Article
Character
Ethics
General Election 24
Politics
7 min read

The problems Keir Starmer faces are not just political - they are spiritual

Graham Tomlin explains why Keir Starmer's greatest battle may be the fight for our trust.

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

Downing Street

The beginning of a new government is a bit like the beginning of a new football season.  Nothing yet has gone wrong. The future seems full of promise. The grim memory of last season is in the past. Hope is in the air.

Keir Starmer, in his first speech as Prime Minister, sounded some familiar notes. He spoke of “a weariness in the heart of a nation, a draining away of the hope, the spirit, the belief in a better future that we need to move forward together.” While not quite Margaret Thatcher’s invoking the spirit of St Francis in 1979, Sir Keir was reaching for something deeper than the practicalities of politics, for bigger themes, more resonant ideas. Yet there was one note that caught my eye, not just in the speech but also before that in the campaign – a theme that cropped up often – the need for trust.

As the confirmation came through that Labour had won, in an early morning speech to supporters delivered at the Tate Modern, he said this: “Make no mistake, this is the greatest test for politics in this era – the fight for trust is the battle that defines our age.”

Keir Starmer has put his finger on something. As Martin Kettle in the Guardian put it, “Whether you approve of Keir Starmer’s election strategy or not, it is a matter of observable fact that he has centred it upon the regaining of trust.” The Labour manifesto claimed that “over the last 14 years, trust in politics has been shattered.” It went on: “sleaze and scandal have eroded trust. Just as corrosive has been the inability of politicians to keep promises made to the British people.” Among the main reasons the Conservatives were roundly rejected were the actions of Boris Johnson’s inner circle, who partied in Downing Street while families were avoiding each other and staying away from their parents’ funerals (I know – I was one of them). I'm not sure that he and his party realised how corrosive and damaging that was to public trust in government and the Conservatives in particular. Perhaps now they know.

Trust is built when politicians keep their promises and deliver what they say they will over the months and years. It wilts in the presence of political in-fighting, bets placed by election candidates, or unfulfilled boasts to save the NHS.

Hope and trust are vital things for human life. We cannot live without them. And it’s not just in politics. The Church of England has had its own troubles with trust in recent times. A report, debated at General Synod, lamented the lack of trust in the Church, setting it in the context of a general lack of trust in institutions in our society.

Starmer understands that trust has to be earned. “This lack of trust,” he said outside No 10 Downing Street, “can only be healed by actions not words.” And trust takes time. Trust is built when politicians keep their promises and deliver what they say they will over the months and years. It wilts in the presence of political in-fighting, bets placed by election candidates, or unfulfilled boasts to save the NHS.

However, to be fair to politicians, trust has not only to be earned, it also has to be given. And we have become less trusting as a nation. The IPSOS Trust Index reveals that politicians, the media, bankers and advertising executives are our least trusted institutions. An ONS survey in 2023 revealed that trust in political parties, the media, local government, and international organisations was at its lowest level for years. A survey of over 36,000 interviews across 28 countries revealed “a world ensnared in a vicious cycle of distrust, fuelled by a growing lack of faith in media and government. Through disinformation and division, these two institutions are feeding the cycle and exploiting it for commercial and political gain.”

To break what it called the ‘cycle of distrust’, it recommended demonstrating tangible progress, focussing on long-term thinking and providing credible information. Yet I wonder if the problem lies deeper than that.

Trust is a habit. It is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more it tends to grow. Yet the paradox of trust is that without trustworthy objects in our lives, it becomes hard to exercise that muscle. A child growing up with parents who regularly deceive and lie to him, promising but not showing up to sports events, hinting at presents that never actually turn up, quickly learns that trust doesn't work. The disappointment is too great to bear. Cynicism works better. He learns to take everything with a pinch of salt, to be wary of promises, and that a guarded attitude where the default position is not to believe is a safer option. 

In a broken and fallen world, trust is a fragile thing. Some people and institutions will be more trustworthy than others, but even the best will get things wrong...

The problem politicians face is that politics, as they say, is the art of the possible, and along the way, whether due to financial constraints, or the need to do deals with allies, political opponents, or (more likely for Starmer, given the size of his majority) within your own party, compromises have to be made, promises ‘re-aligned’ if not actually broken, which is where distrust starts to creep in. Nick Clegg famously made a promise that his party would never increase student fees, yet in the cut and thrust of actually having to govern, he had to break that promise, and his version of the Liberal Democrat party never recovered.

A little while ago, I interviewed Esau McCaulley, an African-American theologian and New York Times columnist with a fascinating backstory. His childhood in the backstreets of Alabama was complicated by an intermittently absent and unreliable father, whose promises were broken again and again. Esau learnt to approach the world with wariness, burned by broken promises. Yet somehow, through the determination of a good mother and the steady influence of a local church, he learnt to trust again. As he put it: “others must own their scepticism, and I my trust, both of which arise out of deeply held convictions about the nature of reality.”

Like Starmer, McCaulley has put his finger on something. The question of whether or not we believe ultimate reality can be trusted lies beneath our cultural tendencies towards trust or mistrust. Ultimately, trust needs a transcendent object. In a broken and fallen world, trust is a fragile thing. Some people and institutions will be more trustworthy than others, but even the best will get things wrong and when those people and institutions that we have trusted implicitly let us down, it is the hardest fall of all.

Judaism and Christianity, in particular the latter, have made a big deal about faith and trust. The Bible is not a list of pithy, timeless aphorisms, but consists of a story across time – and as we saw, trust takes time. One of the central characteristics of the God of the Christian Bible is faithfulness across time. It tells the story of a God who makes a world with a regularity that can be trusted, where the sun rises and sets, light follows darkness, where the fluctuations of a dynamic planet are contained - hence the symbol of the rainbow as a sign that God will not ultimately destroy his creation. When the creation is disrupted by a primeval act of rebellion by the very species that was intended to care for the creation, God promises to send a rescuer from out of that very species to redeem it, a promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It then promises the as-yet-unfulfilled hope that the world will one day be healed and brought to its fullness. We do not yet see that, but on the basis of promises previously kept, we are invited to trust. The narrative arc of the Bible is a story that is designed to inculcate trust.

Contemporary spirituality does not have such a focus on faithfulness in time. An appeal to ‘find our spiritual centre’, to ‘accept the present moment’ may bring a temporary sense of peace and serenity. It doesn’t rebuild trust. Because trust, as Keir Starmer has recognised, is built slowly over time by trusting in someone who proves themselves trustworthy.

Having such a transcendent horizon of faith tends to build the muscle of trust. It turns the dial from the default of distrust to that of trust. It becomes just a little easier to handle the disappointments of broken promises in this world because ultimate reality can be trusted.

All this tells us that the deepest problems we face as the new government begins its work are not just political - they are spiritual. I for one hope and pray that Keir Starmer's government will be as trustworthy as he hopes it will be. It would be wonderful if they can rebuild a sense of trust in politics. But there are limits to what politics and politicians can do. They cannot ultimately heal our hearts from the damage done to our ability to trust. Only a faithful God can do that.

Starmer is, well known as an atheist. In seeking to build trust, he has hit the right note. In identifying trust as the key issue of the day, he is perhaps unknowingly reaching out for the God he doesn’t believe in, but who builds trust in those who do.

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.