Today’s guest post by Lois Sparling is the second in a series where writers are asked to discuss the reasons for their own political views and how they tie with their Christian faith. The first – I’m a Christian and this is why I vote Conservative – can be read here. The hope is that this series will facilitate an open conversation on how faith may be tied to differing political streams of thought. It builds on the findings of the recent Theos report that has analysed voting patterns of Christians, revealing some clear political divisions between some Christian groups.
Lois is a longstanding member of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) – now Christians on the Left. She has previously edited the CSM magazine and was Vice-chair of the CSM in the late 1990s. She now lives in Cumbria and works for Cicerone outdoor guides as Editorial Manager.
Which side are you on, girl? Why the Labour Party is my natural home – but doesn’t have to be yours
I’m sure the thoughtful readers of this blog make their choices carefully, but I don’t believe that support for a political party is often a matter decided by argument from first (theological or other) principles. In my case I knew that the red side of British politics was where I wanted to be long before it would have occurred to me to check my Bible before I signed a petition or went on a demo.
I sported a CND badge from my early teens (a rare and unrespected choice at boarding school, among the pupils if not among all the staff) and my mother (a Lib Dem, a big step to the left of her Presbyterian upbringing in Aberdeen) had taken me collecting money for Shelter door-to-door long before that. And then, when I was a student, Mrs Thatcher’s brand of ruthless Conservatism seemed to be sowing hatred, rather than love, even as she spouted the prayer of St Francis on the steps of Downing Street to general amazement. In contrast I saw a Labour party who were on the side of the poor, prepared to fight for them and to make sure that those with money and power were prevented from abusing their position. There really didn’t seem to be a choice. Things are so black and white when you’re a teenager and it was clear to me then which ‘side’ was that of the angels.
But as Gillan implied in his recent post, in the (small c) conservative Anglican church (and schools) within which I was brought up faith and politics would never have been explicitly discussed or connected. (Nor, for that matter, would they have been discussed within my family.) And in the Labour Party, in those years, there was deep suspicion of Christianity, associated with the establishment and easily dismissed with the over-quoted ‘opiate of the masses’ line. Few were really hostile but most were baffled by a lifestyle that might involve churchgoing or prayer. (Only this week an old-guard ex-Communist Labour Party colleague of mine baulked when I said that he was on my ‘prayer list’ at the moment. ‘You’re not praying for my conversion, are you?’ was just the beginning of a long and unhappy email.)
So I always knew I was a Christian, and I knew I was left-wing but as far I knew (in a pre-internet, pre-New Labour world), I was the only one – until I went as a delegate to a Labour Party conference and came across the stall of the Christian Socialist Movement. Suddenly I wasn’t alone, there was a label that proved that my two ‘faiths’ could legitimately be combined and, much more importantly, I began to discover, in person and in the history of the Labour movement, many inspirational people who had seen the world as I did and set out to change it, driven on by their Christian faith and hope.
Apart from upbringing, the other key influence on my life has always been the witness of other people. Back in those early days I heard Bob Holman speak at a CSM annual lecture and was stunned by this academic who’d gone to live in Easterhouse to be with the people whose lives he wanted to help change. I went home and wrote to ask him how I could come and do it, too, and he, wisely, wrote back and told me to go on editing the CSM newsletter and working for my local Labour Party where I was. And I have met many, many such people within the Labour movement over the years. I don’t doubt that I would have met inspiring like-minded people within any political movement but this is where I found mine. And those people are probably, above all, why this is the ‘side’ I’ll be on while there are sides to take.
Perhaps, as some posters to this blog have said, we should be rising above party politics and eschewing party allegiances altogether but, in my experience, it’s hard to promote Christian involvement in politics – ie in the mechanism we have to achieve justice, peace, inclusion and equality within society about which God cares so passionately – without engaging closely, and it’s hard to evangelise for political engagement if you’re not prepared to vote and stand up for how you’ve voted.
But, of course, as Christians we are about so much more than that. Veteran commentator on religion and politics Jim Wallis writes in his recent book, On God’s Side: ‘We people of faith may be the ultimate independents, engaged in politics only because of the people and issues that command our moral attention…Fighting for biblical justice and the common good…will be the core of that faithful politics.’ Amen to that.
(Paul Burgin, another member of Christians on the Left, has also given his response to this series at his Mars Hill blog: I am a Christian, and this is why I joined Labour!)