It is great to see Christians making a serious attempt to raise issues in the run-up to the election, and despite the apparent marginalisation of faith communities in general and Christians in particular, this election appears to have given a higher profile than ever to the ‘faith vote’. But how should Christians vote?
One answer to this has been the Westminster Manifesto, a list of issues (seemingly based on the American Manhattan Declaration) and with a long and illustrious list of Christian supporters. Of course, this kind of initiative will always be greeted with scorn by some, but, as Jonathan Chaplin of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics points out, it is perfectly legitimate. But what of the content? I was concerned by three aspects of it.
1. It is always problematic to talk of ‘faith’ as a separate category of conviction, as if religious faith is distinct from any other kind of belief. Indeed, this idea is often behind atheistic attacks on religious groups as irrational and indefensible. But more practically, which particular ‘faith’ are we talking about? If Christians should be allowed space for their specific views, should we also not allow Muslims to argue for Sharia law on the same grounds, Mormons to argue for polygamy, and JWs for preventing medical intervention to save their children’s lives? I think what the Manifesto is actually asking for is specific space to be given to Christian faith, which I would in fact support. When I put this to Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream, who first pointed me to the Manifesto, his comment was: ‘The document is clearly a statement from Christians and by Christians. It supports religious liberty and freedom of conscience. I think that these can be therefore reasonably understood within a Christian framework and not as self-standing absolutes.’ But I don’t think this is clear, and it would be political suicide to clarify this in this way.
2. Where is concern for the environment? Apart from the fact that evangelicals have increasingly recognised this as an important issue in Scripture, contrary to the idea that God is going to dispense with the earth so we don’t need to worry about it, it seems to me that this is essential from a mission perspective. Many people, especially young people, think the environment is really important, and can’t understand why Christians don’t feel as strongly about it as they do. Jonathan Chaplin, in his guide to voting at this election, calls global warming ‘the towering defining issue of our time’ because of its scale and because of the widespread consequences, especially for the poor. So it is amazing that it is omitted as a serious issue.
3. Most serious of all is the omission of any real mention of greed, corruption, and the need for public integrity, questions which have dominated the media for the last year, and continued to feature prominently in the televised Prime-Ministerial debates. Here are some facts that happen to be in the papers in just one week:
- The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spends £3.2 billion each year on 67 quangos that employ 28,000 officials. (Daily Telegraph)
- Labour has appointed its own politicians to many of these posts. The head of the Forestry Commission is a former Labour Council Leader who, apparently, knows little about trees. The head of the Food Standards Agency, Labour peer Lord Rooker, is paid £54,000 for a two-day week. And who set up the FSA? Lord Rooker himself! (Daily Telegraph)
- £10.5 billion was spent on a private finance deal to supply refuelling aircraft, which has left the RAF with planes that are unfit to fly in Afghanistan or any other war zone. (The Guardian)
- The Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings was set up 12 years ago as a matter of ‘urgent public importance’. Having cost £190 million so far, its report has now been delayed until after the election. (The Guardian)
- In 2000, CEOs of public companies were on average paid 47 times the employee average. In 2010 it is a staggering 81 times. (The Observer)
To put these sums in context, it has been estimated that it would cost between $10 and $30 billion to supply clean fresh water to half of the world’s 1.1 billion people who are currently without it.
All this points to us as a country where waste, lack of accountability and self-interest is operating at a vast scale in many areas of business and government. If we read about this in a Majority World country, I don’t suppose anyone would hesitate to call this ‘corruption.’
Where does that leave the Westminster Declaration? Its emphasis on personal morality and ‘traditional’ social values is good and important. But in focussing on these and omitting matters of the environment, society and justice it is beginning to look very much like the American religious right. I was emailed yesterday with a link to the list of those who support the Declaration, and guess what? Almost all are Conservative, few Labour and almost none Liberal Democrat. I am not encouraged that this is a real representation of where biblical concerns would shape the political agenda just now.
Where does that leave us? When I did an internet poll on my political views, and which party they pointed me to, I came out Green–but of course we couldn’t vote for them as Christians, could we? Apart from anything else, a vote against the primary idolatry of our age, that we should pursue ever-increasing financial wealth at the expense of the poor and the planet, would be trampled underfoot in the race to be first past the post.