Boris Johnson gives British Church Trump-like conundrum

Boris Johnson gives British Church Trump-like conundrum

Boris Johnson gives British Church Trump-like conundrum

Boris Johnson speaks after being announced as Britain's next Prime Minister July 23, 2019, at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London. (Credit: Toby Melville/Reuters via CNS.)

The UK has a new prime minister. How will the Catholic Church react?

News Analysis

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Lenin once famously asked, “how can you make a revolution without firing squads?”

Boris Johnson, Britain’s newly appointed prime minister, has taken that advice to heart – in his first hours in office, over half the ministers in outgoing prime minster Theresa May’s government were pushed out or resigned.

Much like Donald Trump– a figure that Johnson openly emulates — he has entered his new office like a bull in a China shop.

Some newspapers accused Johnson of settling personal scores, as well as removing political opponents, in his cull; in other words, following Lenin’s playbook in keeping the Conservative Party in line.

Johnson’s seeming ruthlessness is in contrast with the befuddled P. G. Wodehouse-esque image that he has cultivated for decades.

Although born in New York to British parents, (he gave up his U.S. citizenship after the IRS came calling) and baptized into his mother’s Catholic faith, Johnson has presented himself as a slightly savvier (and certainly more promiscuous) 21st century version of Bertie Wooster.

The new prime minister comes with an upper class pedigree – he went to both Eton (where he quit Catholicism for Anglicanism) and Oxford – and had a long career in journalism before becoming a politician. (He was dogged with accusations of playing fast and loose with the facts, both when he was a reporter and when he was editor of The Spectator, Britain’s leading conservative weekly.)

Much like Trump, Johnson cultivated a following on TV, and often appeared on Britain’s popular panel quiz shows, which bring together politicians and comedians to make fun of current events in a faux game show format.

After serving as a member of parliament, he became the mayor of London in 2008. The most famous image of his term was when he got stuck on a zipline waving two Union Jacks to celebrate Britain’s first gold medal during the 2012 Olympic Games.

In the national press, and among the political class, this epitomized “Boris” – a silly stunt performed badly by a publicity hound.

But he continued to have a national platform, and was generally well-liked by television audiences, and – most crucially – was an early high-profile supporter of the 2016 Brexit campaign.

Brexit narrowly won the popular vote – by 52 to 48 percent – but wasn’t supported by the leadership of any major party.

When Theresa May couldn’t deliver a Brexit deal in three years – basically, the only thing she had to do – the Conservative Party turned to Johnson, who has promised to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31, whether or not the UK hammers out a deal with European Union.

This has been the one litmus test issue for Johnson: Every minister in his cabinet must pledge that they will support a no-deal Brexit if needed (infighting on this issue plagued May’s government.)

Christian leaders from seven denominations warned Johnson that a no-deal Brexit would be a “huge gamble to take with the basic needs of our poorest citizens and communities” in an open letter.

“At a time when increasing numbers of families have difficulties putting enough food on the table, we believe it is irresponsible to consider a course of action that is expected to make that situation worse,” the signatories wrote.

However, the Catholic Church didn’t sign the letter, and will probably have a “wait and see” attitude to the new resident of Number 10.

Johnson addressed Parliament for the first time on Thursday, and there were several points with which the bishops would probably agree:

– Increasing funding for the National Health Service, the single-payer system existing in the UK, with a promise to cut waiting times to visit family doctors.

– Giving more money for education, especially important for the bishops, since Catholic schools receive public funds in the United Kingdom.

– Giving attention to the “forgotten” parts of the UK – that is, the Midlands and North of England that have not enjoyed the boom experienced in London and the South over the past two decades.

— Support for Britain’s efforts to cut CO2 and tackle climate change.

— An “absolute certainty of rights” for the estimated 3.2 million EU citizens currently living in the UK, most of whom come from Catholic countries.

However, the bishops will be wary of some of the new prime minister’s other pledges:

— He said he will jettison the backstop meant to guarantee an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if a no-deal Brexit happens.

— He has pledged a strong “law and order” policing policy, and appointed a Home Secretary – Priti Patel – who has in the past advocated for reinstating capital punishment.

— A promise to cut taxes for corporations.

— Johnson has also made statements about biotechnology, which although primarily aimed at loosening regulations for genetically modified foods, could raise concerns about problematic research with human genes.

— One of the ministers not to survive the firing squad was Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary who has made persecuted Christians a top priority. It is unknown whether his successor will have the same enthusiasm.

The most difficult task for the UK bishops will be Johnson’s reputation for unpredictability and erratic behavior. His reputation is such that several members of the Conservative Party have joined the rival Liberal Democrats, saying they can’t serve under him.

Boris is also a populist, and often copies the methodology of Trump, although in a very British manner.

The U.S. bishops have chosen a middle path with Trump: Commending him on religious liberty and pro-life policies but being strong opponents to his immigration policies.

It is yet to be seen if the Church in the UK – divided between the English and Welsh, Scottish, and Irish bishops’ conferences – will be able to reproduce the same balancing act.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome


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