On my way home from a meeting at 121 George Street in Edinburgh today, I was reflecting on the challenges of trying to use this blog to explore the relationship between religion, faith and politics. Part of my reflection was a self-critique: I feel that I haven’t been able to use this space to effectively examine these relationships and how they impact our society. There are many reasons for this failure. Some are mundane; finding time to write can be difficult and the rapid pace of change in politics these days means that a blog post can quickly be overtaken by new events. Other reasons for this failure are more challenging: the enormity of the upheaval we are currently facing within the United Kingdom, Europe and globally can be overwhelming, and there is always the humbling question of whether the Church, and those within it such as myself, has any credibility in addressing the events currently unfolding.
This confession may come as something of a surprise to those who have listened to some of my sermons over the last few years. I have laughed with some of you that I should label a regular section of the sermon as “The Trump Bit”!
When I preach, I have tried not to shy away from more controversial aspects of UK and international politics over the last few years, while also trying to be sensitive to the different opinions that will inevitably be found in a big group of different people. Among the controversial issues that have come up on a Sunday morning are our response to climate change, the ‘hostile environment’ created by the UK government towards immigration, the Windrush scandal, children separated from parents in the USA, the effects of gross inequality within society, the Fairtrade movement, our relationships with others (do we build bridges or walls?), the explosion and normalisation of lying by politicians, and the failure to confront racism and white supremacy. Each of these is important and worth commenting upon as we think about how we live out our faith within society, and reflect on the kind of society of which we are a part.
One of the reasons I often use Trump as an illustration is that he (and the movement he represents) provides an easily understood illustration for the broad range of dangers that societies around the world are currently facing. Trump serves almost as an anti-muse in that regard. In one person we find the embodiment, loudly proclaimed, of so many of the ills that are poisoning the body politic: patriarchy, misogyny, authoritarianism, kleptocracy, racism, anti-equality, corruption. I also use Trump more often than not because he is one step removed from us in the UK, despite the proximity of his golf course! Trump was not elected in the UK. Therefore, we have a certain distance from which to observe from (relative) safety, making our own decisions about his rhetoric, what he represents and the policies he enacts.
In writing sermons, I am trying to grapple with biblical texts which come from their own political and historical context. In trying to unpack that context to enable greater understanding of the texts themselves, Trump is often an extreme example that can help us grasp the importance of what was happening in biblical times, and how we can apply the lessons of the past to our own present.
What I have become increasingly aware of, however, is that in doing this, the examples I use may become somewhat token: as I said above, these examples become the anticipated “Trump Bit”. In the process they may be received simply as a bit of Trump-bashing. That is not my intent in mentioning Trump. Oh, okay, it might be a little bit, but it is not the main intention!
It may not feel like it sometimes on a Sunday morning, but I do try to keep those illustrations as succinct as possible. In the process of trying to be succinct I do wonder if I lose some of the overarching context of why a particular tweet or speech or decision by Trump (or others who follow the same disruptive game plan) is important. The individual examples I bring up are part of a much bigger picture. This wider context to current events is constantly on my mind at the moment, as I try to preach the gospel, the good news, in a time which looks increasingly grim. We need that good news more than ever, yet sometimes it feels hard to find.
Which brings me back to the question at the top of this post: why so much Trump? Let’s get into a bit of politics first to grasp some of the wider context, and then I will let you know why I, a Christian minister, think it is important for people of faith to really grapple with what we are witnessing.
Everything Is Connected
It is worth remembering that almost everything is connected in some way. As a political junkie, of course I stayed up on the night of 23 June 2016 to watch the coverage of the Brexit referendum. Around 5 in the morning, I came to bed and Carolyn asked me what the result had been. My response to her was, “We’re out. Trump will be elected.” I knew it in my bones that night. Brexit and the election of Trump are connected.
What I did not know then, but which has become painfully obvious since through the reporting of Carole Cadwalladr, Sarah Kendzior, Michael Isikoff, David Corn, Luke Harding, the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post and others, is that the links are much more complex and corrosive than most of us might have first imagined. It is worth noting, however, that journalists such as Naomi Klein, Jane Mayer and Adam Curtis have been sounding the alarm for many years on the bigger picture of how global relationships are being impacted by certain key players or groups. Incidentally, Curtis’s 2016 film “HyperNormalisation” is essential viewing though it takes concentration: it is still available on iPlayer.
I remember watching Donald Trump on 27 July 2016 say “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” I was surprised, as the request seemed to come out of the blue. It was, of course, a comment about the overblown Clinton email saga that then and still today leads to chants of “Lock Her Up!” amongst Trump supporters.
After Trump’s comment, I said to Carolyn, half-jokingly, “I bet he had a conversation with someone connected to Russia earlier and he could not help himself but blurt that out.” At the time, we had been hearing stories about how Trump often repeated whatever the last person he’d spoken to had said to him. Two years later, we now have ample evidence that this was indeed all connected; that conversations had been taking place with Russia and that, in fact, later that same day Russian hackers attempted for the first time to break into email accounts used by Clinton’s staff. The corruption and collusion is all out in the open, if you have the eyes to see it.
The American investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has already resulted in, as far as we know, indictments or guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies, including “four former Trump advisers, 26 Russian nationals, three Russian companies, one California man, and one London-based lawyer. Six of these people (including now all four former Trump aides) have pleaded guilty.” More here. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, is currently in prison.
This is really happening. And it all appears linked via various shady deals to different oligarchs, some of whom Manafort had previously worked with when he was trying to make the Putin-friendly and utterly corrupt leader, Viktor Yanukovych palatable to the Ukrainian people. There is also a strong likelihood that Trump laundered money through his property portfolio: which may also include our own next door Trump golf course. He would not be alone in this kind of activity, of course. London is awash with property that is effectively laundering the ill-gotten gains of oligarchs. That does not make it right, however, and it provides, it goes without saying, leverage to influence Trump’s decision-making. He has not divested himself of any of his property or businesses on entering the White House, which is a clear break from tradition. Jimmy Carter sold off his peanut farm, for instance, when he became President.
Meanwhile, here in the United Kingdom, Carole Cadwalladr has been revealing how Russia also influenced the Brexit referendum, exposing the company Cambridge Analytica in the process, as well as the links between it and Steve Bannon (formerly part of the Trump administration). She has also shown how Facebook was deployed to manipulate the population through highly targeted ads with often deeply divisive, racist, fear-mongering messages. We have learned that the two Leave campaigns overspent on their campaigns, effectively cheating, and that the key funder of Farage’s Leave.EU, Aaron Banks, had connections to Russia. At the same time, Leave.EU also tweeted messages of support for Russia (yes, really, during the Brexit campaign). Today, Aaron Banks has been revealed to be using his wealth to bully the Tory MP Damian Collins, who, to his credit has been trying to seek the truth about the campaigns.
And that is before even mentioning the scale of the lies told by those advocating for Brexit, some of which even put Trump’s lies to shame (though Trump has tipped over 5,000 false or misleading claims told during 601 days of his presidency. At the same time, Russia has been trolling the UK government, carrying out attacks on our own soil to target individuals who have offended the Putin regime.
The Electoral Commission has identified some of the areas in which Russia influenced the Brexit vote, but it has no real teeth to seek justice for this. It was recently reported that the Metropolitan Police are not investigating any criminal activity, in a way comparable to the independent investigation happening in the USA under Robert Mueller, because of “political sensitivities”. The Metropolitan Police have now refuted that they are delaying investigation on those grounds and one can only hope that the truth will out concerning the Leave campaigns so that we can learn lessons for the future.
I could go on…
The impact of all this, as we have witnessed here in the UK over the last two years, is to cause mayhem and disruption. Our government has become paralysed by Brexit negotiations. This is understandable and was completely predictable: there is an inherent contradiction in the whole endeavour and something will have to give. It is looking increasingly likely that what will give is our economic future, worker’s rights, and regulations that are designed to protect us and the environment. At the same time in other nations, far-right groups are gaining more and more traction (see the election this week of the Trumpian Bolsonaro in Brazil, for example).
The growing ascendency of the far right is sure to further destabilise the social agreements that exist within those countries and between nations across the globe. While not perfect by any means, these agreements within and amongst societies have brought protections for people and the environment, creating a check on a rampant enrichment of the already privileged at the expense of the working class and middle class. Socialised medicine is but one example: an agreement to contribute together to pay for national health provision for the greater benefit of society. Which is an agreement that is then shared across like-minded nations in a body such as the European Union.
Getting rid of such social pacts is one of the dream outcomes of arch-Brexiters like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have expressed their admiration of Singapore as a possible model for the United Kingdom, I suspect this ‘Singaporean model’ is not what those who voted to leave Europe aspired to. It would mean goodbye to sane working hours, open democracy, freedom, NHS, and so on. Such a model would suit the multi-millionaire Rees-Mogg, however, whose own investment firm is partly based there. The self-serving hypocrisy amongst those who are supposed to represent us is rampant and blatant.
The chaos of this political moment is not a bug; it is a feature. Putin’s actions, in both America and Europe, are intended to sow chaos, because amongst that chaos great riches can be accumulated. It is worth remembering that Russia is currently a fossil-fuel driven kleptocracy. Their weak economy is reliant on oil and gas. While Trump likes to brag that he is a billionaire (which one suspects is a highly dubious claim), Putin does the opposite. He does claim he is relatively well off in official reporting, but those who have investigated deeper suspect that he may actually be the richest man on earth, perhaps with as much as $200 billion stashed away across the world under a multitude of difference schemes.
What does it mean?
So here comes some conjecture on my part as to why Putin is so determined to sow division across the world. I am willing to assume that a part of his determination comes from a desire to see Russia re-achieve its former glory, hence the annexation of Crimea and other acts of territorial expansion. These provide a powerful rallying cry for Putin amongst his followers. But I also suspect that the old adage of “follow the money” will better reveal what is really going on. My observation is that few ultra-rich people want to give up anything they have. Instead, they focus on attaining ever more. Bearing in mind that much of Russian wealth is tied up in oil and gas, my suspicion is Putin’s actions are all related to Climate Change and the world’s response to that existential crisis.
The only way the world can effectively meet the challenge of Climate Change, as the recent IPCC report made clear, is to work together to drastically reduce the burning of oil and gas in order to create energy. To do this would take momentous political partnership around the world, a real sense of grace towards each other, and a commitment to help our fellow nations to achieve this goal. It would require bridge-building and a sense of shared responsibility beyond anything we have seen before now. The clock is ticking on this, and indeed the time in which to make this happen is disappearing rapidly.
Consider that Putin may be the richest man on earth, with much of that wealth and future wealth tied up in oil and gas, that he does not appear to have a scintilla of empathy towards the creation of which he is a part - a pure cynic, and that he has the tools of a whole nation and a formidable secret service of which he was once the chief at his disposal. With that in mind, why wouldn’t Putin do everything in his power to disrupt the possibility that his primary source of wealth could be taken from him as a result of the world’s actions towards climate change?
Within the existing bonds that tie us together - the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, for instance – lie the most obvious mechanisms and possibility of bringing us together to make the radical decisions necessary to meet the challenge of climate change, holding one another accountable, working together. So it is no surprise to find that the wealthiest, with oil and gas wealth so central, are doing their best to disrupt that possibility and throw a spanner in the works. Hence, I believe, Putin’s gambit to sow chaos and thus protect and enlarge his own wealth. The mid to long-term future be damned. And the world burns…
Amidst the tumult of Brexit, what thought is really being given by our Government towards climate change legislation? Sadly, if we crash out of Europe, the odds are, I’m sure, that our regulations will slip towards favouring oil and gas companies. I think this suspicion is borne out by the recent decision to allow fracking to restart in Lancashire after a seven-year break. The election of Donald Trump saw the richest nation in the world pull out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change; the US has also made legislative and regulatory moves towards fossil fuels and away from renewable energy sources. And Putin smiles, checks his portfolio, thinks: ‘A job well done’, and worries less about his compatriot oligarchs usurping him. They will remain loyal as the money flows in.
We know that climate change will create mass migrations of people, as previously inhabited parts of the world become uninhabitable, due to further disruptions to weather patterns, and further rises of sea level. Indeed, some of this is already happening. The caravan of refugees that Trump is currently demonising to gin up his supporters with further racist fear-mongering may be, in part, a result of climate change forcing farmers from their land, something that will only worsen in the future.
That’s quite a lot of politics, but this provides some of the wider context that I feel I struggle to incorporate when using some of the individual illustrations I use within a sermon. Grasping some of that bigger picture is also important because so much of what we are seeing that appears to be isolated incidents are in fact connected.
Why do I care so much about all of this as a Christian minister? Shouldn't I just stay 'in my lane' and talk about spiritual stuff?
We are just about to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. We will be remembering the lives lost in that tumultuous time and in the Second World War and other conflicts. My children sometimes laugh at my fascination with the World Wars. It is not a morbid interest, however. Instead, I want to understand how and why these events came to pass. This is particularly the case for the Second World War, though, as befits my theme for this post: WWII is connected to the outcome of the First World War: everything is connected.
How did fascism rise? How did industrialised, creative, educated, self-identifying ‘civilised’ and ‘cultured’ people become seduced by the rhetoric of Mussolini or Hitler? What lessons do we learn from that horrifying time? How can we recognise the seeds of similar movements and rhetoric fomenting division in our own time? How does inequality factor in the rise of authoritarianism within liberal democracies?
Millions of people died, an estimated 56.4 million, during the Second World War. From the horror of those years came the determination to work together, to create the United Nations, to formulate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to affirm that we best serve ourselves and each other when we commit together to peace and mutual respect. This was a “never again” moment to rival God’s covenant declared to Noah.
Sadly, our world has been filled with a variety of conflicts since then, but nothing on such a large scale. Today, the conflict which looms largest and is set to cause devastation is wrought not by tanks and bombs but rather through the effects of a far less obvious foe: our addiction to energy from fossil fuels. And in the face of that addiction, we have the ultra-rich and thus ultra-powerful manipulating us and the decision-making mechanisms of democracies into decisions that go against our best interests in the longer term.
A couple of years ago, I read a harrowing book by Robert P Ericksen titled “Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany” which lays out step by step how the majority of churches in Nazi Germany capitulated to the regime. It is sobering reading. We like to tell the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer bravely standing up to the National Socialists, but he was a rare exception. Most people remained silent and complicit. I am determined, in the face of the same alarm bells ringing, that I do not fall into the same trap.
In modern Russia, Putin has done something similar with the Orthodox Church. The Church has become his cover; it provides a veneer of Christianese behind which Putin does his Machiavellian thing. And the church, allowed to exist and thrive under Putin’s regime – as was the case for those denominations that caved to the whims of the Nazis – has become just another part of his propaganda machine. The Economist writes that the “Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church practically campaigns for Mr Putin’s re-election. The state protects religious activists and attacks artists who challenge the church. The church, in return, has become a guardian of state ideology.”
In America, Trump is a self-confessed Presbyterian (heaven help us) while the Vice-President, Mike Pence, is a particularly extreme christianist: a radical fundamentalist supporting a Dominionist future for America: a theocracy. Forget Trump, who has not a clue about Christianity, it is Pence we should be watching. The Trump Administration has wrapped itself around the most extreme of fundamentalists. The more mainstream denominations have been largely united in condemning many of Trump’s policies, yet Trump has nonetheless found branches of the church which are willing to support him, perhaps because they believe he is a useful tool to get what they want. What they want does not look much like the gospel I read in the New Testament. And bye-bye to equal rights for LGBT, women, non-whites, and so on.
Here in the United Kingdom, our own PM, Theresa May, is often talked about with a mention of her faith, her attendance at church and the fact that she is the daughter of a clergyman. She is also the person who instituted the ‘hostile environment’ within our immigration policy that has helped stoke the fires of bigotry and racism that bubbled away during the Brexit campaign.
Why do I care? Because I see the gospel, the good news, being hijacked to provide a cover for terrible, wicked, evil actions that are affecting the world for the worse, preventing us from making vitally important decisions that will affect the futures of our children and grandchildren.
The good news that Jesus brought had many aspects, but amongst these were a lucidity about what was going on within his society; he revealed the hypocrisy of the leadership of his day. He challenged his followers to work together for a better society, gathering together a disparate group of disciples to go about creating the kingdom of God. He healed and restored those who were outcast – breaking down the barriers that divide. And he instructed his followers on what constituted right living: recognising the inherent connectedness between all sisters and brother, and a hope for the future – striving beyond the grim reality of the cross to a new dawn.
This is what I believe we in the church today should also be about. And that is a major reason why so much Trump. So much of current political discourse is about defining what or who we are against. This is as true of Trump’s rhetoric as it is of leading Brexiters, let alone Putin’s violent regime. In using Trump as an illustration, it is rather my purpose to sharpen what and who it is we are for as followers of Jesus because I truly believe our future depends on it.
When Trump talks about refugees as terrorists and asylum seekers as gang members, when he talks about neo-Nazis as “good people”, when he pulls out of partnerships with other nations, when he mocks the disabled, when he lies constantly, when he denigrates women, when he acts the bully, when he describes some nations as shitholes, when he seeks to remove protections from the most vulnerable, when he uses the language of violence, when he spreads conspiracy theories, my prayer is that it reminds us what we stand for. We stand for reaching out the hand of friendship and hospitality to the refugee and the person seeking safety. We pray for a world in which we respect all people no matter the colour of their skin, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, varied ability or political allegiance. We are for greater partnership because we see that as an integral part of creation: that we live in relationship with each other and our world. We stand for the vulnerable, alongside the abused, confronting the bully. We seek for truth and speak out for peace.
I do not believe we are called to be in the business of seeking after scapegoats, that is what those who crucified Christ were about. Rather, we are called to be advocates for healing and reconciliation, partnership and forgiveness, grace and love.
By those actions Trump is trumped.
If you have got this far my hat is tipped to you. If it is helpful, let me know. There is more I would love to share. But not tonight.