My article last week’s article discussing Christian voting patterns has generated a fair amount of debate in various places over the last few days. In particular, my thoughts echoing Danny Webster’s comments about whether Christians of differing political persuasions feel equally comfortable about airing their views in public appears to have struck a chord. With the intention of opening this discussion up further, I’ve asked three Christians with a range of political opinions to explain the reasons why they vote a certain way. The first to offer up their thoughts is Neill Harvey-Smith who along with a majority of Anglicans votes Conservative. Neill currently works for the Church of England and is a former communications consultant, social entrepreneur and writer. He tweets under @nhs999 and writes here in purely a personal capacity.
I am going to break the taboo. I’m a Christian, I work for the Church of England, and I vote Conservative. Stone him!
Should it be surprising, as Theos revealed last week, that there are Tories in our midst? We aspire to be a church of all, of Jew and Gentile, welcoming everyone, believing that Jesus is the saviour of the whole world: can political heterogeneity be a shock? Eight and a half million people voted Labour at the last election. Might anyone else be welcome into *our* church? Yes, we Christians must expect diversity of opinion in worldly matters, though we unite around Jesus Christ.
Entrenched views are not just the diesel in the tank of Twitter, but a great hindrance to people knowing Jesus Christ. Lots of people think his divinity is yet another cultural fairy-tale. To believe it, we must be indoctrinated, or gullible, or needy, or unthinking, or damaged, or weird; certainly different, and the only hope is that one day we will grow up and leave all this spiritual nonsense behind. The modern reflex is that believing in some guy coming back to life and governing the universe is so bizarre that it really doesn’t demand any serious thought. Yet when we are willing to test the gospel, to encounter it at its strongest, to give it a genuine hearing, many of us end up seeing the truth. Before I became a Christian, I always found it easier to take a line of Leviticus and laugh at it, or lampoon the ‘man in the sky’ than actually dare to hear and experience what Christian life is like. I lacked the curiosity to wonder if it might be amazing, fulfilling and true. What’s it like being a Tory? Do you lack the curiosity to find out? Let’s not model that behaviour, in case it becomes a stumbling block to others in more important questions. I voted Labour for ten years, and often wondered whether Conservatives really held their views or whether it was just pretence draped over self-interest. Tories were loaded, selfish, sheltered, insensitive, uncaring. Then there were the rural One Nation types: inbred, tribal, privileged, unthinking. Voting Conservative for the first time was a wrench because I was raised in the prejudice of identity politics – assumptions based on rejecting people with a different upbringing, ideas, customs and beliefs.
Now – after experience, thought and a switch of rosette – I get the same from others. Strangers – brothers and sisters in Christ – who have never met me, think nothing of tweeting insults my way. Am I proud of hating the poor and calling them scroungers? An odd one. While Labour promise to be ‘tougher than the Tories’ on welfare, Conservative reforms are supporting the creation of more jobs paying a higher minimum wage. Though I spoke up out of family experience against the bedroom tax, overall welfare reform is needed. I worked for many years to promote education and vocational skills, and help get people jobs. First-hand I experienced expensive government programmes: New Deal, Train to Gain, so many others. I learned that good intentions plus government programme often equals failure, gilded revolving doors leaving hopelessness and cynicism as they spit people out. Yet so hated is the Conservative brood, that cruelty can be presupposed of any wrong-voting Tory.
I feel pressure to stay silent now in a way that I never did as a Labour voter. The hardest word is ‘selfish’. As Christians, we know it marks us all, but I find the idea that voting Conservative makes you especially selfish the most perverse of all. Barely a day passes without loud criticism of panto villain Iain Duncan Smith. It feels good standing behind Oliver Twist, arms folded, staring down the Beadle as he is asked for ‘more’. But aren’t we – the people of the church – the Beadle here? When did poverty stop shaming us? When did it stop being our responsibility? For one thing, no government ever spent more on welfare than this one. But more to the point: when was it agreed that we as a church ‘fill the gaps left by government’? What part of Jesus’ teaching indicates that to us? The current push to develop credit unions is notable and exciting because we are acting, not lecturing others on their duties. Christian organisations do so much around the world, yet their voices are often drowned out by those shouting at government. When I see Bill Gates, devoting his wealth and expertise to conquering poverty and disease, charting a course, with others, to eradicate poverty as we know it within a generation – I wonder how anyone can look at him and see the 1% who must be preached and marched against, to see his wealth as a problem, to regret it, to covet it, to devise ways to take it from him and hamper him in his work, all in the name of justice. I reflect how the last 200-odd years stand alone in human history: we have witnessed an unprecedented population explosion, and most of these billions of people are richer than their parents were. How many times have we prayed, over thousands of years, that somehow God might act in this world against poverty? The forces of trade and free exchange unleashed by capitalism have created unprecedented wealth, extended opportunity, raised life expectancy, yet are more often criticised than celebrated. And these market forces are based on the principles of service. Your station in life is not apportioned, your wealth not kept in the hands of tyrants, or given to you through obedience to power, but gained freely by doing or making something that other people want.
Is everything rosy? Absolutely not. Some of what we would have our fellow citizens do for us can be immoral, exploitative and degrading. We rightly give legal protections to take the rough edges off our human tendency to abuse others. There remain large numbers of people living in absolute poverty, slavery, war, who must never ever be forgotten or lost in our gratitude for this providence. The Conservative overseas aid commitment is a recognition of this duty. There are also people just down the road from you and me struggling and in need of help. But it is perverse to affect not to notice that utter destitution is no longer the most common everyday experience of human life on earth. Our wealth, not our poverty, sets this moment in human history apart from all others. What might Christians achieve with our share in this generous provision? Christianity cannot be outsourced to worldly authorities by the power of the vote. We – brothers and sisters in Christ – need to build the new Jerusalem together, not carp at others that they have failed to do it. So, yes, I vote Conservative. Faith, wealth, and generosity can be a powerful political mix. Add care for the future – protecting our environment, and refusing to impose the cost of our desires on future generations – and you have a vision of a good society. I believe that high taxes destroy wealth, and reduce the scope for the overwhelming generosity that might transform our world. In writing this, I don’t seek here to impose my way of thinking, or to argue with anyone that they should change, just to be accepted as an equal. If you disagree with me, I trust I am still welcome to stand beside you in our church, because what we have together is most important – our shared faith in the one Lord and our shared prayer: His kingdom come.