What the secular left could learn from evangelical Christianity.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th September 2015
Hostile colleagues, a furious press, an elite determined to destroy him and everything he stands for: Jeremy Corbyn cannot hope to survive by following the traditional path to power. Labour can no longer operate only – or even mostly – from the centre. Its electoral hopes now grow from the grassroots movements that raised him to his improbable position. It is not up to “them” any more. Now it’s up to us.
This is a new politics, of the kind that has proved effective in Scotland, but which is so far untested in elections south of the border. Success now relies not on the clapped-out institutions of a post-democratic state, or on the bloodless calculations of machine-made strategists, but on volatile, uncontainable mass movements. The new politics are thrilling, inspiring, brimming with hope, but not without their problems.
The trajectory of left-wing mobilisations in Britain has in recent years followed a consistent pattern: they go up like fireworks and come down the same way. People gather in a fiery rush of creativity and hope, then implode and fall to earth.
The tumult of ideas, so inspiring in the early days, leads to confusion and dissipation. A thousand voices clamour to be heard, and competition and atomisation sometimes seem to dominate movements which claim to stand against such forces. Wars of attrition fought by the police grind hope into dust. People become burnt out and disillusioned.
A few months later a new enthusiasm takes hold, and we repeat the pattern, apparently gaining little from experience. While the mobilisations of our grandparents’ generation lasted for decades, ours struggle to survive for months. We create spectacles, debates, raise interest and awareness. But we seldom generate lasting change.
There’s a second problem: an inability to reach most of those whose struggles should make them natural allies. Just after the results of the Labour leadership election were announced, the Observer quizzed people in Nuneaton. These are among the most privileged voters on Earth. Under our first-past-the-post system, swing voters in such marginal constituencies more or less own general elections. So how did they react to this political earthquake? “Near universal apathy. ‘Not interested mate’, ‘They’re all the same’, ‘Who’s he?’ and ‘I don’t vote’ were the most common responses”.
Battered into passivity by the media’s misinformation machine, distracted by consumer culture and the celebrity circus, we live in a permanent fug of confusion about the sources of oppression, and of alienation from the means by which they might be addressed.
It is tempting to assert that civic life in this country is dead, but it’s not true. Millions belong to NGOs, or volunteer for charities. Eerily, however, there seems to be no connection between this mass participation and political change. Something is missing. Something, I believe, that other people have found; people from whom many of us might instinctively recoil. Evangelical Christians.
I share none of the core beliefs of the evangelicals, but I recognise in their work a series of brilliant organisational models. Here we find movements that are highly diverse, in terms of both ethnicity and class. Many of their members are prepared to devote, with apparent joy and limitless persistance, all their free hours to the cause. They persist, year after year. They will weather almost any humiliation and rebuff in their attempts to reach apathetic, hostile people, and they sometimes succeed. In some places – Brazil in particular – they have transformed the life of the nation, often in ways I find disconcerting.
Over the past two years, with help from others, I’ve been trying to determine what we might learn from these movements. The project is still only half-cooked (some might say half-baked). But a few rough shapes appear to be swimming into view. Here are some of the features we might be able to adopt.
Evangelical groups unite around a set of core convictions, overt, codified and non-negotiable. It would surely not be difficult to create a similar set, common to all progressive movements, built around empathy, kindness, forgiveness and self-worth. A set of immutable convictions might make our movements less capricious, while reinforcing the commonality between the left’s many causes.
Evangelism is positive and propositional (to evangelise is to bring good news). You cannot achieve lasting change unless you set the agenda, rather than responding to that of your opponents.
They welcome everyone – but in particular the unconverted. Instead of anathemising difference, doubt and hesitation, they explain and normalise these responses as steps within a journey to belief. They are self-funding (often through a tithing system), and sometimes create a parallel welfare state, helping people to overcome financial hardship. To sustain ourselves, we need to be more than just political: we should offer those who join us emotional support, moral comfort and, sometimes, material help.
Successful evangelical churches have charismatic leaders, who use ritual and ceremony, narrative and theatre to reinforce convictions, project a shared identity and bind people together. The churches create their own media channels and publishing houses, even their own record labels. All this is built on deeper Christian strategies of disruption and self-sacrifice: essential means of attracting attention and public sympathy, that are already widely deployed by secular activists.
There is, of course, plenty to draw upon in non-religious movements as well, such as Common Weal in Scotland, the astonishing political theatre of the Catalan independence movement and the research and thinking of the Common Cause group. But it is a mistake to learn only from groups with which we might feel comfortable. Our first duty is to be effective, and we should learn from whoever might help us to become so.
This is not a game. We can no longer afford to flit to the next enthusiasm, next month, next year or even – if he lasts that long – next decade, for if Corbyn is wiped out, another such chance might never re-emerge. The movement that lifted him onto its shoulders must keep supporting him, seeking, between now and 2020, to pull off another improbable feat. This means abandoning old habits, reaching new constituencies, using every democratic means we can muster of returning this country to its people.