In Luton, England, a town that has worked hard to find peace amidst religious conflict, there is a new American export that threatens to undo the progress that has been made. I heard about it in a recent meeting with a branch of Luton’s police force committed to social cohesion, one of only two such units in the entire country. At the end of our meeting—which focused almost exclusively on local issues and dynamics--I asked the officers what they thought was the greatest short-term obstacle to their work. Without missing a beat, and to my surprise, one of the officers replied, “Trump.” He explained, “Donald Trump has given cultural permission for anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric to be expressed in a way that was not available in the past.” What a sorry export for America in the Trump era: a license to hate.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump capitalized on the insecurity, fear and isolation many Americans, particularly conservative Christians, feel by affirming those feelings and asserting the need for a new, tribal nationalism. His message to the American people throughout his campaign was that the threats America faces require new compromises and a degraded morality. At Liberty University and in response to a debate question about his infamous “Access Hollywood” comments, he argued that concerns about his lack of character should be ignored “at a time when you have ISIS chopping off heads…drowning people in steel cages.” Either you will win, or they—Muslims, illegal immigrants, smug and aggressive elites--will win, Trump argued. And he was the only candidate who offered a compelling vision for dealing with the pressures many Americans felt.
Now as President, Trump has exacerbated religious animosities at home and given cover for religious hatred abroad. By his rhetoric and actions, including his proposed travel ban, Trump has suggested to the West that a healthy, robust religious pluralism is an impossibility. In reaction to the dangers of a religiously-veneered ethno-nationalism, secularists and some liberals have countered with a zero-sum vision of their own that seeks to marginalize religious expression and orthodoxy of all kinds.
In Luton, the political forces that paved the way for the election of Donald Trump and Brexit have been concentrated in a town of just over two-hundred thousand people. Like many of the American Rust Belt towns that decided the election in Trump’s favor, Luton was once a thriving manufacturing hub, but is now struggling to find its footing in globalized economy. Immigration has remade the town’s ethnic and religious makeup in a matter of years: a majority of Luton’s population did not live in Luton in 2010, a majority are non-British and non-Christian, and a quarter are Muslim.
On my recent visit to Luton, I met Peter Adams, an Anglican peace activist, who explained that over the last decade or so the ethnic and religious tensions have boiled over. A significant marker in these developments was the 7/7 bombing in London in 2005. The terrorists behind the 7/7 bombing in London had gathered in Luton before traveling to London—a fact that was used by extremists to advance their cause in Luton, and caused divisions in the community.
In 2009, while the issue of which “side” was the primary instigator is hotly contested, a small group of Muslim extremists protested a Holocaust remembrance event in Luton. Later that year, a Luton Islamic center was firebombed. Soon, Luton became a hotbed for Islamaphobia, and served as the homebase for the English Defense League and Britain First--far-right, English nationalist groups that provide a vehicle for Islamophobic and xenophobic sentiment.
In response to these conflicts, the Muslim community and the Church of England in Luton—led by Bishop Richard Atkinson who hosted me on my recent trip—have opened up robust lines of communication, and formed impressive, effective partnerships. In advance of a protest that promised a confrontation between the English nationalist forces and extremist Muslim provocateurs, Christians, Muslims and the local police force coordinated to help stave off violence, and show the Luton community another way. Today, though challenges certainly remain, the starkest dividing line in Luton is not between Christians and Muslims, but between violent extremists and Christians, Muslims and others in Luton who are committed to pluralism. The clash of civilizations is a choice we make.
In the Trump era, it’s more important than ever to make the right choice. As I witnessed in Luton, and as I argue in my new book, Reclaiming Hope, faith can be part of the solution to the challenges of diversity and a source of solidarity. The Christian’s ability to be included as a full participant in the affairs of their nation requires that they seek the same space for those who believe differently. This is possible if religious people reject the provocations of politicians and antagonistic activists, and embrace their belief in a God who is not daunted by the presence of difference.
Towns and cities like Luton—like Minneapolis or Dearborn or New York—can be the epicenters of a transnational powder keg of difference, or they can serve as models of pluralism. What I learned during my time with a Bishop, Anglican peace activists, Muslim organizers and Luton law enforcement is that the choice is ours.
Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About The Future of Faith in America is now available online and in stores everywhere.