‘Science and Religion’ Moving away from the shallow end
This report is the culmination of a three–year project researching public and elite attitudes to science and religion in the UK today (2022)
Periodically, some politician or celebrity says something which hints at his or her faith, or lack thereof.
Even on this side of the pond, this provides for compelling copy. David Cameron’s faith fades in and out like Magic FM in the Chilterns (a choice of analogy that is biographically useful in more ways than one). Gordon Brown was a ‘son-of-the-manse’, which gave him his famed ‘moral compass’. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg both admitted to being agnostics, but dutifully voiced their respect for people of faith.
In the secular United States religion plays, paradoxically enough, a far more prominent role. America has had its first black President. Next year, it may well elect its first woman president. But an atheist President is (nearly) unimaginable. All Presidential hopefuls must ‘do God’ in one way or another, and it really matters if they fluff it – it can become ‘a thing’. Ask John Kerry.
Will it matter to the seemingly untouchable Donald Trump that Pope Francis, speaking after his visit to Mexico, has strongly implied that he thinks Trump is not a Christian? He was rattled enough to bite back and then, perhaps more surprisingly, rattled enough to row back – at least a little. It probably won’t matter in the long term. Trump’s popularity is hardly built on espousing the kind of politics that would make Pope Francis vote for him. He won South Carolina, and will likely win Nevada today (Tuesday).
But this little exchange, if we can call it that, sheds some light on America’s religious politics. Is Donald Trump a Christian? He are some alternative answers.
Is Donald Trump a Christian? Of course he is - a Presbyterian to be precise. He goes to church some Sundays. He thinks religion is a “wonderful thing”. His Mum gave him a Bible. He keeps them in “nice places” – and he would never “do anything negative” to them. He sometimes even quotes it, though he doesn’t want to say what his favourite verse is (it’s too personal a subject for him). Trump is a Christian and we know because he said so. So, it’s wrong for the Pope to imply that he is not a Christian – whatever we think of Trump’s politics, who is Francis to make windows into men’s souls? It might not be a particularly deep faith, but as far as we can say it is a sincere expression of personal commitment.
Is Donald Trump a Christian? Well, either way, being Christian has less to do with thinking the Bible is great and going to church than it has to do with his policies and pronouncements. To be a Christian is more than just holding ‘personal’ and ‘private’ beliefs about this disputable doctrine regarding that intangible and irrelevant thing. Trump may or may not be a Christian, but to know about that we need to know something about his politics. In other words, to know whether Donald Trump is a Christian you need to know about his immigration policy.
So, is Donald Trump a Christian? It depends what you mean by Christian. Is Christianity some set of doctrines regarding the nature of God, heaven, hell and other immaterial things with no particular public meaning when it comes to matters considered political or economic? Or is it a way of living the whole of life in response to the God who revealed himself in history in the person of Jesus Christ?
I’m guessing that when they use the word ‘Christian’ Donald means the former and the Pope the latter. In the case of the former the question presents itself, ‘how exactly does this private and person faith relate to public and political life?’ To which the answer is usually, anyhow you want. Simply extrapolate at your convenience toward the prevailing or preferred ideology. So when Donald Trump talks religion, he’s talking about America and the things that make America great. When at Liberty University he quoted, to great appplause, 2 Corinthians 3.16, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” he gave a spiritual gloss to the American way.
The irony is that this privatised version of Christianity often leads to quite public expressions of faith. Sometimes it’s important and useful to ‘do God’, to own up to believing a religion, particularly if you can persuade the electorate that this means you have ‘values’. If you’re lucky (and in America you make your own luck) then these ‘values’ will aid and abet your campaign and confirm your existing political programme, liberal or conservative. America’s Christianity – a private, personal, inward and subjective religion – is a wonderfully malleable and politically useful thing.
When Trump got wind of the Pope’s comments he said, “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man's religion or faith” – presumably, he means that no-one should question the sincerity of what is ‘personal’ and ‘private’ faith, albeit one that he has publicly paraded on occasions too numerous to count. But here again, Francis means something different – namely, that Trump’s policies and language inconsistent with the politics of the Kingdom. Faith expressed in politics isn’t the same as a politics formed by faith. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, it will mean quite the opposite.
Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos
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