Sacred Politics—Trump, Brexit and Civil Religion 6 December 2016

In God We TrustDuring the US elections, President-elect Trump’s comments about Muslims were uniquely inflammatory. He called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, a database of Muslim citizens, and declared that “Islam hates us”. Given this, Hillary Clinton brought Khizr Khan on stage at the Democratic Convention. The elderly Pakistani-born Muslim father stood proudly alongside his visibly-Muslim wife. Khizr Khan is the father of Captain Humayun Khan, a US soldier who died in 2004 while serving in Iraq. Criticising Trump, and speaking of sacrifice, Khizr Khan pulled out a frail and battered scripture from his jacket pocket. This holy writ was not the Quran, nor the Bible, it was the United States Constitution.

The incident recounted is the most powerful example of what sociologist Robert Bellah describes as “civil religion”. Bellah argued that there was a series of rituals, beliefs, values, scriptures that constituted a shared religious tradition in the United States. It bound together the nation, providing sacred symbols around which citizens could gather, unite and feel connected. Civil religion was not as extensive as organised religions such as Christianity, but it was as pervasive and important. It was general enough to allow Christians of many denominations to engage with it and not feel excluded by it. It was, in Bellah’s view, the religious dimension of the political realm – even in a secular country such as the United States.

The battle between Trump and Khizr Khan represents a new fault line of US civil religion, a new contest about the orthodoxy of this fragile tradition. Trump is appealing to a civil religion which promises a return of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (W.A.S.P) supremacy. In Trump’s vision of the United States, Muslims are disloyal, foreign, dangerous, they do not belong. Khizr Khan response utilised the language of American civil religion, and its own sacred symbols, to speak back to Trump.

As North America comes to terms with the election of racist, sexist and bigoted demagogue to the office of President, and Britain comes to term with the implications of Brexit, perhaps civil religion can help us better understand the divisions within society. Looking at a new politics emerging across the West, I wonder to what extent civil religion can help shed light on it. For Bellah civil religion has “seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does”.

British Civil Religion?

November’s Armistice Day commemorates the sacrifice of troops in Britain. Faith and political leaders arrive at the Cenotaph, laying wreaths. In November 2015, tabloid headlines accused leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn of failing to show due reverence due to not bowing deeply enough. Later, he faced the scorn of the then Prime Minister David Cameron for not singing the national anthem. This year, the story was that Corbyn “danced a jig” prior to the memorial service, once again, failing to reflect the sombre mood of the event.

It is clear that Britain has a civil religion too – different though from the United States. The accusations and criticisms of Corbyn are that of impiety. He is not reverent enough, he does not commit to the rituals, he is an infidel, a hypocrite who doesn’t believe in the national religion at all.

The argument of impiety in civil religion will largely fall flat for those on the left, but for the British right, who value traditional institutions, it is a significant charge.

Britain’s civil religion is currently up for debate. While Britain was once an undeniably Christian country, the public role of religion has increasingly diminished, prompting the former Archbishop Rowan Williams to observe Britain is a “post-Christian” country.

Recent decades have seen religions make their presence felt in the public sphere. We’ve had calls for a recognition of Britain’s Christian heritage. Nick Spencer, of think-tank Theos, recently published The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values. Similar arguments have been made by author Tom Holland in the New Statesman in an article titled Why I was wrong about Christianity, and by Mary Wakefield in the Spectator with an article titled Original sin makes us better people. I wish Muslims believed in it. The government’s celebrity civil servant Louise Casey recently spoke on the need to preserve Britain’s Christian traditions, arguing that society must be bolder in “celebrating our history, heritage and culture”. Theresa May’s assumption of the role of Prime Minister was described by The Telegraph’s Tim Stanley as the end of the “liberal era” and the beginning of “Christian democracy”. These statements signify a deeper shift, not so much from the Anglican Church (where you might expect such calls to be coming from), but from intellectuals and politicians, and those for whom religion is not just a matter of spiritual transformation, but also social identity. This is essentially a debate to reintroduce Christianity to Britain’s civil religion. What’s prompting this resurgence?


US journalist Van Jones, looking at the results of the 2016 elections, described it was a “whitelash”. Were the white, conservative, religious right reacting against eight years of a black, liberal, left-leaning President? According to John Blake, yes:

“Dramatic racial progress in America is inevitably followed by a white backlash, or “whitelash.” Reconstruction in the 18th century was followed by a century of Jim Crow. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was followed by President Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right”

There are parallels to Brexit in Britain. White people were largely in favour in Brexit, minority groups largely in favour of Remain. Likewise, almost all white evangelicals voted for Trump, whereas black evangelicals voted for Clinton. The racial divides are unquestionably pertinent in both referendum and election. More so than ever, the ideological divides are giving way to racial divides.

There’s been plenty written about the extent to which economics and class played a role in both Brexit and Trump’s success, the accuracy of such analysis aside, what is clearly happening is the way in which racial and religious divides are beginning to be mapped onto beliefs about values and ethics. Take for example the following. According to the New York Times polls, the most important issues for Trump voters were “immigration” and “terrorism”, whereas Clinton voters were concerned by the economy and foreign policy. The Ashcroft Polls revealed to us that Remain voters were in favour of multiculturalism (71%) and immigration (79%) in exactly the same proportion to which Brexit voters thought they were bad.

This however doesn’t explain white evangelical support for Trump according to some evangelicals I spoke to. “Many white evangelical leaders who supported Trump cited his pro-life stance on abortion and his pledge to appoint socially conservative justices to the Supreme Court as their reasons. It was a case of single-issue identity politics where they felt that America would become more “Christian” under a Trump presidency than under a Clinton presidency.”

Trump as the lesser of two evils is also a common theme. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, faith correspondent for The Washington Post writes that for evangelicals Hillary “symbolizes much that runs against their beliefs: abortion rights advocacy, feminism and, conversely, a rejection of biblical ideas of femininity and womanhood.” Trump was, from this perspective, a flawed candidate but who nonetheless had time for Christianity – whereas Hillary is anti-Christian. Evangelical support for Trump then seems largely to be about reasserting the role of Christianity in the public sphere.

Whether you viewed Clinton or Trump as the worse candidate however depended quite heavily on your race in the United States. Prompting Jim Walllis, a leading evangelical voice in the United States and editor of Sojourners magazine to accuse white evangelicals of “voting against your black and Hispanic brethren” in comments made during a heated segment of the BBC Radio 4’s Sunday.

There are new divides and debates emerging within contemporary Western society. Where there was perhaps a time one could speak of a “Christian right” in the United States, that picture is now increasingly diverse. A concerned statement issued by the Evangelical Alliance UK which stated unequivocally that Trump’s “attacks on women, the Latino community and other minorities are totally unacceptable, and reflect a crisis of social morality and of public leadership” suggest European evangelicals are as concerned by Trump as everyone else.

To return to civil religion, what we are seeing is a civil sectarianism emerge within nation states. There are debates about what our public life should look like, what rituals should be honoured, what the ethics of the nation state should be, and most importantly, who belongs and who doesn’t. Does whitelash explain this particular schism? During the earliest days of the nation state, there was no question that to be white and Christian meant to be a high priest in Britain or America’s civil religion. Things have changed, multiculturalism and immigration in particular, have created a unique distinctive diversity that while common elsewhere in the world, is relatively novel to the West. With Christians in the United States feeling marginalised following the culture wars, Trump provides an opportunity to potentially return civil religion to more familiar, Christian, ground. Why is race such an important factor, especially in era of Western society some have described as “post-racial”.

The Modern Heretic

Speaking to Karen Armstrong earlier this month, she argued that “nationalism has become the religion of the secular world. The hand on the heart. The lump in the throat. Die for your country. But with awful consequences.” She is describing a form of civil religion, and observes insightfully “its flaw of course is that it cannot tolerate minorities – in the secular state, the ethnic minority has often replaced the heretic.”

For many of us, born in nation states, the idea of anything but a nation state is a challenging notion to digest. For the sheer bulk of human history however, there were peoples (nations, races, tribes, people who shared a communal identity). There were also states (empires, kingdoms, sultanates, city states). The nation and the state rarely met. Peoples would be ruled by others. They might be subjects of the Roman Empire, or the British Empire, or the Mughal Empire, but that was rarely a reflection of who they were as a people. Instead, people would rely on a host of other identities, their cultures, their ethnicities, their language, and of course, their religion. Only in the twentieth century did the nation state emerge as the primary form of government, reflecting a belief that a people should determine their political fate.

The problem of course, as Karen Armstrong identifies, is that who a people are does not easily tally with the political boundaries of the state. In the United States, Black Americans, Latinos, Muslims, migrants, all form minorities not easily accepted by the mainstream culture of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. In Britain, the same challenge presents itself – how to deal with people of different religions and different traditions.

And so, we have two forms of civil religion. One which is multicultural, which presents ample room for difference – especially religious difference, which welcomes immigration. Contending against it is a civil religion which harks back to a dream of what was – mainly white, mainly Christian, and in the interest of self-preservation, anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism. White evangelical support for Trump is less about evangelical values, and more about white nationalism.

Clash Within Civilisations

Huntington’s thesis was that the future would bring about a clash of civilisations, in particular, Islam versus Christianity. Perhaps from a perspective, this seems to hold up. The “Christian” US has dropped 23,144 bombs in 2015, all of them on Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia). Likewise, there have been terror attacks by Muslims against Western states, with attackers consciously espousing a language of religious war.

But that would be a simplistic take that hides the details. There are many in the United States who oppose American imperialism and its desire to act as a “global policeman” and the loss of life it entails. Likewise, there are countless Muslims who oppose terror attacks and the global vigilantism that purportedly motivates it.

Within nation states, there is a debate for the kind of country it should be. Whether Trump’s America, Brexit Britain or National Front’s France. We’re not seeing a clash of civilisations, but a clash within them.

Civil Religion helps reveal the battle lines for a debate about the nature of belonging, and we can only hope that the debate remains civil.

This article is from Issue 14 of On Religion. Intelligent thinking about religion and society is needed now more than ever, help us and subscribe for £19 a year. Subscribe Button

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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