There is usually a tune going around my head. This week it is The Who’s ‘We won’t get fooled again’. The trouble is, we all too easily get fooled again. Just read history.

I have never quite understood the concept of the ‘American Dream’. This is partly because whatever the dream might be for some, it is clearly a nightmare for others. Look, for example, at the statistics for gun crime, health inequalities and the gulf between the rich and poor. Land of the free and home of the brave? I wish.

But, lest it appear that prejudice should filter a much wider reality, it is indisputable that if you can succeed in the USA, you will understand freedom differently from those who fail.

What is more important this week is not arguments about the fulfilment or otherwise of the great American Promise (rooted in a narrative of Exodus-related exceptionalism), but, rather, whether the oft-repeated dominant myths of American self-understanding any longer bear the weight of reality. Seen from this side of the Atlantic (with a great love for American friends and great admiration for much of what the United States stand for), however, the real world is leaving behind elements of American self-identity and exposing its deep myths as somewhat shallow fables.

Donald Trump

It appears that many Americans regret having voted for Donald Trump. Apparently, they believed his promises of magic restoration of greatness without asking questions of his empty rhetoric. His misogyny, amorality, financial track record, sexual behaviour, narcissism and nepotism (to name but a few of the obvious challenges) would have ruled out the candidacy of any other semi-reputable politician for the Presidency of the United States of America. His subsequent lying, shamelessness, vindictiveness and inhabiting of some ‘alternative reality’ (in which things that happened didn’t happen and things that didn’t happen did happen; in which things he said he didn’t say and things he didn’t say he did say) cannot have come as a disappointing revelation to anyone with half a brain or ears to hear. His espousal of the alt-right has not come as news. His condemnation of anyone and anything he sees as a challenge to himself (Obama, for instance) is weighed against his silence in the face of inconvenient truth or facts.

Yet, none of this is a surprise. It was all there to be seen before he was elected. How on earth did the Christian Right even conceive of the possibility of backing a man who can’t put a sentence together and who epitomises narcissistic amorality? If Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted because of her handling of an email server (or because Americans had had enough of political dynasties), by what stretch of moral imagination could Trump have been thought of as a cleaner, brighter alternative? To which base values did he appeal?

Donald Trump is the most consistent politician America has seen. Nothing that is happening now – the testosterone competition with North Korea’s leader, NATO, Russia, for example – is new or surprising. It was all there to be seen. Either it was seen and approved of (which says something of the moral sense of the people who voted for him) or something blinded good people to the reality of what was put before them.

Charlottesville

This has now reached a head in the violence of Charlottesville. Or, perhaps, less the violence and more the evident brazen impunity of the White Supremacists in waving their swastika flags, being accompanied by heavily armed militias, parading with torches, Nazi salutes and shouts of ‘Heil Trump’. This open bravado, provocative and blatant, is only possible because the fascists believe they can get away with it – or might even get approval from the top. The response to Trump’s lack of condemnation (or ‘naming’ them) published in The Daily Stormer makes it abundantly clear that they think Trump is beholden to their dogmas.

Trump’s unwillingness to name the offenders is not helped by White House clarifications that he included all perpetrators in his condemnation of violence. Contrary to protestations that he intended to include them in a general condemnation, he has said nothing specific. He attacks anyone and everyone – even his own colleagues – on Twitter; but the two he never mentions are (a) Wladimir Putin and (b) the white supremacists/nationalists. Join the dots – it isn’t hard.

(For another time: Trump has managed to grant to Putin what Soviet/Russian powers failed to achieve over seventy years: the destabilisation of the western alliance. Putin must think his birthday comes every day. I will return to this another time, but for a country that obsesses about its own security it is astonishing that they seem blind to what is happening internationally.)

Here again Trump is not being inconsistent. This is who he is and how he has been since his campaign began. There is nothing surprising here. The surprise is simply that people are surprised.

The future

Social media and the commentariat are ablaze with references to the rise of Hitler, the insidious corruption of political language and the potential imminence of nuclear war. It is easy to be dramatic and read into the present from the past in ways that are convenient, if hysterical. Images of judges in England on the front page of the Daily Mail, branded ‘Enemies of the People’ during the Brexit debate may rightly be paralleled with pictures in Der Beobachter of judges in 1930s Germany being branded ‘Traitors’. There are times when pointing out the parallel at the very least raises our moral antennae to the dangers of normalising language or behaviour that is corrupting.

However, there are moments in history where a tipping point is reached and it matters that people stand up and challenge the danger. This is one of them. Charlottesville is only one (relatively small) town in an enormous country, and most of the USA will have been as horrified as the rest of us at what they witnessed this weekend; but, the images coming out of this one place become iconic of a deeper malaise. People are right to look for consistency in the rampant condemnations and criticisms of their President in his favoured medium Twitter. If he damns Islamic terrorists and wet liberals for their actions, we can expect him to damn right-wing militias and neo-Nazi criminals when they walk his streets and drive cars into ordinary people. Silence.

In Berlin it is possible to do what a friend of mine who lives there calls the ‘death and genocide tour’ of places of significance. But, perhaps the most important place to visit is the relatively new Museum of Topography, built close to the site of the demolished Gestapo HQ. This museum documents the slow corruption of civil life and political discourse. It tracks the normalisation (the gradual acceptance of compromise) of corruption in public language, behaviour and institutional life. That is what made Nazism possible and, even, probable.

And that is the question standing before the American political establishment today. Does democracy matter? Furthermore, do truth-telling, truth-owning, public honesty and the integrity of language matter any longer? Is there no place for shame in today’s conflicted world?

There will be a million analyses of this situation. I write simply to get some thoughts into words. As a Christian leader, not oblivious to similar challenges here (consider the acceptability of multiple lies during the Brexit campaign and the brazen impunity of those who told them), I applaud my brothers and sisters in the USA who stand against the corruptions described above. I am proud that Christians (among many others) stood against the wickednesses of Charlottesville. But, I remain incredulous that evangelical Christian leaders, Bible in hand, can remain supportive of the President and administration that is corrupting their country. When will the Republican Party take responsibility, stop wringing their hands, and stand against this regime that will be able to do little without their support?

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Today the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales (Leeds) is one year old. The three historic dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield were dissolved on 20 April 2014 – Easter Day – and life has been interesting since then.

wpid-Photo-20140709193123.jpgWe could celebrate a pile of appointments and a load of work that has gone on to devise new structures. Or we could describe the challenges of creating a single diocese (culture and identity) out of three, but now in five episcopal areas and still having to work in some respects along the lines of the original three. Or we could complain that we didn’t start from where we should have started from.

However, I think we should simply celebrate the remarkable maturity, commitment, vision, patience and generosity of so many people – clergy and lay – who have got on with the job and kept our ministry, witness and outreach going in the 656 churches and 249 schools for which we are responsible. We have some remarkable people here – not least those who have worked the administration, sometimes against the odds.

One of the first appointments I made on becoming the first Bishop of Leeds in June 2014 was of an Adviser for Church Growth. Rooted in the north of England, this person, Robin Gamble, began very quickly to devise ways of helping parishes face reality and rise to the challenge. And what does this mean? With all its faults and limitations, we want to be a vibrant diocese with confident clergy and confident lay people living and telling the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales. Authentic worship rooted in the realities of the diverse communities in which we are set; a recovery of confidence in the Bible and the story it tells; developing a rootedness in prayer; enabling effective evangelism; resourcing intentional nurture of new Christians; allowing disciples of Jesus Christ to exercise ministry in a million different ways.

The north of England is a different country. And we love bringing Christ to people and people to Christ. Right here in West Yorkshire, the Dales, parts of North Yorkshire, Barnsley (South Yorkshire) and a few other bits. It isn’t always easy – but it is never boring. There is a long way to go – but we are up for the journey.

I have just done a Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show. The thrust of it had to do with the effects of the Government’s cuts on the lives of real people. Just as the numbers of bank subsidies during the crash became so huge that they became meaningless to most ordinary mortals and just as the Zimbabwean inflation rate reached a conceptually incomprehensible 231 million %, the huge numbers of people about to lose their jobs hides the impact on the individuals involved.

I guess the ‘Big Society’ will actually hit the road running with churches and other bodies on the ground (so to speak) picking up the casualties – those whose world has fallen apart. We will deal with the marriage breakdowns, the increase in mental health problems, real poverty and so on. These human realities don’t appear on any Government balance sheets (until, that is, crime increases or the demands on the NHS increase).

This morning, on my way into the BBC, I bumped into a friend who is a secondary headteacher. He told me he is expecting around £300,000 to be cut from his budget next year. That equates to a massive impact on our children. Universities are facing up to 40% cuts in teaching staff (which are already stretched – yet how many undergraduate students are already taught by postgraduate students instead of serious (i.e. employed for the purpose) academics?).

It is clear that the country needs to cut back and the Government has a near impossible task in making the numbers add up. There is no easy or comfortable or unsacrificial way of sorting the financial situation out. But, there are questions that still need to be pressed:

  • Which people are going to suffer/sacrifice the most? Leave aside the talk about ‘scroungers’, there are very many disabled and vulnerable people in our communities who are very worried.
  • How has the increased cost of increased mental health and other medical need been factored in to the calculations aimed at cutting jobs and benefits in order to save money – especially given the drive to reduce costs in the NHS, the slashed subsidies and grants to local and national charities and the likely downturn in charitable giving as more people lose their income? (And will real money actually be saved?)
  • What is the thinking behind reducing investment in the next generation by negatively affecting teaching, educational resources, staffing and expertise? Methinks we have been here before…
  • What is the point in keeping Trident (at the expense of education) when the concept of an ‘independent’ deterrent is an obvious nonsense in today’s interdependent world and one can’t avoid the suspicion that Trident is a mere symbol of solidarity with the USA?

I have no illusions that these and other important questions will be taken seriously, but the problem for our churches is that we see every day the casualties of decisions made ‘on high’ – the numbers have faces and families. Categories are harder to sustain when they develop voices and have names.