One of the aspects of faith and politics that gets me thinking the most is how we reconcile the Christian faith with being a member of a political party, especially an elected one. This was an issue I particularly wanted to explore when I first started this blog. So far I’ve not devoted as much time to this as I thought I would, but it’s always there, firmly lodged at the back of my mind.
With the party conference season coming into full swing, maybe now is as good a time as any to have another look at how Christians deal with being involved in politics at any level.
What I’ve found out this year for the first time is how much the Christian fellowships of the main parties are involved at their respective conferences. Not only are they debating issues that Christians will be particularly interested in, but they’re also working with organisations including Tearfund, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Open Doors, and Compassion.
If you’re interested in seeing what they’re up to, the links are here:
Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) at Birmingham
Christian Socialist Movement (CSM – Labour) at Manchester
Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (LDCF) at Brighton
Having had a chance to chat to Colin Bloom and Andy Flannagan who are the respective directors of the CCF and CSM, I’ve come away impressed with their desire to have a grounded Christian presence into the political system, especially in parliament. They were clear about the need for God to be welcomed into the places of power if this country is going to be run well.
What impressed me most was the way that they both spoke of each other and their fellowships with warmth and support, acknowledging that even though they had their political differences, they were united in seeking to serve God and encouraging all Christians in politics to serve God faithfully. Party policy was second to being one in Christ.
These conversations have made me think. If the leadership of our political parties were actively working more along these lines, seeking to work together for our country as much as possible rather than trying to put the other side down whenever the chance is available, how the nature of British politics could be completely transformed for the better.
In a revealing interview in the Telegraph earlier this month, Rowan Williams gave his thoughts on that state of our society. Part of it included this:
Does it worry him that, of the three main party leaders, two are atheists, and the third – David Cameron – says his faith comes and goes like “Magic FM in the Chilterns”? Doesn’t it make them unreliable allies against those secularising forces? “It does give me some concern. That means we have, as people of faith, to encourage our own folk to be a bit more willing to go into politics, and get their hands dirty.”
There’s a paradox I’ve noticed with Christians in that we’re far more likely to vote in elections than the average member of the public, but in comparison from what I’ve observed we’re very reluctant to get involved in party politics. When I’ve talked to Christians they often approach politics from an issues standpoint, rather than a left/centre/right ideological one. As you’d hope they find their values in their faith and beliefs rather than any manmade construct.
Yesterday I met with one of our local MPs who happens to be a Christian. They were talking about how they reconcile their beliefs with being a member of a party. They were convinced that they are able to do far more good and have influence being a member of their party, despite the constraints that puts them under than by standing as an independent candidate where they would be free to speak on any subject as they wished. They were clear that they don’t agree with all of their party’s policies and when there are votes on these they try to work with the party whips to allow them to abstain. Where they feel they have to they would vote with their conscience, but they added that battles have to be picked wisely and being known as a rebel was not going to do an MP any favours in the long run.
It was good to hear someone at the heart of British politics being so positive about their faith and seeing themselves as part of a tradition of Christian MPs who have worked tirelessly to ensure that biblical principles are at the core of government policy.
As this blog has developed I’ve got to know Christians from across the political spectrum. People like Archbishop Cranmer who is staunchly Conservative and Paul Burgin who is a member of the CSM and a fellow blogger. If you read their blogs, their approach to politics is quite different and yet they have a great deal in common. They both care about the place of God in our society and speak passionately on justice issues that are close to their hearts. Is one less of a Christian because they support Labour or the Conservatives? It’s no different to what you’ll find in almost any church you go to. The only difference is that they’re airing their views publicly on the internet.
It is true that the political world can be unkind to Christians at times. You only have to look at the way Councilor Christina Summers was expelled from the Green Party for disagreeing with gay marriage to see how potentially traumatic it can be. This is an extreme case though. Stephen Timms MP who is Chair of the CSM has this to say:
“I am sometimes asked whether faith has helped or hindered my political career. I have explained that it helped me be selected as a parliamentary candidate in the first place. I cannot recall any occasion when I felt that I was being held back because someone objected to my faith. On the other hand, being an active Christian probably meant that I spent my time in ways not best designed to secure a high-flying political career. I have never been particularly clubbable. My Cabinet career was short – I was not reappointed when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair, although Gordon was careful to appoint me to a junior ministerial role I was interested in.
“On balance, my view is that being a person of faith has contributed more to advancing my political career than to holding it back.”
As Christians we’re called to be engaged in this world, to bring God’s hope into it and that involves being political at some level. It might be as simple as going out to vote at elections, or it might be standing for election to parliament. All of us need to find our place along this spectrum, to be effective in a way that suits us best according to God’s calling. To do nothing is to show that we don’t care about the society and communities we find ourselves living in.
Going back to the original question in the title, the actual answer is that it’s not a competition. As Christians we have given our lives to God before anything else. It’s only when we are able to see how the two can go together rather than being exclusive of each other that we can see the potential of Christian involvement in politics. Jesus said that we can’t serve to masters, but politics in its purest form is always about serving. In fact if anyone lets politics become their master they are both morally and philosophically in deep trouble.