There has been a flurry of activity this week on the question of the forthcoming election and Christian faith. Tuesday saw the publication of the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (WIMN) identifying key issues to consider for Anglicans as they vote, and today sees the publication of a survey by the Evangelical Alliance on the attitudes and concerns of evangelicals as the election looms.
Some of the reactions to the House of Bishops’ letter were predictable and reactionary. The Times’ leader called it a ‘Bishops’ Blunder: The Church of England’s leaders have waded into politics. They should wade out.’ David Cameron’s comment had a different tone: ‘All are welcome to intervene in politics.’ But I wondered if there was a common underlying assumption: that politics was a distinct arena, where anyone can make a contribution if they wish, but it is really the province of the experts, who will probably make up their own minds regardless. In fact, though politics might not be everything, everything is political, and this distancing of professional politicians from ordinary life has surely been a major factor in the disenchantment that many now feel with the political process.
The other main criticism of the bishops’ contribution was that it was ‘left leaning’. In fact (as Evan Davies pointed out on Newsnight), 46% of Anglicans voted Conservative at the last election, and it is Catholics (influenced by Roman Catholic social ethics and the notion of ‘the common good’) who are more likely, in practice, to be left leaning. But let’s pause for a moment to consider this. Everyone agrees that British politics took a major step to the ‘right’ with Margaret Thatcher, and that Tony Blair’s New Labour confirmed that. As ‘Who is my neighbour?’ expresses it (para 34)
In 1979, the incoming Conservative government was pledged to facilitate individual enterprise and a market freed from state interference. Just as successive administrations between 1945 and 1979, Conservative as well as Labour, tended to regard the collectivist structures introduced under Attlee as part of a strong national consensus, so different administrations since that of Margaret Thatcher have treated the market-oriented and individualistic emphasis of her governments as part of the undisputed political landscape.
So if the Church of England was ‘neutral’ prior to Thatcher, then it must have looked ‘left leading’ ever since—or else it is simply chameleon-like, adapting to the changing landscape of politics.
In fact, Christian thinking about political issues is always going to defy the ‘simple binary’ (Evan Davies again) of left-right politics as we have it. A key summary in WIMN comes in paragraph 120:
At this election, we can sow the seeds of a new politics. We encourage voters to support candidates and policies which demonstrate the following key values:
- Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
- Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
- Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
- Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
- Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
- Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that entails.
Some of these concerns might be classically ‘left leaning’, but others are clearly not. I do find it curious that the notion that there should be any limit to the accumulation of power and wealth by a smaller and smaller minority is often portrayed as ‘socialist’, when only a few years ago we would have simply called this ‘democracy’. It does perhaps indicate how far the political landscape has continued to drift to the ‘right’; Thatcher refused to contemplate privatisation of the Post Office as a ‘privatisation too far’—something that has now gone through with hardly a murmur.
Whatever its limitations, Who is my neighbour? significantly raises the bar for official church statements on politics. It shows how theological truth can speak effectively and illuminatingly to the political health of the nation at a moment of crisis and opportunity. It thus plausibly carries a claim to prophecy – which in Scripture is, in the first instance, addressed to the people of God themselves.
The EA survey of evangelical attitudes offers further insight into this question.
A survey of evangelical Christians has revealed that nearly double the national average intend to vote in this year’s general election. Four in 10 say they will change their vote from 2010. The government parties have lost significant support while smaller parties and Labour gained.
The Faith in Politics? report follows a survey of 2,020 evangelical Christians, conducted by the Evangelical Alliance between August and September 2014. It shows many concerns ranging from the credibility of politicians to the issues that they think political parties should be pursuing for the common good of society, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable.
The first and most striking thing about this survey is the level of engagement of evangelicals in the political process, which seems to me to be a significant change from a generation ago. Not only are they much more committed to voting than the general population, they appear to be more active in other ways as well. A whopping 78% signed an e-petition in the last year, compared with 9% of the general population, and they are seven times more likely than the national population to have contacted a politician or taken part in a public consultation.
This goes alongside a growing scepticism about politicians:
- Less than one in 10 (six per cent) think that politicians can be trusted to keep their manifesto promises.
- Half of the respondents say they are less likely to believe what a politician says today than five years ago.
I suspect that these two factors are connected: as evangelicals trust politicians less, but remain concerned about the impact of politics on their lives, they are motivated to get involved.
When it comes to the policy questions that concern evangelicals, there are some predictable issues that come to the fore:
When asked what policy positions/issues are important and will affect their vote, the top five were:
- Policies that ensure religious liberty and freedom of expression (71 per cent)
- Policies that are likely to make a positive difference to the poorest people in the UK (61 per cent)
- Policies to eliminate human trafficking (59 per cent)
- Opposition to same-sex marriage legislation (46 per cent)
- A pro-life stance on euthanasia (45 per cent)
Some of these (and the issues in the longer list of concerns) have obvious explanations; Christians in general and evangelicals in particular have felt increasingly marginalised in the public square, so it is not surprising that religious liberty should be top of the list. But note how classic concerns of the ‘right’ sit cheek by jowl with classic concerns of the ‘left’.
In terms of voting intentions, there is a notable shift away from support for the Conservatives, largely because of the party’s shift away from support for the traditional forms of family. There is also increased support for the small parties (Greens and UKIP), though not as much as in the wider population.
In some ways, I was disappointed at the list of issues that came out, and was hankering after something a bit more nuanced and even theological to make its presence felt. But the issues that come out are quite clearly a function of the kind of question being asked. When you offer people a list of issues, and ask which are important to them, you are inevitably asking about the output of any process of reflection on politics, rather than engaging with the inputs. It is in the inputs that we might hope to find some theological reflection, and how these carry through to the outputs is not always straightforward. As I reflected on why I respond to political issues and parties the way I do, I realised that there is a whole range of things I am concerned with:
- 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. In fact, a good number of these things appear in the bishops’ report in a variety of forms. 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 (and WIMN quotes):
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)
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