Today’s guest post by the Reverend Sam Norton. It is the fourth 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 three are I’m a Christian and this is why I vote Conservative, …why I vote Labour and …Why I vote Green. 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.
Sam is currently a rector in the Church of England living in Essex. Before his ordination he worked for the Department for the Environment as a civil servant. His first book Let Us Be Human explores how the church should understand the ecological crisis. He blogs at Elizaphanian and tweets at @Elizaphanian.
We learn to be ashamed before we walk
On the principle that I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, I’d like to use this article to explain why I joined UKIP in the summer of 2011. One of the key elements of the English religious settlement after the Civil War was that religion was given a particular place – one that forbade any political involvement. This is why there remains something of a taboo about religious figures getting involved in political affairs in this country, although that taboo is, thankfully, beginning to break down, alongside all the other elements of our national life that are breaking down.
Religion and politics have always gone together. If we consider some key figures from history – look at Desmond Tutu, or Martin Luther King, or Gandhi – then the idea that religion and politics can be easily separated is seen as a nonsense; or, if not a nonsense, then as a particularly local English eccentricity, and whilst I am very much in favour of particularly local English eccentricities, this is not one that I can respect any more. When priests are ordained we are charged to ‘let the good shepherd be the pattern of our calling’ – in other words, we are to try to walk the walk that Jesus walked. As he was someone who was executed by the state for being politically inconvenient, I have some idea of how he would react to being put into a corner and told not to startle the establishment.
So why UKIP? Well, it won’t come as a surprise to many that I have always seen myself as being conservative – with a small ‘c’. In other words, I look to things like the development of character and virtue as the key way to move towards a better life, for an individual and for a community, and I see such things as being best cultivated by the ‘small platoons’ of local institutions, church and family life. The other side of that positive vision is that I share a profound distrust of the over-mighty state (actually, of any over-mighty institution or corporation, there’s not much difference between a mindless bureaucracy and a mindless supermarket chain for example). In the context of the economic devastation that has been working its havoc on our lives for several years now – with no prospect of improvement for at least a decade, if ever – what will enable us to get through the hard times is the quality of our social interactions, the strengthening of our community fabric, our capacity for good neighbourliness and looking after each other. I see the rise of the state through the twentieth century as a systematic dismantling of that social fabric, an intrusion of bureaucracy into areas that are best left to personal or local resolution, and consequently we are suffering much more from the economic consequences of political incompetence than we need to have been.
There were two key issues that made me change my mind about actually joining in with a political party – something that I haven’t done since my student days, when I used to campaign for the Green party. The first is becoming aware that the existing Conservative party would never hold an honourable referendum on leaving the European Union – they would do to the anti-EU cause exactly what they did to the Liberal Democrats on the referendum for electoral reform. The established leadership will mouth sufficient platitudes to keep enough euro-sceptics on board to preserve their access to power, but they will not entertain the radical step of withdrawing from the EU with any honesty. Clearly, that is only an issue in so much as withdrawal from the EU is an issue – and a large part of my changing mind on this is because I have come to see that particular issue as having such significance. Perhaps I can spell out why in another article; for now, let me say simply that the centralisation of power and authority in an unaccountable bureaucracy remote from the people that it claims to serve is the apotheosis of all the things which I instinctively distrust – and I am more and more convinced that it is the political equivalent of the dinosaurs after the asteroid had struck the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago. The world is changing very rapidly, and the future belongs to the local and the flexible – all the things which the EU most definitely is not.
There is a second issue that triggered my change of thinking, however, and this is more directly related to religious questions – the debate about gay marriage. This is not so much an issue about the ultimate substance – it is at least possible that I could be persuaded that there might be such a thing as ‘gay marriage’; I do, after all, have no problem with the idea of a religious blessing for gay civil partnerships. No, the key issue for me is the way in which this very significant change is being pushed through in such a fool-hardy fashion. For those of a conservative disposition issues around family and social formation are absolutely central, and any changes to the existing framework have to be considered extremely carefully. It is quite obvious that the existing political leadership have not thought through their understanding on this question, and that they are being driven by a particularly metropolitan form of political correctness. All the right people are in favour, therefore it must be a good thing. As a result, a huge change in our society is being pushed through at a fast pace and, quite simply, this is not a conservative way of doing things. It is not surprising that so many conservatives are deserting the Conservative party over this question – what is the point of something which doesn’t do what it says on the tin?
At the heart of my understanding, however, is a sense that I am fed up with a political culture that has an instinctive repudiation of all that is most noble and elevated in our own political heritage and national story. In the words of one of my favourite songs “we learn to be ashamed before we walk, of the way we look and the way we talk; without our stories and our songs, how will we know where we’ve come from? I’ve lost St George in the Union Jack, it’s my flag too and I want it back…” I am proud of my country – not blindly, not without an awareness of all that is terrible in our history from Amritsar to Dresden – but fully consciously, accepting that no country will ever be perfect and without sin, but still proud of the contribution that our society has made to things like the abolition of slavery and the establishment of human rights. The remarkable thing from my point of view is that so many of the things that are valued by the politically correct – a culture of humane tolerance for difference, of care for minorities, the weak and vulnerable – these all depend upon the prior existence of a healthy society which positively inculcates such virtues, and actively teaches the young not just that these are good things (we’re still paying lip service in that direction) but that the achievement of such good things is hard work and requires motivation and discipline, character and virtue. That is where we’ve gone wrong. We have forgotten the practical implications of living in a sinful world.
Ultimately, I want to ask – who are we as a nation? Are we really so weak and pitiful that we are dependent upon outside help and assistance in order to be the best that we can be? Do we need to depend on outside authorities to do good, and what is the cost of accepting such outside help – costs borne by our fishermen and farmers, our market traders and so on? Of course, I don’t agree with everything that UKIP stands for (seeking a party that perfectly conforms to our own ideas is one of the more self-indulgent of vanities) but it’s a question of priorities. I see the EU as having an entirely baleful influence upon our national life and economy, and I don’t think that we are going to be able to see any serious progress in addressing the mire of our political culture until there is a complete break with the EU. Hence – I am now a member of UKIP, out and proud!
This article was first posted on Sam’s Elizaphanian blog.
UPDATE: Sam has written a follow up to this article saying a bit more about the theology behind his views.