People of faith in a time of uncertainty
Lee Marsden, Professor of Faith and Global Politics, University of East Anglia considers a faith response to our current geopolitical turmoil.
We live in an age of increasing polarisation, where consensus and compromise seem to belong to a bygone era when public service meant to serve the public rather than to be self-serving. Across the liberal democracies of the west, which once proclaimed themselves exemplars of democratic process and freedom, political systems are in disarray and old certainties appear very uncertain.
The economic crisis of 2007–2008 increased the disparities between the haves and have-nots: bankers were bailed out, and capitalism was rescued at the expense of those who, although not responsible for the problem, were expected to pick up the pieces through increased taxes, reduced public services and real reduction in wages.
This was a western rather than a purely British phenomenon. Those left behind economically, those ignored by the political classes, have become increasingly vocal and willing to rebel against the consensus or middle-way politics. Significant proportions of populations have rejected the status quo, business-as-usual, approach of mainstream politicians and their political parties.
In England and Wales, this resulted in a rejection of that bastion of liberal capitalism, the European Union. Voters in the referendum rejected the cost of membership and uncontrolled immigration and called for sovereignty.
Elites, those vested interests with most to gain from continued membership of the EU – bankers, business people, politicians and even academics – warned the public of looming disaster if they voted to leave the EU and yet distrust of such voices rejected the advice.
A breakdown of voting patterns, which continues to play out in the aftermath of the referendum, pits young against old, native-born against immigrant, urban against rural, centre against periphery, middle class against working class, university educated against those without a university education.
Pre and post-referendum vitriol plays out on media streams as political correctness has become a term of abuse rather than signifying respect for equality and diversity, and free speech a weapon to insult and threaten those with whom we disagree.
The primal scream of the dispossessed rages across the Atlantic and the continent of Europe.
In the United States, white voters from the fly-over states rejected the mainstream politics of Hilary Clinton by supporting either the socialism of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries or the hucksterism of Donald Trump in the presidential election. Voters in the Bible belt and swing states were convinced by Trump’s promises to drain the swamp of financial interests in Washington, build a wall to keep out the immigrant, ban Muslims from certain countries, and put America first through protecting jobs, renegotiating trade deals and putting industry ahead of the environment as a priority.
Across Europe, far-right parties are increasingly vocal and winning seats in parliaments in Hungary, Poland, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Spain, Greece, Holland and France. The centre-right liberal orthodoxy of the European Union and the United States is increasingly disputed by a vociferous anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim nationalism.
Ethnic majorities are fearful of the ‘other’ and angry at being overlooked and dismissed as ignorant, racist, xenophobic, intolerant or irrelevant by a political elite who lack empathy or appreciation of their lived experience; this finds expression in populist movements that rail against declining or stagnant living standards.
Liberal elites are equally virulent in either abusing or dismissing the concerns of those who have been left behind. Political discourse is increasingly fractious.
In the United States this has taken on a religious dimension: white conservative evangelicals are the most passionate supporters of Donald Trump’s version of populist nationalism. In Europe, some nationalists rail against the dilution of Judeo-Christian values and the ‘Islamification of Europe’.
This all begs the question: “Do people of faith have anything to say or contribute in a time of political and economic uncertainty? Are people of faith part of the problem or do they have an important part to play in setting the tone of debate and discourse?”
Across the pond, white evangelicals opposed to the populism of Donald Trump are leaving the evangelical movement in disgust at the abandonment of Christian principles by leading figures in the Christian Right. Leaders such as Jerry Falwell of Liberty University and Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse have become apologists for Trump, acknowledging the President’s moral failings but overlooking them in exchange for political influence.
Others, including Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, now describe themselves as Red Letter Christians, emphasising the teachings of Jesus and disassociating themselves from conservative evangelicals. In doing so they remain politically engaged, emphasising a social gospel that says Jesus remains actively involved in the struggles of the poor and oppressed. The role of the believer, they argue, is to stand alongside the have-nots, the dispossessed and the powerless, to offer hope to those without hope, and love to those rejected by society.
People of faith are not called to abandon their political instincts and worldview or to disengage from the political process, but they should set an example of how to behave in political discourse. The principle of the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is as relevant in the political realm as in every other area of life.
The believer, whether a ‘remainer’ or a ‘leaver’, a Republican or Democrat, is called to stand alongside the factory worker fearful of losing his job and the migrant in search of a better life.
People of faith should lead the way in reaching out to ‘the other’, whether the other is of a different faith or no faith, or has a different colour skin or political persuasion. One does not have to agree with the views of political opponents to acknowledge the sincerity with which such beliefs are held and respect the person if not the views.
In a time of anger, frustration and resentment, people of faith more than ever are called upon to be peacemakers and to help heal nations’ divisions rather than contribute towards them.
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