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Laurie Penny: Don’t judge Catholics by the Pope

Despite evidence to the contrary, there are still people doing beautiful things in the name of religion.

Britons, beware. As the nation prepares for the Pope's visit, Catholic dissidents are making trouble in the countryside again.

On 6 August, one priest and two lay worshippers crept up to the perimeter of the Aldermaston nuclear weapons base and cut a hole in the fence, attaching a sign on the new doorway bearing the legend "Open for Disarmament: All Welcome". The three then knelt down inside the base and prayed.

In statement following the protest, the demonstrators, two of whom had previously served prison sentences for anti-nuclear action, said: "We come inspired by the message of Jesus to love our enemies, to be peacemakers and to act non-violently at all times." Parents, lock up your children: the fundamentalists are coming.

In a world where organised religion is very often a cipher for co-ordinated homophobia, misogyny and dogmatic social control, it's good to know that people can still do brave and beautiful things in the name of faith. These are the sorts of Catholics we should be inviting to speak around the country -- not former card-carrying fascists with personal responsibility for covering up institutional child abuse, opposing sexual health initiatives and promoting discrimination against women and homosexuals across the world.

This story gave me pause for thought, as I'm working on a longer article about anti-Catholicism and why the snowballing Protest The Pope movement has little to do with the Catholic faith itself, but everything to do with the barbaric, anti-humanist dogma peddled by members of the Catholic hierarchy.

Of course, like any arbitrary belief system, the faith can also be bloody silly. As a heathen unbeliever from a lapsed Maltese Catholic family, I am still mystified why some of my relatives regularly attend mass hallucination parties where everyone pretends that bits of wafer blessed by a celibate in a robe are magically transformed on the tongue into gruesome chunks of dead prophet.

On the other hand, I've got secular friends who believe that the Horrors are a good band, or that the Liberal Democrats are a party of the left. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war