Recently, while I was weeding my front garden, my neighbours stopped to chat as they returned home from walking their dog. During our friendly conversation I asked their little girl what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to be Prime Minister someday.
Both of her parents, Labour Party members, were standing there, so I asked her, “If you were Prime Minister what would be the first thing you would do?”
She replied, “I’d give food and houses to all the homeless people”.
Her parents beamed with pride.
“Wow, what a worthy goal”, I said. “But you don’t have to wait until you’re Prime Minister to do that”, I told her.
“What do you mean?” she asked, so I told her. “You can come over to my house and mow the lawn, pull out the weeds, and trim my hedge, and I’ll pay you £50. Then you can go over to the shop, where the homeless guy hangs out, and you can give him the £50 to use toward food and a new house.”
She thought that over for a few seconds, then she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Why doesn’t the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the £50?”
I said, “Welcome to the Conservative Party.”
Her parents aren’t speaking to me anymore.
It is, of course, fictional, and some would read it as rather flippant. But it does open up a key issue often left unexcavated in Christian discussion of politics: if we are truly seeking the welfare of our neighbour, does that primarily involve providing aid in the form of social security, or does that primarily involved enabling all to participate in the dignity of work? Or, put it another way, should we tackle poverty or the root causes of poverty? When Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, tweeted:
If there is to be an election, may I ask all followers of the risen Christ to think, speak and vote so as to help the poorest and displaced.
— Paul Bayes (@paulbayes) April 18, 2017
In fact, the Conservatives have long focused on helping the poor by addressing the root causes of poverty, such as family breakdown, failing schools, chronic joblessness, debt and drug/alcohol addiction. No matter how many £10,000s you hand out to drug-addicted single mothers or drunk and abusive fathers, it is no remedy at all if it doesn’t raise them out of squalor and offer them and their children the hope of life and living transformation. You might think a bishop would understand that, but too many of them seem to be locked in a paradigm of 1970s statist socialism, where the optimal expression of Christian compassion is for welfare to be limitless and all moral judgment suspended.
He was rather more positive about the recent pastoral letter issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, which urged Christians to be actively involved in thinking about politics and ensuring that they vote. (In fact, Christians are more active in voting than the public as a whole.) Yes, in its call for education for all, funding of health services and concern for refugees, it might have sounded like ‘motherhood and apple pie’, but both are good things, and if they seem under threat then it is worth speaking up for them. But the letter also used the language of ‘cohesion, courage and [most controversially] stability’ in its response. In contrast to the longer pastoral document produced prior to the last election, which was widely (but I think wrongly) seen as ‘left leaning’, the use of this language has been seen as a nod in the direction of the Conservatives, as even Hilton acknowledges:
…In the present political climate (and the state of the party leaderships) the Archbishops’ exhortation of “cohesion, courage and stability” sings much more from Theresa May’s hymn sheet of “strong and stable leadership” than Jeremy Corbyn’s call for.. um.. what exactly?
Not surprisingly, such a nod has been seen as a Bad Thing by clergy taking a different political line. So Al Barrett’s open letter of response has garnered quite a few additional signatories. After thanking the archbishops for ‘highlighting the vital issues of education and housing, of community-building and healthcare, of overseas aid and campaigns against slavery, trafficking and sexual violence’, the letter expresses ‘deep concern’ over the use of language:
Most prominently among those concerns is your use of the word ‘stability’. We appreciate the word’s Benedictine roots, and the critical contemporary challenge of “living well with change”. However, words also acquire meaning from their common usage in the present, and it is impossible to escape the fact that the leader of one of the major political parties competing in this General Election has used the phrase “strong and stable” almost as a mantra throughout the election campaign thus far. For your pastoral letter to focus so positively on such a politically freighted word seems to us, at best, as a case of desperate political naivety, and at worst, an implicit endorsement of one party in this election.
Though I think this criticism is a little unfair, I can quite understand it. I think that the archbishops are attempting to recast the significance of language by noting that different ways that it has been used—in other words, trying to point out that ‘stable’ might mean something else in the Christian tradition than Theresa May is trying to make it mean in the current context. But I can’t help feeling that this strategy is just too subtle; however persuasive your argument, the language has a particular association in the minds of the public at the moment, and using such language to shape your agenda is always going to appear as though you have capitulated. You might as well try pointing out that ‘Four legs good; two legs bad’ does actually have some justification arising from the physics of equilibrium and locomotion.
The bigger question is whether the pastoral letter is actually going to help any Christians in the pews to think faithfully about how to exercise their democratic right, and I am not sure it is. Any approach that involves tip-toeing through the red, blue, yellow and even possibly green and purple tulips, (though purple tulips are now in short supply after the local elections), is doomed to failure, because you are always going to appear to be leaning in the direction of one colour of tulips or another. And I am not sure that that is what is needed. Most people need, not guidance on which particular party to vote for, but a much more profound understanding of how being a Christian makes us think about the whole process. It is sobering to compare the pastoral letter with this Catholic perspective on the French election from the noted philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion. Marion does not pull his punches in terms of the dilemma facing Christian and Catholic voters:
There are two levels to the answer: voters in general, and Catholic voters. In general, I think that the situation is rather clear. It is reasonable to support Macron against Le Pen, for obvious reasons. These include the tradition of the National Front (NF), coming from the far right, which is very deeply involved with a dark past in France. And secondly, the NF has no realistic position on the economy and general government. So, as a citizen, for me there is no hesitation.
But there is this new concern for Catholic voters. If you consider, as we say in France, Macron’s “societal reforms”—concerning public and private moral standards—and also if you consider the moral consequences of unleashed globalization, you can have strong reservations about voting for Macron, because on these questions he is not close to a Christian and Catholic view.
And to that extent, I think that the French situation is quite close to the last American election. There, Catholic voters were divided—not only between right and left—but disagreeing with the general tone of the populist campaign of Trump, and disagreeing with the moral and social orientation of Hillary Clinton.
But the refreshing thing is the way Marion locates the whole process within the big picture of what it means to be Christian in the contemporary world.
I think that Catholics need to reach out in most of the directions of the political landscape, without establishing a “Catholic party.” It would be about asking questions, raising issues and debating everywhere. That is the first Catholic role. Our society has to know that Christian thought is very powerful. Second, that it never yields to any intellectual fashion or something like that. Third, that precisely because Christianity is true, it cannot be realized immediately on Earth. So we should not be surprised or shocked because there is no perfect Christian political society, or even a Christian political project. This is normal.
And lastly, this situation of being “in between”—what we used to call being in via, being “on the way”—there is room here for deep transformation of society according to Christian convictions. On questions like poverty, peace, climate change and ecology—all of these are our concerns, and they are central issues for the rest of the world. So we can do a lot, and in general Christians do a lot.
Here is a powerful vision of the importance of Christian influence on the world—but also a statement which takes the pressure off and the contention out of which particular party to vote for. It feels to me that ordinary Christian voters would be helped by this level of statement from the archbishops, rather than the attempt to re-arrange the linguistic deckchairs of the party that is almost certainly going to form the next government. Some cynics might say that it the compromise of the Establishment of the Church of England which prevents such big picture, theological perspectives to be offered—but I couldn’t possibly comment on that.
Before the last General Election in 2015, I listed these broad concerns that shape my thinking on whom to vote for:
- Dealing with people holistically, created in the image of God, and not merely as units either of consumption or production.
- Recognising the importance of creativity, work and the opportunity to contribute to society.
- Treating people as responsible individuals, who should be held to appropriate account for their actions.
- Recognising our common fallenness and corruptibility, rather than treating people as purely rational. We are subject to addictions and temptations which cannot simply be treated as ‘market forces’.
- Seeing people as individuals-in-community, recognising the value of ‘social capital’.
- Supporting the place of the family within society, as its primary building block, and giving attention the importance of fathers and mothers in the formation of children.
- Creating a culture of hope and redemption for those who end up in situations for which there appears to be no possibility of escape or change.
- Treating people equally, and undermining centres of power which protect their own vested interests.
- Seeing politics as a service to society more than the exercise of power; engaging in debate with a concern for truth and not political ambition.
There is much that could be said about each of these, which for me are rooted in a biblical theology of what it means to be human. And each of them has a bearing on a whole range of issues, from health and education to prison reform and economic strategy. But as I express them, I am again struck by the lack of a simple ‘left-right’ binary. And having been immersed for the last few months in the Book of Revelation, I think I would also want to add something about the limited power that Governments do and should have, and a caution about seeking our salvation through any particular party—or political system.
My hope and prayer is that, whichever way we vote, we will do so ‘seeking first the kingdom of God’ (Matt 6.33). Or, as St Paul says:
Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
(Thanks to Peter Ould for the opening narrative, and Patrick Gilday for the link to the interview with Marion.)
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