I’m not one for making New Year’s resolutions, but I did spend some time over the Christmas break thinking about this blog and what I wanted to achieve in 2014. One idea that came to mind was to do some research on voting intentions of Christians in the spring with one year to go before the next general election. It still might be worth doing something, but many of the questions I was thinking of asking, have been given answers in the new report by Theos, the Christian think tank, published on Sunday.
Voting and Values in Britain: Does religion count? is a weighty and detailed report that provides a wealth of information on the political leanings of different Christian groups along with other religious faiths. The fascinating findings made it into most of the media channels, so I don’t really want to regurgitate fully what has already been written. A helpful summary has been published on the Evangelical Alliance website. Danny Webster who wrote this piece also provides some opinion on the figures on his own blog. Nick Spencer, Theos’ Research Director has provided some further helpful analysis too.
What the key findings point to is that among Christians denominations, Anglicans are more likely to vote Conservative, and the more frequently they attend church, the more likely they are to vote that way. Catholic voters, however, favour the Labour party and in this case there is little difference between those who attend and those who do not. For other Christian groups, their voting habits were more fluid, although they did show a noticeable association with support for the Liberal Democrats.
What this research shows is that in the UK, unlike the US, voting patterns of Christians are complex; there is no such thing as the Christian vote as one unified force. There are stark differences between denominations, but also frequency of attendance, geographics and demographics make a big difference. This would imply that any political party wishing to specifically target Christian voters is going to struggle. A one size fits all approach will be doomed to failure. Whilst certain faith friendly policies, such as seeking to tackle religious persecution abroad, may appeal to the majority of Christians, deliberately chasing their votes in election campaigns could easily backfire.
What becomes apparent over the course of the 128 page report is that Christians vote in similar ways to the rest of the population. Their top priorities at the previous election were the economy followed by immigration. Issues traditionally linked to Christians such as family values and morals were way down the list. Although there is a clear voting divide between different denominations, there are big variations along traditional societal lines, so for example, Catholics are much more likely to vote for Labour if they are female, live in the North, are below retirement age, are in manual ‘blue collar’ jobs and have a house in the public rental sector.
This leads to many questions that Voting and Values in Britain does not set out to answer. It gives a thorough overview of which Christians vote for which parties, but does not go into the whys. Why is there such a vast difference between Catholics and Anglicans along the left/right spectrum? Why does attending church regularly put voters closer to the centre ground than others within their denominations who attend less frequently?
What these figures reveal is that party political voting habits cannot be tied closely to the Christian faith. Catholics and Anglicans believe in the same God and accept Jesus’ teachings. If one political party in this country was seen to align itself closer to Biblical principles, would that voting divide be so big? Instead how Christian beliefs relate to our views of everyday life are coloured by our situations, culture and background. Do Catholics have a fundamentally different understanding to what makes for a good society compared to Anglicans, or is it that their religious communities, which partly reflect the communities around them have traditionally voted in a certain way and that is carried down through the generations?
What does make a difference is that regular worship has a balancing effect. Regular church attenders on average have less hard-line, more centrist views on a range of issues. Listening to regular (hopefully Biblical) teaching in church that teaches compassion and love for others, seeking forgiveness, studying the Bible, prayer and worship all change the way we think and act. We gain a better understanding of what the Christian faith entails; it encourages us to consider others first, rather than our own interests. An active faith according to the Bible will make us more Christ like through the Holy Spirit. That knocks the edges off us and softens more extreme views and increases compassion towards others. According to the report, over 60 per cent of those who never attend church think there should be a death penalty for certain crimes. This percentage drops off rapidly as church attendance increases.
It might not be immediately obvious, but these findings are evidence that the Christian faith when practiced is life changing and that our outlook on society and the way we approach our own lives and those of others will be changed as we spend time in God’s presence.
Something else that may have been surprising to many is the overall level of support for the Conservative party amongst Christians. According to the data, more Christians of all types voted for the Conservatives than any other party at the 2010 election. This was roughly in line with the general population. If this is true (and there is no obvious reason to believe it isn’t), you would expect that statistic to be reflected both in the traditional media and on social media too. However Danny Webster made this observation following the release of the report:
‘What struck me with greatest force when the report was released… was the reaction to the findings, and in particular the idea that Anglicans tend to support the Conservative party.
‘There was a wave of astonishment across Twitter, ‘What!’ they cried, ‘that can’t be true, I’m a Christian and I vote Labour. And so do all my friends’.
‘One aspect of this debate over political affiliation of Christians has struck me recently and been reinforced by the response to this report, why do left wing Christians feel more able to be public about their views while right wing Christians keep quiet? Could it be a response to the reputation of Republican Christians in the States, and a fear that if they come out as Conservatives they will be branded likewise? Is there a norm of acceptable views among Christians that leave some feeling as though their support for one political party is something they should hide?’
This is a phenomenon that I too have noticed. Left wing Christians are certainly more vocal and more obviously numerous on Twitter for example. It is the same for those who appear in the media who have made their political preferences known including Giles Fraser and Vicky Beeching.
When I have posted articles on this blog that could be interpreted as supportive of the current government or Conservative party, I can often expect to receive some angry replies telling me that no true Christian would vote Conservative. Conversely if I criticise the current government, it is unusual to receive similar criticism. This attitude can be seen on blogs I read too. A couple of weeks ago I found this blog post on benefits and foodbanks which made some important points. It started though by criticising a Christian because they were working as a special adviser to Iain Duncan Smith and therefore by implication, supporting his welfare reforms which the author had little appetite for. In the last few days, the Christian think tank Ekklesia have attacked the Rev Daniel Critchlow for standing as the Conservative candidate in the Sale and Wythenshawe East by-election and endorsing Conservative policies.
Is it genuinely possible to claim that it is un-Christian to actively support any of the main political parties and dismiss a large proportion of Christian voters in the process? There might be an case if it were the BNP, but can this really be said for the Conservative party or the Lib Dems? Making sweeping assumptions about someone because they don’t agree with your political views is more than unhelpful. Supporting one particular party does not necessarily mean that you have to endorse or agree with every single policy, just like many Anglicans aren’t signed up to every official practice of the Church of England. We are not clones or robots who have to toe the party line constantly on every occasion without question or thought whether it be in politics, religion or business. Anyone who does unplug their brain to that extent lacks character and is not worth listening to.
If Christians are going to be effective at speaking into political situations they need to have weighed up the different sides to any argument and filtered them through the values of their faith. Much of this filtering will come through discourse, but this can only happen if those with opposing views feel able to talk openly without being castigated.
Not so long ago homosexuality was seen as the last taboo for Christians. In recent years though and especially during the passage of the Equal Marriage bill through Parliament, Christians with a range of views have candidly expressed them in the open and although there has been a good deal of heated debate, there has also been a consensus that this should be allowed to happen within an environment of good grace where opposing views are respected. This has been a most welcome move even if often the result is an agreement to disagree.
Can the same be said of political views amongst Christians? If this is not the case and the conversation is being suppressed, with some feeling unable to share their points of view, then this is both an unhealthy situation and one that is fundamentally wrong.
Has open political debate now become the last taboo for Christians?