The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a proposed travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.
The View from the Right: Religion, May, and English Political Discourse in an Age of Trump
by James Crossley
Comparisons between Brexit and an emboldened (far) Right in America and parts of Europe are regularly made but, inevitably, overlook the complexities. That Brexit has involved disillusionment with mainstream politics is clear but it is disillusionment that has come from Left to Right. Nevertheless, Brexit has been claimed as a victory of the contemporary Right and appropriated accordingly. Indeed, just after the Brexit result, Trump said that Britain ‘took back their country’ and ‘that’s a great thing’. In English political discourse, and in the run up to the 2017 General Election, Brexit has become increasingly attached to Trump ally, Theresa May, and the ruling Conservative Party. According to YouGov polling published in March 2017, the overwhelming majority still would have voted in the same way in the EU Referendum. However, it was also revealed that there are a significant majority of people (69%) who think that the government should accept that Brexit now ought to go ahead (21% against), with 49% confident in May’s negotiation skills (39% against) and 52% thinking her proposals were positive for Britain. We might contrast this with only 15% thinking Parliament should vote on whether to accept a deal. These pro-Brexit tendencies appeared to be reflected in the May 2017 local elections as the Conservatives performed strongly, seemingly absorbing anti-EU UKIP voters on the Right, as the slim 52-48 Referendum split was becoming a distant memory.
How this will ultimately play out in the General Election, we will soon see. For now, it looks like the Brexit momentum has become forcefully associated with, and appropriated by, the Right. Accordingly, we should not be surprised to find that a sort of soft Trumpism has begun to mark the ways in which May has understood concepts and categories associated with ‘religion’ given that such constructions inevitably become attached to dominant political discourses of the day. What’s more, we can chart this by looking at how she understands Christmas and other calendrical events associated with Christianity. Christmas and Easter are particularly useful ways of assessing how ideas associated with religion, Christianity and the Bible are understood in English political discourse. First, Christmas and Easter are among the relatively rare times a politician can get away with talking about something related to religion without too much fear of a negative press. Indeed, not saying something about Christmas would be the more dangerous option for a politician. Second, we can compare speeches of a similar type delivered by predecessors to look for shifts in nuance over time.
In some ways, May’s 2016 Christmas message was typical. It had the usual vague clichés of Christmas past (e.g. praising volunteers and care workers, the birth of Christ being about ‘forgiveness, love and hope’ etc.). This could have come from almost any political leader in recent years and contains the sorts of sentiments found in David Cameron’s Christmas message in that the true meaning of Christmas is that it is sufficiently liberal, agreeable, and vague. Christmas is not a time for Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, angelic appearances, the meaning of Jeremiah’s words about Ramah, the details of Mary’s sexual practices and marital status, John the Baptist’s drinking habits, why Elizabeth was a disgrace, leaping in the womb, Jesus’ circumcision, the offering of a sacrifice of turtle doves and pigeons, and possibly not even bringing down the rich and the powerful, or any other things too weird in the Christian archive and potentially incompatible with liberalism.
However, there were some distinctive shifts in May’s Christmas almost certainly marked by (a certain understanding of) Brexit. May’s last Christmas started as early as the high street’s. In September 2016, May stated in Parliament that ‘we want minority communities to be able to recognize and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas’. Why is this distinctive? A year earlier, Cameron certainly made nostalgic claims of Britain as a ‘Christian country’ and singled out values Jesus’ birth represents (‘peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope’). But it is because of these ‘important religious roots and Christian values’ that ‘Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.’ The idea of Christianity and the Bible representing British/English values also (conveniently) representing ‘all faiths and none’ was probably Cameron’s favourite expression when summarizing Christian values (and liberal British/English nationalism). Elsewhere, these British values of all faiths and none, and thought to be found in the Bible and Christian history, could variously include human rights, equality, monarchy, parliamentary democracy, protest, freedom, abolition of slavery, emancipation of women, responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good, honouring social obligations to one another, and the first forms of welfare provision. We might even say that the paternalistic rhetoric and Cameron’s myth of British and Christian superiority belongs to the pre-Trump, pre-Brexit liberal embrace of others, without inclusion or at least mention of, as Žižek might put it, any problematic, illiberal Otherness for neoliberal, multicultural discourse.
Yet in a world of Brexit and Trump, May’s rhetoric is blunt in identifying the Other more in terms of its difference. Note May’s strong distinction between minorities (‘their traditions’) and the assumption of a normative British identity which, if not exactly ‘white’, then ‘our traditions’ (particularly Christmas) are emphatically not those of minorities. We might also observe that May’s Easter words similarly reflect a shift in nuance when, using an apparent Cameronism, she referred to ‘people of other faiths or none’, rather than all faiths. The context of May’s Christmas words provided some identification of such minorities as the questioner mentioned Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid as the specific ‘minority traditions’. The rhetoric is still, of course, ostensibly benign but this is a notable Othering of those deemed Asian minorities after the Referendum vote and as Trump’s rhetoric was growing and growing in prominence. And perhaps May’s toying with ethno-nationalist constructions of Christmas was of little surprise in her then half-year premiership where we heard about a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, a desire to deal with the threat of UKIP from the Right, an influential cohort of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs, and, most tellingly, the Conservative government floating the idea of companies identifying non-British workers. This is what ‘our’ normative culture also entails.
There is plenty more that could be said about May’s understanding of ‘minorities’ (particularly her understanding of Muslims and Islam and use of the ‘perversions of Islam’ trope so common in English political discourse) and the way she plays to the far right while simultaneously distancing herself from them. But for now, this snippet should give some indication of an overall post-Brexit electoral strategy designed to colonize the Right, gain even more enthusiastic support from the right-wing press, and satisfy Conservative Brexiteers and traditional voters, while not being blunt enough to isolate the more liberal Conservatives and sympathizers—presumably happy enough to hold their nose and vote accordingly. But it is a strategy designed to pick up (an often older) working-class vote in a post-industrial era of precarious employment and poverty, disillusioned with their neoliberal lot and abandoned by mainstream politics, where anti-immigration, anti-EU, and anti-Muslim rhetoric has some support and where the far right (esp. the English Defence League and UKIP) have had some popularity (on which see e.g., among others, here, here, and here). In this respect, it is striking that the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto attacked what the Conservatives and their great icon, Margaret Thatcher, are typically deemed to represent, i.e. ‘untrammeled free markets’, with a (somewhat vague) offer of protection to ‘people working in the “gig” economy’ and couched in language typically assumed to be a deviation from purer ‘religion’ in English political discourse: the rejection of the ‘cult of selfish individualism’. In other words, the language of ‘religion’ is being used to support both a soft ethno-nationalism and a promise of economic protectionism, while isolating certain ‘minorities’. Sound familiar?