Explainer
Comment
Politics
3 min read

Jonathan Aitken: I’m in my 80s and here’s what I’d tell Joe Biden

Don't succumb to this politicians' fantasy.

Jonathan is a former politician, and now a prison chaplain.

President Biden sits at a desk, holding his balled hands to his mouth.
Biden in the Oval Office, 2022.
The White House.

I am the same age as President Biden. So part of my heart went out to him as I watched his catastrophic confrontation with Donald Trump last week.   

As we octogenarians know, or should know, our physical and mental faculties simply don’t work as well as they used to. If tested in the white heat of a Presidential debate, or at a multitude of far lower-level challenges, it is all too easy to slip, stumble or fall.  

These human weaknesses have been almost unchanged for time immemorial. They were painfully if poignantly expressed some 2,500 years ago in the Psalms of David: 

“The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years: yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow; so soon passeth it away, and we are gone.”   

Modern optimists may try to argue with the ancient psalmist. In our 21st century era of vitamin pills, workouts in the gym, macrobiotic diets and intermittent fasting, we are all too willing to believe that we can postpone the arrival of the grim reaper or at least prolong our youthful vitality.   

Politicians are particularly susceptible to the fantasy that they can stay on their best form into old age longer than anyone else. “Age shall not weary us” they whisper to themselves, citing elderly successes such as Winston Churchill who became Prime Minister in 1940 aged 67, leaving Downing Street at the age of 80; William Gladstone who formed his last administration when he was 82; or Ronald Reagan who rode off into the sunset aged 77. 

There are many reasons why political leaders have a tendency to hold on to power beyond their sell by date. Their egos make them believe they are indispensable. Their courtiers, their staff and their appointees like to stay in power too. When the White House changes hands approximately 30,000 people lose their jobs, from mighty Cabinet Secretaries in Washington to humble rural postmasters in Hicksville. So there is a built-in bias for preserving the status quo, by fair means or by flattery. 

What President Biden now needs is loving, personal advice from his nearest and dearest, and wise political advice from disinterested friends whose candour he really trusts. Will he get it? 

My late wife, Elizabeth, was brave in giving what she called “frank notes” to all three of her husbands when she watched them perform on stage, on screen, or, in my case, in pulpits. 

Her movie star spouses, Rex Harrison and Richard Harris, were not always pleased when her notes criticised them for forgetting their lines, failing to sound consonants, or dropping their voices at the end of sentences. I, too, was sometimes less than appreciative, but I always took Elizabeth’s advice. Would that Jill Biden might now imitate such similar Elizabethan candour. 

In his perceptive article on this subject for Seen & Unseen, young Bishop Graham Tomlin (he’s about 20 years younger than me!) made excellent points about the calling of old age. To which I can cheerfully shout, as if I was still in the House of Commons: “Hear! Hear!” 

For, since being ordained at 74, I have found enormous fulfilment in the calling of prison chaplaincy, pastoral care, and preaching. These are not to be compared to the fastest tracks in competitive careers like politicians or investment bankers. Yet they have brought me great joy and I hope they have sometimes helped my prisoners and parishioners. 

The race is not always to be swift. 

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.