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5 min read

Beware Europe’s political messiahs

As European leaders increasingly co-opt Christianity, George Pitcher asks if they have come to serve or be served?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

two politician site at a press conference desk and laugh, behind them is a backdrop of the political party's logo.
Jorge Buxadé, a leader of Spain's Vox party, and Giorgia Meloni, Italy's Prime Minister, at a Brothers of Italy press conference.
Vox.

I worry that European Christianity may face an identity crisis. Not in the usual sense of us beginning to forget what we are and, as a consequence, who we are. Rather that the continent’s formative creed may be misappropriated by a gathering global trend towards identity politics, which may seek to conflate and deliberately confuse a messiah with the Christ. 

It’s easily enough done. Indeed, the first disciples did so. The Jewish resistance movement against the Roman oppressors, of which we presume John the Baptist was a leading light, was expecting a new Elijah to lead them to liberation – their messiah. 

What it got was a Nazarene called Jesus. The scales finally fall from the eyes of rock-like fisherman Peter when the Nazarene asks him who the crowds say that he is. Maybe John the Baptist, maybe Elijah, maybe a risen prophet, replies Peter.   

“But who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus of him. In one of the most dramatic verbal responses of the gospel, Peter (I imagine) whispers his answer: “The Christ of God”, though other followers evidently remain confused. The crowds who welcome him triumphantly into Jerusalem hail the “Son of David” and lay palms in his path. And arguably Judas Iscariot anticipates a popular uprising, a Passover insurrection, by arranging his arrest. 

They confuse the Christ with a messiah. The distinction is important today in the conduct of our polity. Because the latter delivers temporal deliverance, the former eternal. A messiah is cultic, the Christ is universal. 

That’s important because populist European politicians can adopt a messianic pose. But they struggle to be Christ-like. Do they come to serve or be served? Let’s just say that our popular political parties are light on foot-washers.   

The messianic leader, the chosen one, anointed by nation rather than by God, is at the heart of Europe’s current identity crises. 

But being messianic remains more than enough for nationalistic leaders, just as it would have been for one whose sole brief was to lead the people of Israel from under the jackboot of Rome two thousand years ago. The messianic leader, the chosen one, anointed by nation rather than by God, is at the heart of Europe’s current identity crises.  

Behold Christian Nationalism. It is cultic of the personality and it has a specific self-interest in co-extending the messiah with the Christ. Jared Stacy wrote excellently here recently that Christian Nationalism “has political potency because it taps into primal identities, theologies, and moralities.” 

Stacy’s article is a tour de force on the subject, connecting Christian Nationalism’s social and historical reality to its current political potency, and I don’t intend to channel it. What I will attempt is to pick up where he leaves off.   

He writes that the movement’s main error seems to be “its move towards supremacy. Jesus’s rejection of political power in the wilderness and his resistance to political power through the Cross are lost in the rising tide of Christian Nationalism.” 

This seems to me to allude to precisely the distinction I wish to make between the servant ministry of the Christ and the political potency of a messiah. To elide the two is the intention of popular nationalists when they claim Christian heritage. And there lies the true danger in this identity crisis. 

What I find so alarming is that it points towards the Church’s role in an emerging rejection of some aspects of liberal democracy in favour of populist nationalism. 

A Financial Times article this month traced the populist Catholic counter-revolution in Europe, which corrals religiously conservative young voters in support of nationalism and conservative family values. And it shows us why messianic Christianity can be so frightening.  

Its central argument, based on a poll in the French religious newspaper La Croix, is that youthful conservative Catholicism is re-emergent “as a political, as well as religious, force” and nor “is the fusion of Catholic identity politics with nativist and ‘sovereigntist’ populism… particular to France.” It notes the electoral success of the Vox party in Spain, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Poland’s Law and Justice party.  

What I find so alarming is that it points towards the Church’s role in an emerging rejection of some aspects of liberal democracy in favour of populist nationalism. And, while I don’t want to be melodramatic about this, I believe that in turn directs us to the darkness of the Church’s role in 20th-century European history. 

We may or may not be familiar with photos of clerics giving the fascist salute, as in Spain in support of General Franco. But it’s been a matter of constant debate since the Second World War whether the Church was an active collaborator with the Nazi regime, an honest dupe or a double agent, appearing to co-operate so that it could subversively defend persecuted Jews. 

It’s dangerous to invoke Hitler at every apparent threat to the liberal democratic federalism of the post-war European experiment. But it’s also valid to note resonances when the Church allies itself with nationalism. And that’s what is frightening. 

The direction of travel of European popular politics, from France to Vox to Brothers of Italy, places Christian witness chillingly into question. And, of course, this isn’t just about Europe. 

Donald Trump attempted to annexe scriptural authority to himself as president by posing outside a church brandishing a copy of the Bible during the Washington DC riots in response to the death of George Floyd at police hands (and knee) in 2020. 

Returning to Stacy’s commentary, he writes:  

“Christians may need to distance themselves from the American Jesus, only then to discern the things they have picked up and called ‘Biblical’ which are merely ideological.” 

Amen to that. A simple start to that might be to quote Terry Jones in Monty Python’s Life of Brian and assert of Trump that “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”  

Rather more seriously, we need to recognise, not just from our history, but the warning that the United States offers us today of sub-messianic nationalist leadership. For those of us of faith in Europe, we’ve had more than enough examples of the dangers when the Christ is adopted as a personality cult. 

The most supranational authority to which Christians owe allegiance is not a worldly power. And we lose sight of that identity at our peril.  

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Politics
10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.