, April 26, 2019)


I begin with an intentionally polemical anecdote. On December 7, 2015 – a day that will live in infamy – the presidential campaign of Donald Trump issued a “Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration.” That statement said that “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The statement went on to quote Trump himself:

“…it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. If I win the election for President, we are going to Make America Great Again.”

While the language is characteristically opaque and the standards of evaluation borderline nonsensical, this statement is just one among innumerable instances in American and global politics today where a right-wing leader consolidates a base of support by identifying a foreign scapegoat and uniting opposition against that scapegoat. It is clear that this rhetoric does not accurately depict the nature of the threat it stands against. If it did, then the Trump Campaign may have identified a real threat, instead of a scapegoat.

But the antipathy toward Muslims is out of proportion with the threat of Islamist attack in America. One source noted that of domestic killings in America, “from 2009 through 2018, right-wing extremists accounted for 73 percent of such killings, according to the Anti-Defamation League, compared with 23 percent for Islamists and 3 percent for left-wing extremists. In other words, most terrorist attacks in the United States, and most deaths from terrorist attacks, are caused by white extremists.” And it is pedantic to observe that this current form of populism in America has not been attended with warnings about right-wing white extremism the way they have been attended with paranoia about Islamic terrorism. Therefore, the current populist response to domestic violence in America is skewed, and it is skewed in a predictable direction: toward the identification and ostracization of scapegoats.

This populist logic of scapegoating is the subject of this essay, and the main theorist I will use to understand this phenomenon is Rene Girard. Girard’s argument, in short, is that populism almost never exists in the world without scapegoating, and scapegoating is not a Christian form of politics.

When discussed on a popular level, populism seems to have no fixed meaning. And in the academic literature on populism, there is not much more consensus. A definition is likely impossible, so I will opt instead for a description. In the 2013 Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser give two broad descriptions of populism. According to them, Populist radical right parties share a core ideology of nativism, authoritarianism, and populism” (Mudde and Kaltwasser 487). This populism they describe as:

“a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “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’” (Mudde and Kaltwasser 498).

With the language of ‘thin-centered,’ the authors intend to oppose populism to a “thick” political concept like Fascism or Socialism; this part of the description nods toward the malleability of populism, which malleability explains why the usage of the word in popular discourse is typically imprecise. Populism is most commonly understood in economic terms as the revolt of a disposed majority against an elite minority, while explicitly theological analyses of these movements are relatively lacking – even while populist movements themselves frequently tend to be marked by religious rhetoric.

The result of this kind of analysis is a reductionist account of these political movements that tends simply to reify many of the secularist assumptions that still underlie much of political science (Wald and Wilcox 2006; Philpott 2009; and Kettell 2012).

One notable exception to this oversight is the late French literary theorist and anthropologist Rene Girard, whose deployment of the Judeo-Christian atonement theory of scapegoating as an attempted resolution to mimetic conflict gives a theological account of mass populist violence. Girard’s mimetic theory may be applied it to the rise of right-wing populist movements in the United States and beyond. It may turn out that Girard’s analysis of populism does not fit all varieties of populism; undoubtedly it is at its most trenchant against the form of populism sometimes recognizable as xenophobic populism.

But the difficulty of identifying that kind of populism is that its practitioners do not willingly claim that title for themselves. So we should be more precise and say: whenever populism takes on its Manichean shape of “the people” against “the enemies of the people” (whatever subgroup of people might be the enemies of the people de jour) and whenever violence – subliminal and subtle though it may be – begins to be subtly advocated against those enemies of the people, then we know that Girard objects upon theological grounds, as we shall see.

For my part, it seems to me that Girard would find much objectionable about the populism sweeping America right now, and would insist that it is a significant betrayal of Christianity to participate in that populism.

Rene Girard on the Scapegoat

In many ways, Girard was a theorist of one large idea, or rather perhaps, one constellation of ideas. Over the course of Girard’s life, he developed the constellation of themes relating to scapegoating, mimetic rivalry, and religious violence – considerations that eventually made him return to the Christian – specifically, Roman Catholic – faith of his youth. I will confine my analysis in this essay to two of his works: The Scapegoat (1986) and Battling to the End (2010).

A rough summary of the major contours of his theory is as follows. Humans are fundamentally lovers – an Augustinian insight that Girard learned not through theology, but through anthropology and literary analysis. We come to possess most of our loves not natively and originally to us, but through the imitation of the loves of others – through mimesis. Society teaches us what we ought to love.

But this mimetic love creates conflict when imitation of loves creates a desire for the same objects of love. This is when social instability ensues, and the warring parties escalate through imitation of the strategies of the other. The only cessation of this mimetic escalation occurs through the identification of a third-party, who is not actually the cause of the social strife, but is perceived to be the cause of that strife. In the midst of a crisis, “ultimately, the persecutors always convince themselves that a small number of people, or even a single individual, despite his relative weakness, is extremely harmful to the whole of society.”[1] This is the scapegoat, a word fraught with theological meaning to which we will later return.

Scapegoating need not be characteristic of every form of populism, but I note with distress that the rise of right-wing populism in Europe is once again coincident with a rise in Anti-Semitic attacks. Scapegoats are chosen because they are identifiable, not because they are guilty. This is what allows racial and religious minorities in particular to be scapegoats, rather than, say, people who are left-handed: “sometimes the persecutors choose their victims because they belong to a class that is particularly susceptible to persecution rather than because of the crimes they have committed.”[2] Scapegoats must be identifiable at a glance.

But the most important feature of the Scapegoat is that they not be us, which is why “the Establishment” is such an ideal scapegoat for a populist. Likewise, “the elites” is a category so broad and undefined as to be meaningless, except that it denotes “those who are not us.” This explains why “cultural elites” so often function as the bogeyman for those very people who, by virtue of their income, education level, and (frequently) place of residence, constitute that elite, but who simply do not recognize themselves as constituting it.

Once the scapegoat is identified, social peace is temporarily restored by vilifying, banishing, or otherwise destroying the scapegoat. This allows the warring parties a temporary peace since the common object of their hatred is destroyed. Girard characterizes the means of alienating the scapegoat as collective persecutions:

“by collective persecutions I mean acts of violence committed directly by a mob of murderers…By collective resonances of persecution I mean acts of violence, such as witch-hunts, that are legal in form but stimulated by the extremes of public opinion…The persecutions in which we are interested generally take place in times of crisis, which weaken normal institutions and favor mob formation.”[3]

But because the scapegoat was never truly the cause of the social strife, very shortly the mimetic escalation resumes, and a new scapegoat is necessary, and the cycle resumes. This is the heart of Girard’s theory.

But when Girard turned his attention to the Biblical texts to find the logic of scapegoating there, he found a surprise. On his telling, Christianity does not participate in this scapegoating mechanism, but cosmically exposes it once and for all. Girard says that the only reason we can write about the scapegoat is because Christianity has revealed it to us: “The Christian Bible, the combination of the Old and New Testaments, has provided that force of revelation. The Bible enables us to decipher what we have actually learned to identify in persecutors’ representations of persecution. It teaches us to decode the whole of religion” (Girard 101). And again: “The Gospels reveal the scapegoat mechanism everywhere, even within us” (Girard 110).

The Christian scriptures do this paradigmatically through the story of the Passion of Jesus. There we learn of the innocence of the scapegoat; as Jesus himself says, quoting Psalm 35:19, “they hated me without cause” (John 15:25). We find there the unanimity of the accusers, among whom we are to find ourselves. And finally, we are to see that — in contrast to the scapegoating myths of antiquity and of the pagans — in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, God is on the side of the scapegoat. In the story of Christ’s Passion, God is not only on the side of the scapegoat; God is the scapegoat. The political and social violence that humanity employs to secure its temporal peace is, in Girard’s theory, not simply opposed by God by actually, literally opposed to God.

This is the significance of the fact that the final third of The Scapegoat is devoted to straightforward Biblical exegesis, where Girard looks at several stories across the Gospels that unveil this mechanism at the heart of human-made political religion. It is the Bible that unveils the scapegoat mechanism, which on Girard’s account, separates the Bible from all other ancient literature. One of the attractive features of Girard’s analysis here is that it permits analytic discrimination between various kinds of religion, and how they tend to conduce to violence.

While under conditions of secularism, Christians are sometimes tempted to defend the goodness of ‘religion,’ Girard gives us the conceptual resources to discriminate between religions and defend only those that unveil this scapegoat mechanism – which is, in Girard’s estimation, Christianity paradigmatically (though he does say that there are vague hints of the fact that sacrifice stops violence in the Koran[4]). That is because it is in the New Testament that we learn not only that God is on the side of the scapegoat against the entire assembled political powers, but that, for this one climactic moment in history, God himself was the scapegoat.

The fact that Christianity reveals the logic of the scapegoat inside of Christians is the necessary precondition of it not simply reiterating that scapegoat mechanism. It is the rejection of the logic of Manichaeism which is so perennially tempting because it obviates the need for me to repent. In the moment of crisis, Girard recognizes, “rather than blame themselves, people inevitably blame either society as a whole, which costs them nothing, or other people who seem particularly harmful for easily identifiable reasons.”[5]

And let us be clear: Christians in their political practice rarely comport themselves any differently than those who are still in search of a lamb to take away the sins of the world. Girard’s argument here does not hinge on Christians being historically less violent than the adherents of other religion. Therefore, if salvation is to come, it may come through Christianity – or rather, through the Christ of Christianity – but it will not come through Christians, who ought to know better than persistently to fall prey to scapegoating schemes in politics. The obligation on Christians is to repent of their own inclination towards scapegoating.

All of this language of scapegoating places this analysis squarely within one theological locus: the doctrine of atonement. The political theology of atonement set forth by Girard is emphatically not an Anselmian satisfaction theory, nor its typically Reformed Penal Substitutionary variant. Instead, it is a species of Christus Victor, where the forces over which Christ has triumphed in his cross are the demonic forces that undergird the scapegoat mechanism, which wrecks violent havoc across human history. (If some Reformed Christians are troubled by this interpretation of the Atonement, I will simply note in passing that adherence to Christus Victor does not, in principle, rule out adherence to Penal Substitution or Satisfaction theories. Both Christus Victor and Penal Substitution theories are present side-by-side in, for example, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion II.12.2 and in his commentaries on Scripture [c.f., his commentaries on 1 Cor. 15:26, John 12:31, Ephesians 4:8, Hebrews 2:14-15, and Col. 2:15]).

Girard Against Scapegoating Christian Populism

The political significance of this view is that those who have seen God’s Christ put to death on the cross the logic of the scapegoat ought now be on their guard against adopting that logic out in their political and social life in the world. It is pedantic to observe that Christians have repeatedly and continually failed to do so – therefore it seems to me that if we take Girard up on his conceptual offer to distinguish between religions, we must do so on the basis of their possibility, not their actuality; or on their essence (as unfashionable as essentialism about religion tends to be), instead of their histories.

Christianity gives us resources in its exposure of the scapegoat mechanism that other religions do not, according to Girard. But Christians frequently do not avail themselves of those resources. Stated theologically, the error of these Christians – if Girard’s analysis is correct – is that they create new scapegoats because they do not believe in the finality of Christ’s atonement. In the language of Hebrews, they “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:6). The correct intuition by those who make this mistake is that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins” (Heb. 9:22); but their failure is in not recognizing that this blood has already been shed.

These Christians are therefore exchanging the totality of Christianity’s truth for the partial truth of another political theory: “different schools of political thought no less than competing schools of criticism are based on partial and biased adaptations of the Gospel revelation. Our world is full of Christian heresies.”[6] For Girard, then, populism of the kind discussed previously and which so tempts many of America’s Christians today – which makes ample use of the logic of scapegoating – is a political ideology that has not been submitted to the logic of Christianity. It is, instead, a rival to Christianity. Both cannot be simultaneously true.

We must, alas, end our analysis of Girard on a note of pessimism. Over the course of his career, Girard became less convinced that Christianity actually did bring about the cosmic mythical change that was always embedded in it and revealed by it. As he grew older, Girard began to be less convinced that Christianity’s potential could be detached from its historical failures to realize that potential. In other words, Girard began to believe that the failure of Christians was an indictment against Christianity.

Yet even at this late, pessimistic moment, Girard still found a way to claim in his last published work before his death, Battling to the End (2010) that even this failure vindicates Christianity: “Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure.”[7] This is the meaning of the “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 25:6) that are foretold before the end is to come. But this does not defeat Christianity, because Christ’s teaching can be faithful even when his followers are not. The forces of evil rise up against Christianity and Christianity does not, in this life, overcome them. Still, a more pessimistic tone permeates this last book of his career. Here he confesses: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying” (Girard 2010:xvii).

This is because there does not, in fact, seem to be a historical stopping point to the process of mimetic escalation, which Girard describes thus: “reciprocal action…provokes the [extremes] when both adversaries behave in the same way, and respond immediately by each modeling his tactics, strategy, and policy on those of the other” (Girard 2010:13).

To make this abstract articulation more concrete, consider a recent example. The 2019 Easter bombings of Christian churches in Sri Lanka are thought by some experts to be in response to the Christchurch Mosque killings in New Zealand. The perpetrator of the Christchurch Mosque killings said that his actions were in response to an unspecified number of Islamic attacks on White targets, whose names that killer seems to have written on his weapons. And in the wake of the Sri Lanka bombings, news reports suggest that Muslims in Sri Lanka – just a few weeks before the beginning of Ramadan – were concerned about roving bands of Christians seeking vengeance for the Easter Sunday bombings. This is mimetic violence; this is the escalation to extremes.

Girard saw all of this reach more troubling proportions in the wake of 9/11: “Terrorism has raised the level of violence up a notch again. This phenomenon is mimetic and opposes two crusades, two forms of fundamentalism” (Girard 2010:211). If Girard is correct here, then everything depends on what Christians will do once this mimetic escalation is revealed to us. One course of action in particular is strictly ruled out: any Christian endorsement of the dominant populist movements of our day with their subtle — or not so subtle — invocations of scapegoats.

The significance of Girard’s theory for Christian public theologians is that it reflects a basic conviction that political narratives are secularized atonement stories (which is an insight loosely derived from Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology), and that Girard is a useful interlocutor for understanding the political significance of the Judeo-Christian theory of the atonement. I will go further here and say that Girard gives us Christians, a stern warning against endorsing populism of almost any variety. Christians already have a “Lamb that takes away the sins of the world;” we must not diminish him by setting out in search of another scapegoat.

Justin Hawkins is a PhD student at Yale pursuing a combined PhD between the department of Religious Studies and the department of Political Science.

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  1. Girard 1986:15.
  2. Girard 1986:17.
  3. Girard 1986:12.
  4. “In Violence and the Sacred, I borrowed the idea from the Koran that the ram that saved Isaac from being sacrificed was the same one that was sent to Abel so that he would not have to kill his brother: proof that in the Koran sacrifice is also interpreted as a means of combating violence. From this, we can draw the conclusion that the Koran contains understanding of things that secular mentality cannot fathom, namely, that sacrifice prevents vengeance. Yet this topic has disappeared from Islam, just as it has disappeared in Western thought” (Girard, Battling 215)
  5. Girard 1986:15.
  6. Girard 1986:116.
  7. Girard 2010:x.

Posted by Justin Hawkins

Justin R. Hawkins is a PhD Candidate in Religious Ethics and Political Theory at Yale University. You can contact him, or read more of his writing, at justinryanhawkins.com.