What would Jesus do . . . about Brexit and Trump?
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Famous for 'not doing God', ALASTAIR CAMPBELL interviews the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The only regular journalism I do, in addition to my role with The New European, is a monthly interview for GQ magazine. Sadly, the general lack of balls among current top flight politicians means the handful of Cabinet ministers the public have heard of, and Jeremy Corbyn, have thus far rejected the chance to use the six pages given to my straight Q and A interview slot as a way of communicating to GQ readers. Pathetic, a bit cowardly I fear, but hey ho, plenty of other fish in the sea.
So instead of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, Corbyn or his right hand John McDonnell, I had the genuine pleasure of interviewing Prince William, Tony Blair, Al Gore, Antonio Conte, Garry Kasparov and Charlie Brooker. Oh, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
'We don't do God' is one of my most repeated 'soundbites'. It was actually just a throwaway remark to an American journalist who asked several 'just one final question' when interviewing Tony Blair on a plane to the USA.
When the sixth or seventh last question came in 'finally, can I ask you about your faith?' I stepped in. 'Sorry David, we don't do God'. That was it. Now barely a day goes by that I don't get some theology or politics student writing to ask about the strategic thinking behind this 'important statement'.
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Of course TB does do God, a lot, and though I don't, I have always been interested in Him (you see, that old Capital H has to get on there, even if you're an atheist) and in those who really do believe.
I liked the idea of getting the Archbishop to try to convince me why I should do God. He gave it a decent shot. I also liked probing those issues where I knew he would feel uncomfortable saying what he really thought – gay sex, Donald Trump and the Daily Mail. Now, there is a triptych you never expected.
- 1 Tory MP blames 'chaotic parents' for children going to school hungry
- 2 Boris Johnson 'hid in bedroom' to avoid grilling on Brexit stance days before becoming PM
- 3 Danny Dyer praised for criticisms of Tory party - pointing out Etonians can't run the country
- 4 George Osborne says it is 'game over' for Boris Johnson over free school meals
- 5 UKIP set to select 'Dr Gammons' as candidate for London mayoral election
- 6 Liz Truss' department slammed for false claim about cost of soy sauce after Brexit
- 7 Andy Burnham could have been 'halfway through tenure as PM by now', claims commentator
- 8 Minister sparks concerns about pig semen after Brexit
- 9 Minister says he 'doesn't understand' accusation he's starving kids in holidays
He admitted he really struggled with the gay sex issue. As for Trump and the Mail, fair to say he doesn't like them, in that he wouldn't directly answer my questions, (and admitted he would not) about whether Trump was good for the church, and whether he hated the Mail as much as I do. He found no difficulty in praising Trump's predecessor as President, Barack Obama, to the rafters.
Disliking the Mail – what good and godly man could not? – and refusing to say a kind word for Trump were both positions likely to endear him to me, as was his stance on Brexit: 'I was quite open before the vote that I was in favour of Remain.'
AC: Was that difficult for you to come out and say that?
JW: Yes, a lot of people told me I shouldn't do that. But I was writing a blog and at the end, having written about how important it was to vote, and what the issues were as I saw them, having tried to be balanced, I thought it would be dishonest not to say which way I was coming from, so…
AC: In a nutshell, in a tweet, why were you a Remainer?
JW: Because we are part of Europe and within Europe we have the opportunity to contribute more to the world than anyone else, and that is more than 140 characters. Also, America is turning inwards, and we have to look at the global situation, who is going to do the right things around the world? I think Britain can do more right things around the world than almost anyone else.
Alas, he did not share my hope that there may be circumstances in which Brexit doesn't actually happen? 'We lost. 52% voted to leave, 48 to remain. That is dealt with… On Brexit, the decision is taken but the fundamental crisis in our country is not changed by whether we stay in or go out. The Church of England educates a million kids. The fact that has hit me most strongly over the last year – this came out in the Casey Review on social integration, in the middle of the review it has a table taken from the Office of National Statistics that divides the 18 ethnic categories for children getting free school meals, so a proxy for the poorest children. White British children on free school meals come third from the bottom in educational achievement. That is nothing to do with Brexit, it is do with the way the world is changing, technology is changing…'
AC: It might be a reason their parents voted Brexit.
JW: I don't think so. It is just a fact of life, and this is the biggest threat to our future because we are not adequately equipped for a world where flexibility and high levels of education are going to be necessary. That crisis was going to hit us inside or outside the EU. It has been brought forward by leaving.
AC: That is a crisis of education and aspiration.
JW: It is a crisis of education and aspiration which you recognised back in 1997, John Major recognised in 1992, it has been recognised ever since and the Church is one of the best equipped for this because we do very good schools in very difficult areas, and we do it superbly well.
Sounds to me remarkably close to the strategy I was recently urging here on Jeremy Corbyn, to get 'tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit'.
Tony Blair is convinced that one day I will find God, though he once said my obsessive, addictive personality made him fear it would be to become a jihadist. I fear the Archbishop may likewise have the wishful thinking bug on this one. For shortly after our interview he asked me to write a piece for a short book he was preparing, called In This Light, in which an eclectic mix of people wrote about what Christmas meant to them.
The reason, by the way, why I did try to keep TB from talking publicly about his faith was that I worried whatever he said, his opponents would accuse him of trying to suggest Christians should vote Labour. Indeed, whenever he did raise his faith, the Tories were quick to pounce with that very claim.
As an atheist, I feel no such hesitation about myself. Indeed I am sure that if there was a God, which I don't think there is, then everything I think I know about Him tells me He would not like what Trump and Brexit are doing to His world, and He would be right.
Here is the piece I wrote for the Archbishop.
'A crossword clue … 'Front of mind as you wake this Christmas Day (5, 6)' Jesus Christ, surely? But what if, like me, you're an atheist? It is two far less positive five and six letter words likely to crowd in on me on December 25. Trump. And Brexit. 'Oh my God', as we non-believers are wont to say, are those twin nightmares of 2017 still here?
'God Bless America,' they cry. But can God really bless the America of Trump, his lies, his racism, his white supremacism, his misogyny, his narcissism, his debasing of debate and his dereliction of global or moral leadership? When I interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury for GQ – one of my favourite encounters of 2017 – I sensed he was struggling to find a good word to say about the so-called leader of the free world, so he sort of said nothing. Fair enough. We all have to be political at times. He was nice about Barack Obama though!
On Brexit too, hats and mitres off to the Archbishop for being clear about where he stood on the issue – against – and for his forthright stance on our government's woeful response to the refugee crisis compared with Angela Merkel's.
Both Trump with his right-wing nationalism and Brexit with its desire to cut us adrift from a union that has helped spread peace and prosperity for a generation represent to me the turning of our backs on challenges we can better meet through shared values and common humanity.
I don't do God, despite the Archbishop's attempts to explain to me why I should. It is about accepting the story of Jesus Christ, he says. I can't.
I sometimes wish I could, for I see the comfort, strength and goodness it can give to those who do. But I can't. And Trump and Brexit, twin symbols of two great countries opting for their own decline and damaging the wider world in the process, are not exactly helping.
Sorry if that totally misunderstands what Christ and Christmas are about. Sorry too if I spend most of the day willing it to pass so that tomorrow comes, Boxing Day football, away at Manchester United, and for a couple of hours I can put Trump and Brexit to the back of my mind, and worship the false God of Burnley FC. I hope that's not blasphemous … at least I recognise it's not a real God!
Happy Christmas … from a pro-faith atheist.'
And thanks to the Archbishop for allowing me use his book to whack Brexit and Trump, and plug Burnley, the current miracle of the Premier League. Happy New Year.