The Bible and the Referendum Debate on Twitter – Jake Belder

The Bible and the Referendum Debate on Twitter – Jake Belder

On Thursday, following a referendum, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. As with all major political events, people took to Twitter in the run-up to the referendum to voice their opinions and share information about the various issues under debate.

One of the more interesting developments was the appearance of two Twitter accounts specifically focused on offering Christian perspectives on either leaving and remaining in the EU. Known, rather predictably, as Christians for Britain and Christians for Europe, the two campaigns ran regularly updated Twitter accounts (@Xtians4Britain and @Xians4EU, respectively), hosted websites and blogs, and took part in live debates across the country. Christians for Britain described itself as ‘a new campaign group set up and run by Christians for Christians to address the fundamental political and moral issue of “Who governs Britain?”’ and was co-chaired by journalist and parish priest, Giles Fraser, and the conservative academic, theologian, and educationalist, Adrian Hilton (known to many by his blogging pseudonym, Archbishop Cranmer). Underpinning Christians for Europe was the belief ‘that our faith calls us to a life together, loving our neighbours – whether individuals or nations. We are convinced that working together is vital for our human family’. The group’s president was former Liberal Democrat MP, Sir Simon Hughes, and was co-convened by Sarah Dickson, the director of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, and Michael Sadgrove, the Dean Emeritus of Durham.

Both groups claimed to have a distinctly Christian case for their respective stances on membership in the European Union. Interestingly, such cases were not made explicitly on their websites, and you found little there that went beyond the standard political and economic ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ arguments (although Christians for Britain did make an appeal to the UK’s ‘historic Christian values’). An online article for Premier’s Christianity magazine, however, gave Hughes and Hilton an opportunity to be more explicit about the Christian cases. For Hughes, that meant an appeal to the common good, and ‘the opportunity to be both our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers by negotiating for internal continental solidarity and the rule of law’. Hilton similarly made an appeal to the common good, but went further, drawing on principles of ‘peace, justice and the use and abuse of power – themes which pervade the whole of scripture’, even making a few references to passages from the Bible.

What was of particular interest, however, was tweets from the campaigns’ accounts that referenced Scripture. As of 23 June, @Xtians4Britain and @Xians4EU had sent roughly 2200 and 3400 tweets, respectively, most of them focused on their general arguments in favour of leaving or remaining. But where Scripture was quoted or referred to, how was it used?

Let’s look at Christians for Britain’s account first. On 13 June, they tweeted, ‘We can do this. We can really do this. “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others..”’ The tweet quotes Daniel 2:21, and makes general reference to the sovereignty of God in directing the course of history and establishing the powers in the nations of the world. On the surface, there appears to be little problem presented by the use of this text – Scripture testifies frequently to God’s actions in directing history. However, the implication is that the campaign to leave the EU is acting in behalf of God to depose the EU and raise up an independent Britain.

On the 18th of May, they quoted a tweet from Giles Fraser, which stated, ‘Just imagine. If we vote out, this will be Cameron’s last Queen’s Speech’, with the simple caption, ‘Isaiah 64:6’. In that passage, the prophet writes, ‘We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.’ It is unclear what is intended with this reference; the assumption is that David Cameron is the one who is ‘unclean’ and about to ‘fade like a leaf’.

On 29 May, they tweeted a link to a BBC programme in which Giles Fraser and Ann Widdecombe were invited to make a Christian case for leaving the EU, and offered this comment: ‘In case you missed @giles_fraser in Elijah mode & Ann Widdecombe warning of EU wolves in sheep’s clothing http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bt4x1 … (0:39:00)’. In addition to painting Giles Fraser as a modern prophet in the midst of an evil nation, there is a reference to Matthew 7:15 and Jesus’ warning against false prophets. The inferences are clearly that the EU is something evil and not of God, and Fraser and Widdecombe are mouthpieces of God calling people to turn back.

Most of the rest of Christians for Britain’s direct references to Scripture – and there are not many – occur as replies to other tweets, and in most instances, appear more or less as tongue-in-cheek remarks. Conspicuous in their absence are references to any of the passages Hilton uses to support his case in the aforementioned article in Premier’s Christianity magazine.

What of the use of the Bible by Christians for Europe? It is interesting to observe that they reference Scripture more often than Christians for Britain. On the 23rd of February, in response to a tweet noting that the lectionary gospel reading on the Sunday before the referendum was from Galatians 3, they tweeted, ‘Yes, Gal 3.28-9 a gift: all one in Christ, his body a foretaste of unity of human family. #EU a (broken but real) sign of this.’

This theme of the unity of humanity is one that Christians for Europe picks up on often. Another reply tweet from 2 June cites Ephesians 2:15, where Paul notes God’s intention to create a new humanity, suggesting that this should be the model for politics. Notably absent, however, is any reference to Jesus, of whom Paul is speaking in that chapter, and the fact that the unity he creates has nothing to do with our political structures.

In another reply tweet from 9 April, they make reference to Isaiah 40-55, and notes, ‘In Isaiah 40-55, Israel is the chosen servant to be dispersed & bring salvation “to the ends of the earth”.’ Playing on the theme of our Judeo-Christian heritage, they state in an earlier tweet in that conversation that ‘our primary belonging is to a worldwide people of Abraham, not a nation’, suggesting that makes the idea of the EU easier to grasp. The implication seems to be that the EU is a sort of chosen people who are meant to bring blessing to the world.

These six examples provide a helpful demonstration of the way Scripture is used by these two accounts. But the most interesting exchange involving the Bible was prompted by a personal tweet from Michael Sadgrove on 8 May, following a sermon he heard. He tweeted, ‘Heard sermon on John 17, “may they all be one”. Jesus wasn’t praying for the #EU. But principle of mutual belonging applies to all of life.’ Soon afterwards, Christians for Britain responded, ‘John 17:21 is now being appropriated by Remainers. This is theological illiteracy. Don’t be fooled (Lk 12:51-53).’ This prompted a series of tweets in reply, including both exchanges between the two accounts and interactions from others.

The use of Scripture here (and equally, in all the cases above) is fascinating, for two reasons. In the first place, both accounts clearly take passages out of context to employ them for the use of their arguments. Whilst there isn’t room for a detailed exegesis of the passages in question here, it can nonetheless be noted that Jesus’ prayer in John 17, for instance, is specifically for the unity of the Church, which is why Christians for Britain challenges Sadgrove on his use of the text. That may make the former’s appeal to Luke 12 seem more reasoned (‘Do you think that I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.’), but Jesus there is specifically talking about the cost of following him. Thus their charge of ‘theological illiteracy’ can equally be levelled at themselves.

These patterns above reflect two of the categories Roger Walton defines in his research on the use of the Bible in theological reflection. In the first place, links and associations are being made, where a passage of Scripture is used but an ‘exploration of its context or the variety of possible interpretations are absent…it is [thus] open to a kind of uncritical self-projection of “seeing what one wants to see”’ (157). This is clearly reflected in the way in which both accounts use Scripture. Secondly, Scripture is employed in a manner which seeks ‘answers to cognitive or affective questions posed by an experience or issue and expecting the tradition to provide an authoritative statement to justify or guide response’ (158). Walton calls this proof-texting, and reflects an additional way in which Christians for Britain in particular uses Scripture. Interestingly, this reveals an almost fundamentalist approach, especially as they often incline to shaping the debate as one of good versus evil (although they seem to reject the appropriation of apocalyptic texts, where, for instance, the EU might be conflated with the Babylon of Revelation).

Second, this use of Scripture illustrates the attempt at using an authoritative trump card to win an argument. This is despite what Sadgrove himself says in a blog entitled, ‘The Bible and the European Union’, where he writes, ‘The first thing to say is that you can’t read a modern institution like the EU out of the pages of scripture. So it’s futile simply to quote texts as if to say, argument won.’ Yet that is precisely what is being done by these accounts, exemplified further by the way they occasionally call each other out on their respective interpretations.

Pauline Cheong, a researcher in communications technology at Arizona State University, has found in her research on how religious leaders use Scripture on Twitter that considerable influence can be exercised over their target audiences in how they use of Scripture on these kinds of platforms. And in this debate, given the significance and complexity of the issues and potential outcomes, many Christians will have been looking for theological and biblical support in guiding their decision-making process. Thus it is significant that both Christians for Britain and Christians for Europe employed religious leaders, and that they made appeals to Scripture in their arguments. If Cheong’s research is correct, this will have been received as authoritative by many. And given the reach afforded them by platforms like Twitter (they have a combined following of over 3300), these tweets had the potential to play a significant role in helping Christians to either make a decision, or find support and validation for their existing stance.

Of course, all this raises the question of whether the Bible actually does speak to the referendum debate. Scripture does call Christians to seek peace, justice, and the common good, principles drawn on by both campaigns in this debate. But it seems to me that, despite the tweets cited above, the general lack of appeal to Scripture by Christians on this issue is indicative of its relative silence on modern political matters; certainly, the worlds of Scripture know nothing of our modern nation-states and offer no blueprint for an ideal civil government.

In the end, then, the appeals to the Bible by both Christians for Britain and Christians for Europe seemed to be for the purpose of adding layers of authority to their respective arguments in an attempt to sway Christians who were otherwise evenly split in the debate. The challenge now moving forwards will be for both campaigns to work together for good. Certainly they can both agree that the Bible expects Christians to be united in love for one another and for our neighbours, and that this unity is essential if we are to serve the places to which God has called us, no matter the political situation.

Jake Belder is a Doctor of Theology and Ministry Candidate at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham University. 

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