If you have a look at the politicians who have been mentioned the most on this blog, once you get past Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, you’ll find that Sarah Teather is right up there. When I published the transcript of her Gladstone Lecture for the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum back in July I didn’t expect the subject of immigration to be vastly popular. Yet to my great surprise it had soon been shared all over Twitter and Facebook. It’s now my sixth most read post. Sarah’s discussion from a Christian perspective on the need to protect those on the margins of society undoubtedly struck a chord with many readers.
Judging by the level of reaction when the news of her decision to step down as an MP at the next election broke on Saturday, it was immediately apparent that her way of doing politics has made an impact on many people. Her stance against the equal marriage bill provoked an angry response on social media and in the press, but she has also won many admirers by standing up against the Coalition government’s rhetoric on welfare and immigration. It says something about what she has achieved when various MPs and peers from outside of her own party have voiced their sincere regrets at seeing her choose to go.
Sarah Teather is a politician driven by her principles. Her deep desire to improve the immigration system resulted in the ending of the routine detention of children, but since she was relieved of her position of Minister of State for Children and Families back in September 2012, those who follow politics closely have seen her becoming increasingly disillusioned with the direction the Liberal Democrat party has travelled and finding her beliefs and values regularly conflicting with party policies. This could be sensed in an interview with the Catholic Herald in May. Here’s an extract:
“I sometimes describe myself to people as a liberal Catholic and a Catholic Liberal,” Teather replies, “and both can be hard places to inhabit. There are an awful lot of people in my party with a strong religious faith, but there is also an aggressively secular strand amongst our activists, typical of any centre-Left party.”
It brings us back to the personal being political, and principle – in Teather’s case informed by the teaching of her Church – sometimes forcing you to take outspoken stances. “Some things are private,” she asserts, “but some private things do have a public dimension. It is never an easy thing, though, to translate faith into politics because politics is an imperfect world, and legislation in particular is a very clumsy vehicle”.
What, though, of her position on gay marriage? Her decision to vote against saw her attacked by precisely the same people who had previously been lauding her independence of mind. “It was an extremely difficult choice,” she says, “and in many ways I’d rather not resurrect the whole argument again. It wasn’t one of those issues that I went into politics to tackle, but once a vote became inevitable I spent ten or 11 months weighing up the issues – of equality on the one hand and family life and what it meant for the definition of marriage on the other. I did a lot of reading and eventually I came to my conclusion, based not on any effect it would have in the short-term, but on the change it would mean for marriage over a longer period of time.”
Was she tempted to abstain? “No, because I had thought very hard about it, and finally reached a position, so to try and dodge expressing a view didn’t feel right.”
Speaking on Sky News, Nick Helm, who broke the story in the Observer, said that, “Sarah Teather is a very deep thinking politician who has over recent years developed a deep Catholic faith.” and that she has struggled to square her party’s practical decisions with her conscience. Along with her interview at the weekend which sets out her frustrations, her essay in the newly published Lib Dem Christian Forum book, ‘Liberal Democrats Do God’ paints a picture of the roots of her reasoning:
On benefits, on poverty, on immigration, the public mood is angry and resentful. Restricted by collective responsibility, hampered by austerity, conscious of the strength of public opinion and fearful of the next election, Liberal Democrats have watched and winced at others’ mean characterisations and occasionally indulged in a few of our own. But mostly we have been uncomfortably silent.
In the absence of our witness, it has been left to Christian churches to provide an alternative narrative.
Christian leaders have consistently criticised the demonization of immigrants and welfare claimants because Christianity has a very particular view about what it means to be human, about human value and worth. A worth that transcends notions of wealth or popularity, of acceptable behaviour or conduct, of race or creed, of citizenship or country of birth. Christianity professes that all are precious and worthy of dignity, as beings created in the image of a loving God.
If the world around you is a place where you encounter the Divine, and if you look for Christ especially in the face of the poorest, what follows logically from that is a perspective on policy-making which is inclusive and not exclusive. One that is concerned to foster the conditions in communities that enable trusting, flourishing relationships to develop. That extends a special care to those who are most vulnerable, even in the face of others’ hostility. That is prepared to speak against the heaping of abuse onto those at the bottom of the hierarchy of public opinion, be they asylum seekers or welfare claimants, not just to safeguard their dignity, but also because such dehumanising behaviour ultimately affects us all.
Sarah is one of the most open Christian MPs I have seen when it comes to talking about a personal faith and how it affects personal politics. Although she does not mention it directly in her Observer interview, there can be little doubt that the Christian beliefs that inform her principles have repeatedly come into conflict with toeing the party line. The question resulting from Teather’s decision is whether you can have strongly held religious beliefs and be fully involved in any political party effectively. For Sarah Teather the answer would now appear to be no. It is in fact a question that regularly comes up in conversation when I discuss politics with Christians.
When Steven Timms MP spoke at the New Wine conference this summer many of the audience’s questions related to this too. It is a big issue for Christians who care about such things to grapple with. For Steven Timms, he has managed to reconcile the two without damaging his clearly strong faith. Only rarely does he find it to be a problem.
I also have it on good authority from those in the know that there are many Christians hoping to stand at the next election. All this would suggest that Christians can take their faith into politics successfully. These potential candidates will be expecting a difficult journey, but they are also well prepared and have the support. And as the Observer interview highlights, support (or lack of it) is the key that has made the difference for Sarah Teather.
From her own words the impression is formed that she has bravely stuck to her principles but the painful consequences have dragged her down and she has now reached the point of having had enough. Politics is a rough old game and if you make life more difficult for yourself by throwing strongly held beliefs into the mix it becomes even tougher. For any Christian MP who takes their faith seriously this will inevitably be the case. Without others to share the journey with, it can easily become an overwhelming burden. Prayer, wise advice and good support networks could make all the difference between sinking and swimming.
If we want to see more rather than less Christians in Parliament holding firm to their faith, then they will need the backing of Christians around them, even if they don’t necessarily share their political viewpoint. Without it they are likely to fall by the wayside as in Sarah Teather’s case. And politics will be no better off as a result.