The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was interviewed by Robert Peston on Sunday. He spoke about the British economic model, economic justice, investment, skills, apprenticeships, automation, robotics, AI, equality for all, food-banks, housing, Brexit, Northern Ireland, trade, unionist identity, the Good Friday Agreement, public enemies, and media headlines which stir up hate and division.
Before you kick him, he also spoke about Jesus’s command to care for and love the poor, the judgment of the Old Testament prophets, the need to build communities by loving one another, and the imperative of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.
So far, so good.
Then Peston mused about the “amazing support” which Donald Trump has from Christians in America. “Do you understand why fundamentalist Christians in America are so supportive of Donald Trump?” he asked the beaming Archbishop.
“There’s two things going through my mind,” Welby cogitated. “Do I say what I think, or do I say what I should say? And I’m going to say what I think.”
Marvellous, thought the ‘Peston on Sunday’ producers, as they contemplated the imminent Twitter storm and media furore.
Marvellous, thought Christians everywhere: the transparency, integrity, honesty of the man. What a breath of fresh air.
And then it comes: “No, I don’t understand it. I really, genuinely, do not understand where that is coming from,” said the Archbishop, speaking exactly as he thought.
There was a bit of rambling before Peston reprised: “But the fundamental point is that you don’t understand why the fundamentalist Christians in America seem to regard him as being the answer.”
The Archbishop raised his hands, more in bemusement than blessing. “No,” he said, “But then… I mean, you look… you look at the situation… maybe they felt… I don’t know… I just have… I don’t understand it, is the simple answer.”
But the odd thing is he went on to provide an answer in the very minute following. Peston asked the Archbishop: “How important is truth in politics?”
And as part of his response, the Archbishop said (speaking exactly as he thought): “We need transparency and integrity and honesty. We need people who say what they think, but are wise in the way they say it and don’t stir up hatred. Yes, of course truth matters a great deal: it’s where there’s a lack of truth that people become suspicious. And I think one of the things with much of the voting we’ve seen in Europe over the last couple of years comes down to the fact that a lot of people don’t trust that they’re being told the truth. And if they don’t trust that they’re being told the truth, they’ll go for someone who provides often simplistic, easy answers to complex and difficult questions.”
So, when the Archbishop of Canterbury tells the world that he really, genuinely, does not understand the Christian ‘fundamentalist’ support for Donald Trump, he might first listen to himself, because he manifestly does know.
And then he might challenge the crass use of ‘fundamentalist’ when applied to Christians – which quite a few sections of the media (and Twittersphere) have interpreted as ‘Evangelical’ – not least because quite a few Roman Catholics also seem to have voted for Trump. And then there’s the perception (or reality) of a very slight sneer of theo-political superiority, which isn’t at all uncommon among the Bishops of the Church of England:
There are Brexit-supporting Christians, and Trump-supporting Christians. It isn’t for the leadership of the Church of England to pass partisan judgment on their spiritual discernment or political motives, not least because it’s such an appallingly divisive witness.