The Rise of Religious Populism and the Symbol of the Cross in Poland’s Contemporary Political Clashes

Event: Conference

Location: Zoom

14 January 2021, 17.00 – 19.00

Humboldt University
2020/ 2021 Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies Berlin

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Meeting ID: 899 4412 1965
Passcode: 802372

This talk revisits the events of the year 2010, when a fatal crash suffered by the Polish presidential plane near Smolensk sent shock waves through society and triggered some of the most iconic symbolic clashes in the county’s modern history. The rise of right-wing populism, which followed the Smolensk crash and laid the groundwork for the country’s recent shift towards illiberal democracy, coincided with a surge in the use of religious imagery, which came to dominate mainstream expressions of national pride and belonging. Taking as a case study the so-called “Smolensk cross” planted in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, which for six months was fiercely defended by a group of the late President Kaczyński’s supporters, my talk investigates the populist instrumentalization of Catholic symbols. The “Smolensk cross defenders,” protesting against the new, democratically elected, liberal president, Bronisław Komorowski, harnessed the symbol to frame an essentially partisan conflict in terms of a Manichean fight between good and evil. In their exclusionary narrative, Poland’s liberal elites, as well as ethnic and sexual minorities, were labelled “enemies of the cross” and hence by default of “the people.” At the same time, prosecularists, who opposed the presence of the cross at the seat of the country’s executive power, subversively hijacked the symbol to unsettle and provoke, enabling a carnivalesque “rite of reversal.”