David Stewart, S.J.* | America the Jesuit Review | February 8, 2017
Significant public figures in church and state have spoken out in recent days in the United Kingdom as the ramifications of President Donald J. Trump’s dramatic first weeks in office continue to provoke the national conversation here. The leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, expressed critical views on BBC radio, while a former archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, went public with a completely different slant, asking Great Britain to give the Trump administration more time. Then, in a highly controversial move, the Speaker of the House of Commons declared that he would oppose any effort to invite Mr. Trump to address both Houses of Parliament during his state visit that is proposed for later this year.
Cardinal Nichols used an interview on the respected Sunday evening “Westminster Hour” radio program to condemn the “false notion” that Christianity and Islam are in conflict. The cardinal was speaking of the so-called travel ban applied to seven predominantly Muslim countries in an interview recorded before a federal judge’s ruling suspended the ban.
On security risks, bearing in mind that London is still at the second-highest state of alert, the cardinal suggested that “safety, in the long run, is not secured by fear, it’s secured by improving relationships, it’s secured by getting to know people around you, and in that sense opening up things, not shutting them down.” The cardinal stated also that the president’s executive order could put Middle Eastern Christians, whose case he has presented vigorously, at even greater risk because “it increases the image of Christianity as a Western phenomenon.”
The cardinal reflected the feelings of many here in the United Kingdom that the travel ban—even if it is eventually struck down by the courts—does nothing to improve security and still less to encourage good relations between people of different faiths. With a proposal that Britons perceive as barely disguised bigotry against Muslims, Mr. Trump appears not to have mitigated his campaign positions now that he occupies the White House, as some expected. The risk now is that the views he continues to express will become normalized, and that their impact will not be limited to the United States.
Racial bigots are enjoying a new confidence in the United Kingdom. The nation has already experienced an increase in hate crimes, thought to be related to the Brexit vote last year. There have been many and frequent reports of public acts of hostility toward foreigners, although, thankfully, physical violence has not been widely reported.
Former Anglican Primate Rev. George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury between 1991 and 2002, took an opposite view on developments in the United States. Responding to January protests that targeted Mr. Trump’s policies, Archbishop Carey complained of a “hysterical overreaction that poses a danger to the kind of constructive relationship we should have with the president.” He feels that the world “should give Trump a chance.” His views, expressed in a right-wing tabloid, were at odds with almost every other religious leader in the country.
The speaker in the House of Commons, John Bercow, drew sharp intakes of breath from all around the chamber as he declared himself opposed to allowing the U.S. president to address Parliament in the historic Westminster Hall. Mr. Bercow was quickly accused of abandoning the political neutrality that attaches to the job, but he maintained that he was speaking “honestly and honorably” and well within his remit.
The speaker—a member of Parliament elected by fellow M.P.s, not appointed by the ruling government—must remain nonpartisan but has a significant role in upholding Parliament’s rights. As calls grew for him to be sacked, Mr. Bercow maintained that he was speaking in his parliamentary role, rather than following a party line. He is in fact a Conservative M.P.
He said unequivocally that Donald Trump’s comments and policies disqualify him from such an invitation. “I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”
The honor of speaking before Parliament is seen as an accolade afforded to only the most distinguished official visitors. Offered only by the speakers of the House of Commons and of the House of Lords rather than the government or the queen, such an address is always a dignified and solemn occasion.
Westminster Hall is the oldest surviving part of the Parliament buildings on the banks of the Thames. A stunning edifice constructed between 1097 and 1099, it is the locus of many key events in parliamentary and national history, including the coronations and two depositions (Edward II and Richard II) of kings. Previous invitees include Pope Benedict, Nelson Mandela and President Obama who, in 2011, became the first U.S. president to address Parliament at Westminster Hall. A plaque set into the floor commemorates the moment. History, you may fairly say, has been made there.
Although an invitation to speak there is not automatically part of even an official state visit, such a refusal would be a major snub to the new president and to Theresa May’s Conservative government, so keen to cultivate a relationship with Mr. Trump and his new administration.
The government needs to build bridges with the Trump administration even as it seeks a metaphorical wall with Europe, calculating that Britain’s new role will be as a transatlantic link between Europe and the United States. It needs to make that “special relationship” great again. Public revulsion at Mr. Trump’s views and early actions, now underlined by the interventions of these and other prominent voices, might overwhelm this emerging strategy.
* David Stewart, S.J., a native of Scotland, lives and works in various Jesuit ministries in South London.