By Professor James Crossley
Boris Johnson caused a stir yesterday because of his striking use of the Bible in his Telegraph column. As part of his argument to come out of the EU immediately, he concluded with a suggestion that it is time for Theresa May to channel ‘the spirit of Moses in Exodus and say to Pharaoh in Brussels—LET MY PEOPLE GO’. What gave the argument further traction was its prominence on the front page of the Telegraph:
As was no doubt expected, this provoked heated reaction from politicians and media commentators. Even biblical scholars got a rare chance to be relevant. Some were unhappy with Johnson for implicitly connecting his take on the Exodus story with its use in the long history of varied struggles for liberation. Among the most popular criticism was that the analogy might be not be appropriate given that the Exodus was followed by the wilderness wanderings which were far from a smooth ride for the Israelites.
But rather than assess the validity of Johnson’s interpretation, what I want to do here is look at other backgrounds to, and contexts of, Johnson’s use of the Bible and its place in English political discourse. Typically, when the Bible or Christianity has been used in English political discourse in recent decades it is vague and broadly agreeable (or not disagreeable), often across party lines. By this, I mean general claims about the Bible representing peace, tolerance, decency, democracy, and consensus, including sayings with a vague appeal, such as ‘love thy neighbour’. This has begun to change since the financial crisis of 2008 and the accompanying breakdown of the Thatcher-Blair political consensus. In this context we have since seen the emergence of what might be called the Divisive Bible, by which I mean a Bible that explicitly isolates opposing views in parliamentary discourse and among voters.
From the Left, the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn has brought to mainstream politics overtly socialist understandings of the Bible. Corbyn’s use has been overtly critical of a section of society which would not have happened under (for instance) Tony Blair and more openly supportive of a position outside the previous parliamentary consensus. When Corbyn has alluded to the Bible it has almost always been to the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the application of ‘love thy neighbour’ through the notion of not passing by on the other side but now applied more specifically than it had been in recent decades—typically to defend welfare provision or social housing. Corbyn has been explicit in targeting specific groups and bringing an element of class conflict to political discourse. Last Easter, when he spoke about Jesus’ radicalism, Corbyn said such beliefs were summarised in Jesus’ saying, ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 19.24, Mark 10.25; Luke 18.25), before advocating a transformation of society ‘so there are no longer some people who have obscene incomes and privilege while others go hungry and without a home to call their own.’
Theresa May toyed with potentially more divisive rhetoric from the right wing of Brexit in her festive messages prior to the 2017 Election in order to attract a stereotype of the working-class Brexit voter in traditional Labour seats. With reference to Christmas and Easter, she embraced right-wing scare stories about political correctness and the alleged threats to Christmas and Easter but most striking was her contrasting of ‘our traditions’, like Christmas, with traditions distinctive to ‘minority communities’, like Eid, Vaisakhi, and Diwali. For all her polite rhetoric, this was still a categorising of citizens in terms of nativism, ethnicity and religion and a softer version of similar anti-Asian claims coming from the far right in an attempt to attract potential UKIP voters. Her reduced majority after the Election meant that her message did not work sufficiently and was off-putting to parts of the electorate, and so it was quietly dropped. In terms of Christmas, she soon reverted back to the language David Cameron regularly used, namely that vague biblical values were being ‘lived out every day in our country by people of all faiths and none’.
But Johnson has positioned himself as one of the most prominent Brexiteers and it makes sense from his perspective to use divisive language against a clearly defined enemy in the EU which would, of course, isolate Remainers. As with May toying with far-right rhetoric, a comparison with the extremities of the debate can be instructive. From the fringes (presumably) of UKIP one pamphlet courtesy of Christian Soldiers UKIP gained a degree of social media notoriety and ridicule. It led with the unambiguous title, BIBLE BELIEVING CHRISTIANS WHO SUPPORT BRITAIN’S MEMBERSHIP OF THE EUROPEAN UNION (EU) ARE COMMITTING SPIRITUAL TREASON AGAINST GOD AND HIS KINGDOM:
The pamphlet attacks the ‘malevolent’ and ‘ungodly’ EU which, it claims, wants to ‘abolish our Christian Nation State’ and the ‘ancient Laws and Freedoms bestowed on us by God’. The theme of freedom and enslavement is clear and there is some space given to a niche audience of young people who ‘have never known the wonderful freedom & joy that comes from living in a Christian nation’ and have been forced ‘to bear the heavy EU chains forged in the fiendish fires of subversion by Quislings and Traitors’. Mention also gets made of the woman riding the beast in Revelation 17 in relation to the Babylon-emulating EU. Obviously, this is too theologically committed to be associated with the more ironic persona of Boris Johnson, but the themes of enslavement and freedom grounded in biblical authority are clearly part of a shared view that would ordinarily not be seen anywhere near mainstream English political discourse to the left of the right of UKIP and the Conservative Party.
But Johnson has toyed with such themes. Here we might think of an important precedent to Johnson’s Divisive Bible—Margaret Thatcher. In the 1970s and 1980s, Thatcher was one of the most famous and controversial advocates of a shift towards economic liberalism we now call ‘neoliberalism’, often over and against the role of the state and socialism. She saw the Bible and Christianity as the source of neoliberalism and used the Bible to justify charitable giving over the role of the welfare state. In one of her uses of the parable of the Good Samaritan that has since been challenged by Corbyn, Thatcher suggested people should ‘not be tempted to identify virtue with collectivism. I wonder whether the State services would have done as much for the man who fell among thieves as the Good Samaritan did for him?’ And at the heart of this, Thatcher saw herself in elevated terms, much as Johnson would imply his own role as a new Moses. Firing at Jim Callaghan during the 1979 General Election, she implicitly positioned herself as the prophetic outsider bringing change: ‘The Old Testament prophets did not say, “Brothers, I want a consensus.” They said, “This is my faith. This is what I passionately believe. If you believe it, too, then come with me.”’
Thatcher’s Divisive Bible worked in this context as neoliberalism controversially became dominant in English political discourse, replacing the previously held political consensus around greater state intervention in the economy and in welfare. In this sense, Thatcher should be seen as a right-wing revolutionary. Johnson is positioning himself similarly in relation to Brexit, but Thatcher’s earnest rhetoric has now gone out of fashion. Johnson’s rhetoric is not to be taken so seriously, and we all know it. It certainly helps his own cause that he is a rare politician who can get away with language that other politicians cannot’, including such dramatic biblical rhetoric. This is part of his famous (and carefully crafted) bumbling persona, along with a degree of ironic detachment when citing the classics, among which we should include the Bible. People can point out that the Exodus analogy does not work but, historically, this is the sort of thing Johnson can bat off without worrying too much about the consequences. It was once part of the charm offensive which wooed enough middle-class liberals to vote him in as Mayor of London.
But things have changed. The divisive rhetoric may still work among Conservative Brexiteers, and perhaps in certain Leave constituencies. But as middle-class liberals have become almost synonymous with Remain, Johnson’s popularity has waned among them after he strongly aligned himself with Leave. What happens next will be crucial. Everyone knows Johnson has leadership ambitions but is this just part of a ploy to become Conservative leader with the divisive Exodus-style rhetoric to be dropped once he has achieved his goal and when he needs to attract a broader voting base? Or will he continue to push the Divisive Bible should he become leader and try to establish a Brexit consensus?
Thatcher managed to win her right-wing revolution successfully as there was a big enough movement and cultural support. But as Theresa May found out after she was being portrayed as the Second Coming of Thatcher in her early premiership, the country is deeply divided over Brexit and a host of interrelated social, cultural and economic issues. Over a decade since financial crisis, no ideological position has begun to dominate English political discourse. Until this happens (assuming it will happen) then Divisive Bibles may keep on emerging.
Prof James Crossley
Professor of Bible, Society and Politics, School of Theology, St Mary's University