I first heard that the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum was to publish a series of essays in book form by Christian Lib Dem MPs and peers back in July. Just the idea of such a book was a tantalising prospect because as far as I’m aware there is nothing comparable that has been done before, certainly in recent times’. As you might expect, given the nature of this blog, I was very keen to get my hands on a copy, but I was also left wondering how much notice anyone would take of it once it was published.
I shouldn’t have worried. As it turns out the media has lapped it up over the last week since it came out. There’s been plenty of coverage in the press and even Terry Wogan has felt the need to give his opinion. Of course this has all been down to Pensions Minister, Steve Webb revealing that ‘God must be a liberal’. This was then turned into ‘God is a Lib Dem’ by the Telegraph and following that headline the howls of protest and derision began.
It’s always very dangerous claiming that God is anything whether it be an Englishman, feminist, liberal or Somerset Tory as Jacob Rees-Mogg subsequently claimed with his tongue firmly in his cheek. If we start claiming that God is this or that then we inevitably limit who He is in our own eyes and make Him one of our own rather acknowledging that God is far bigger than any label we might choose to place on Him. At its worst believing that God is on our side leads to situations such as we have seen across the Middle East when Islamists fight to impose their beliefs on those around them or the Crusades during the middle ages in which at least a million people lost their lives.
I am absolutely sure that Steve Webb means something far less extreme when he talks of God being a liberal. his justification for this comment is this:
‘The Gospel makes it clear that human beings have freedom. Jesus makes it clear that God does not seek slaves, but sons and daughters. And God gave us the most extraordinary freedom – the freedom to reject and crucify his Son. There must be something very precious about freedom, a value dear to the heart of every liberal.’
Perhaps Mr Webb deliberately wanted to make a statement that would grab people’s attention. In one sense he is correct that God has given us freedom (or free will) and the Lib Dems value freedom too. But rather than saying God is a liberal, what this really means is that liberals care about the freedom that God gave us first. Liberals follow in God’s footsteps on this matter, not the other way round. Of course you could just as easily say that other parties care about freedom too, even if they might approach it from a different perspective. No one party has a monopoly on God’s values.
Calling God a liberal was a good way to grab journalists’ attentions, but as is often the case, most of them never made it past Webb’s introduction. The majority of the contributions in the book were ignored; they just weren’t sensational enough. This is a real shame because in many ways this is a brave and remarkable book. Having twelve Lib Dem MPs and peers willing to stick their necks out and publicly discuss their faith, especially given the size of their party in Parliament, is quite an achievement in itself. The book is testament to the challenges of marrying a set of Christian beliefs with a liberal political philosophy, but all of the writers have reached a position where they can hold the two simultaneously without a serious conflict of interests. Given that many of the founders of the Liberal party were non-conformist Christians, this is not something that should be considered unusual or unobtainable.
Yet significant parts of the book address the difficulties Christians face within the party at this time. John Pugh MP addresses the subject head on:
‘[I]n recent years specifically Christian input [in the Liberal Democrat Party] has been both muted and defensive…
‘There are sometimes, too, some understandable but not well understood differences on how equality legislation should be applied, which has the potential to erupt in an incendiary and painful fashion. Bigotry can be shown both towards and by religion.
‘In this context it can be questioned whether [Christianity] is compatible with true Liberalism and vice versa. Worse still, the religious (membership) could be seen as an odd sometime-affiliate of the true Liberal faith, whose strange scruples (conscience) can at best be indulged – but only when it doesn’t matter much. It is as though the presence of the religious in the party is a matter of fortuitous accident and has little to do with them actually being religious.
‘Either outcome – whether a fierce rejection of the Christian worldview or an insincere humouring of it – weakens Liberalism.’
Greg Mulholland takes this line of thinking one step further with an attack on what he perceives as his party’s drift towards moral conformity:
‘There is a worrying trend in the liberal party of British politics, that whilst we rightly all rail against poverty and ignorance, and in theory against conformity, there are too many in our party who seek to impose a new conformity on others. The new secularist conformity is exactly what people, including some within our own party, and increasingly in society, are seeking to impose on others and by doing so, enslave them.
‘…The real question at the heart of this debate is whether we can be a good Christian, and proud of our faith and proud to be a Liberal Democrat. The answer for many at the moment is unclear.’
One of the stated aims of the book is to help those within the party to understand Christianity better and see that it should be welcomed within the party fold and that Christian beliefs and values are just as relevant to the party now as they have ever been when it comes to forming policy and showing concern towards all those in society and not just the select few. It will go some way to achieving this if those in the party are willing to listen.
The books other aim is to reach out to Christians outside of the Lib Dems and give them reason to become more politically engaged, particularly through the party.
For some this book will be too partisan, lauding the political stance and nature of the Liberal Democrat party. For others it will probably be too overtly Christian with a determined refusal from all of the writers to compromise their Christian beliefs. It is in fact a window into both worlds of politics and faith. Though there may be a clash at times between the two, all of the contributors are committed to stand firm in the middle of it all sharing their experiences and beliefs in the hope that others will follow
Sometimes the theology can be a little loose, but bearing in mind Biblical exegesis is not part of a politician’s job description, this can be forgiven. Surprisingly though there are some excellent theological arguments presented. Tim Farron gives a rousing explanation of the Gospel along with his own personal conversion experience. Sarah Teather’s passionate faith-filled chapter on the need to defend those on the edges of society is inspiring and uplifting. Of all the writers, hers is the one that touched me the most and paints a picture of how Christian values and beliefs could radically shape politics both at party and national level if more politicians chose to embrace them.
The greatest achievement of this book is to give Christians in the Liberal Democrat party an opportunity to confidently stand tall without being ashamed of their faith. It says, ‘Look we’re Christians, we’re not embarrassed and we have nothing to hide. We believe our politics is better for it and not worse. We believe we have something that is of great value and we’re not going to water it down.’ These are John Pugh’s concluding remarks:
‘The richness and indeed strength of the British Liberal tradition has been its diversity – all attempts to narrow its ideological base have been politically disastrous.
‘Arguably too, the lack of confidence of its Christian voice that once flowed effortlessly from pulpit to parliament has actually weakened the party’s appeal. That voice with its emphasis on human dignity, the fight against poverty and the public good seems as relevant now as it did in the days of Lloyd George or Gladstone. It is time to speak now or forever hold one’s peace.’
Christians in the Liberal Democrat party have chosen to make their voice heard. What surely ought to follow from this is a similar exercise from Christians in other parties. David Cameron has made it be known that Conservatives ‘do God’. Are others willing to publicly join this declaration that Christianity should be firmly at the centre of politics and not just an onlooker from the sidelines?
For a fuller review I suggest reading James Crossley’s series of articles on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog.