The rag-tag army which won the Brexit vote was made up of many battalions: the rampant racists, the anti-Westminster protest voters, earnest people with random concerns about bees, accounts and deportation policy, even those trying to send a posthumous two-fingered salute to Ted Heath. And many more besides. I’ve stopped asking why, as the answers are simply too depressing.
But there’s another regiment too, whose existence seems particularly troubling – the Christians who voted Out on the basis that Brussels is “evil”. Many Christians of course, voted to remain, but a sub-set of the Christian Outers bought into an extraordinary theory where Brussels takes its place alongside Babel, Baal and Babylon as a source of evil which must be defeated.
The foundations of this thinking were in place long before David Cameron called his ill-fated referendum. For starters, there’s an unspoken belief in some quarters that God has a special thing for Great Britain, or in particular, for England, and that God sees national boundaries as we do. Any church that’s ever sung Jerusalem needs to ask itself some serious questions on this point.
Add a vague sense that the “Great” in Great Britain is an adjective relating to global significance and you already have a dangerous mix of theology and nationalism. Prayers for the “nation” to be restored, saved and made great again have rung out, often from sincere lips with an all-too-narrow frame of reference.
Running alongside the idea that God bats for Britain have come endless doom-laden stories to make any deity fear for his most favoured nation: floods of migrants, Muslims and mosques, Christians persecuted in the workplace and banned from adopting, a whole way of life under threat. One recent article even claimed that Andrea Leadsom’s bid to become Prime Minister was scuppered by an anti-Christian conspiracy (particularly surprising, given that a vicar’s daughter went on to win, but hey, we’ll overlook that detail).
A kind of siege mentality has taken hold. Instead of believing in the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus – an unstoppable, powerful force of God’s love and presence, which exists outside human power structures and national boundaries, a persecuted but spiritually victorious presence advanced by humble, Spirit-filled followers of Christ – they have come to see the Church as on the back foot, besieged, dying, surrounded, damaged by secularism and threatened by Islam.
In this context, it’s easy to see why some believers became Brexiteers. Anti-Brussels voices spoke powerfully into the mindset of unrecognised Christian nationalism and a yearning for the restoration of Britain’s greatness and “spiritual heritage”.
But believing Brussels is evil? Or even corrupt? Surely that’s a huge leap of faith.
The idea of the EU as the AntiChrist has in fact been floating around in some church circles for decades. In 2006 a Christian video called “The Rape of Europe” was released (and I won’t go into the appalling inappropriateness of the word “rape” in this context). It made some striking assertions about the EU and Biblical prophecies, even drawing spiritual conclusions from the shape of its HQ and a statue outside the European Parliament.
I won’t dignify it by detailing its claims, but I would imagine that God’s heart is currently being broken not by Brussels bureaucrats but by the world citizens drowning in their thousands in the Mediterranean. And by how little we care about that.
Be that as it may, the Brussels-Babylon-Baal-Babel video was dusted off for the Brexit debate, enjoying a renaissance in DVD format, and found its way into Christian homes and Christian thinking. I haven’t watched it, but then I haven’t read Mein Kampf either, and I’m fairly sure I don’t agree with Hitler.
Other Christian articles followed up on the theme, as the Brexit debate unfolded. The vote was portrayed in these quarters as a battle for the soul of the nation.
By the end, the Christians who absorbed the message formed an unholy alliance with the Far Right and the myriad of other Brexiting sub-sets, and voted out. Some had sincerely sought the “truth” and were, I believe, led astray by “blind guides” and people who should have known better.
Others simply overlaid their existing prejudices with a veneer of dodgy but convenient theology, to justify what they already believed. They preferred a whiter, straighter, more Christian, old-style England with nary a mosque or Polish plumber in sight.
These theological Brexiteers have hailed the result as the Christian nation of Great Britain shaking off the shackles of a foreign oppressor, a great spiritual victory, a miracle. Even the weather on the day was compared by fervent Christian Outers to the weather which aided the Armada and D-Day landings. For me, it’s a cause for repentance, not celebration.
The idea of Brussels as an oppressive foreign power is of course an insult to all those who have lived under actual oppression, in Europe or anywhere else. What we understand to be God’s values – justice, fairness, support for the vulnerable, the outsider, the weak, the refugee – are at the heart of the EU’s values. Not that it’s a perfect institution, far from it, and the great euro experiment has had particularly awful consequences, but the point here is that its goals are unquestionably sound.
The tribe of Trump
Far from carrying out God’s will, it seems to me that the Christians who voted Out have unwittingly played into another major spirit of the times: the reversion to extremes, a trend of people retreating into camps of an almost tribal nature, a sub-world of people who look and think the same as you do.
From Daesh to Trump, it’s bubbling across the continents: a simplistic world view which demonises those who disagree with you, rendering them suitable candidates for death if you’re Daesh or hatred if you’re Trump. It’s bubbling across Europe, with the rise in xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant feeling, far-right support, anti-EU sentiment.
In this regard, I “out” myself as someone still struggling to redefine my relationships with Christian friends and neighbours who voted out precisely because Brussels was “evil” and “corrupt”. They all read the same script, voted with the Far Right, and have left me feeling less than Christ-like towards them. I continue to work on myself in this regard, as my own tribal instinct is to have nothing more to do with them.
And if I’m wrong and they’re right, and Brussels IS some sort of evil, oppressive, long-prophesied foreign power? Well, what did Jesus do, faced with an occupying power which ultimately imposed the death penalty on him though he had committed no crime? He didn’t denounce the oppressors, even when invited to. He railed not against Rome but against the religious. He got on with the work of building the Kingdom of God, preaching love, forgiveness and submission to God’s will to his dying breath. Now there’s an example to us all.