The Big Question or just patronising? – ‘Can you be a Christian and vote for UKIP?’

BBC The Big QuestionsLast Thursday I was invited to appear on BBC1’s The Big Questions on Sunday morning. The subject I was asked to discuss was ‘Can you be a Christian and vote for UKIP?’ I’ve had a few requests for media appearances now and I’m still at the stage where I get excited when I read the invite, but despite this it’s still rare that I’ll jump in and say yes straight away. The problem comes down to what I’m expected to say.

One of the pieces of feedback I often get from regular readers of this blog is that it’s generally balanced and doesn’t exaggerate the truth. This is entirely deliberate. My thinking is that if Christianity has intrinsic value, then its claims and the faith of believers shouldn’t need to be distorted in order to get the message across powerfully. If Jesus claims to be the only way by which we can come directly to God then his words need to stand on their own feet if they are true. This also means that I’m not afraid to present both sides of an argument and leave them to speak for themselves.

When it comes to voting, I’ve written plenty about the way different Christians can find themselves legitimately siding with different parties (with the exception of the BNP and others who advocate hate) despite sharing the same faith. So to be on a programme, which is known for having deliberately polarised debates, often with guests who hold staunch views, talking about a very grey subject and probably being expected to have a strong opinion one way or the other, doesn’t fill me with excitement. As it happens I’ve been heavily involved with a conference which has included speaking commitments over the last few days (this is why things have been quiet on the blog recently) and it wasn’t feasible for me to appear.

If I had been available, what would I have said? I certainly think that Christians can vote for UKIP and it has not been difficult finding some who did on Thursday. However I don’t really want to be on national TV seen to be promoting the virtues of UKIP either. The Big Questions is certainly not as high brow and informed as Radio 4’s Moral Maze where a subject is thought through in a fairly calm and reasoned way. It’s much more like a frenetic Radio 5 phone-in which leaves the viewer feeling anything but educated and enlightened.

Sitting down to watch it on iPlayer the next day, initially my worst fears were confirmed as a black Methodist minister went head to head with UKIP’s Commonwealth spokesman who is also black and a Christian. Most of the argument centred around racism and immigration and whether the perception of UKIP as a racist party bears any resemblance to the truth.  You could have quite easily taken the ‘Christian’ element out and ended up with basically the same debate with any two people who express similar political views. Nicky Campell as the host did his best to  bring the subject matter back to Christian belief, but the statements on his prompt cards were so superficial that the guests didn’t latch on to the bait: “Nigel Farage has said some pretty controversial things: He was on a train and no one was speaking English. Can you imagine Jesus going into a market place saying, “There’s no one speaking Aramaic here!””

Campbell, having brought up UKIP’s stance on gay marriage at one point went on to ask whether some right-wing American evangelicals who oppose homosexuality should be called Christians. It wasn’t really relevant to the conversation and the response from the Methodist minister was that there are all sorts of people who would describe themselves as Christian, but it doesn’t mean a great deal if it’s little more than a label you give yourself. It also highlighted the point that asking whether Christians should or shouldn’t vote for a particular party is impossible unless you put some parameters in place, otherwise you are simply asking whether any decent citizen can vote in that way.

Surprisingly the most sensible comments of the entire session came from Lembit Opik – once known for being a Lib Dem MP and going out with a Cheeky Girl, but now a fully signed up Christian. He was on to discuss whether you should be able to delete your past on the internet, but decided to jump in to confront some poor thinking:

“It is disingenuous when people say a political party is not Christian. UKIP has been demonised to an extent and these sort of things don’t do credit to politics… When people talk about it not being a Christian organisation, that’s not fair. You can have different views on immigration, but still have a faith… These are difficult issues to wrestle with. To preclude people of Christian faith – or other faiths – from any one party is patronising and offensive because you can have any political view and still have a faith.”

One of the key frustrations when the media presents a ‘balanced’ debate is that having two parties with black and white views from either end of the spectrum is rarely balanced at all. It’s often those who are able to hold two supposedly opposite views in tension and find where their strengths and weaknesses lie who are able to give answers that have the most value. I was once asked if I would go on ITV’s Daybreak to discuss a case involving Christian bed and breakfast owners who had turned down a gay couple. Because I was Christian but wasn’t willing to fully defend the owner’s actions, I was told that I wasn’t what they were looking for, i.e. my opinion wasn’t extreme enough. Setting up this sort of clash might make for more entertaining viewing, but it doesn’t do anything to promote religious literacy and understanding amongst the public.

The media works with a double-edged sword. It has the ability to put your voice in front of thousands and millions of people, but depending on how your message is allowed to be presented, it can do more harm than good and with cases such as the false MMR-autism link from a few years ago, the damage can be considerable.

This is an issue for anyone who accepts media exposure. There will be inevitable difficulties along the way and there are risks, but is that sufficient reason to disengage if you have something worth saying? If I’d had a choice it would have been too easy to dismiss the Big Questions appearance complaining that more moderate opinions are rarely aired and given a fair hearing. If those in similar shoes do the same though, we can’t complain if those views aren’t represented enough. We need to be willing to overcome our discomfort and stick our necks out when the opportunities do come, whether that be on the BBC or in one-to-one conversations.

Fortunately on this occasion Lembit Opik was there to  speak some sense into the situation, but the fact that the best guest wasn’t there specifically to talk on that topic also says something profound about the way debates like The Big Questions are run.

Categories: Elections, Media, Party politics

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14 replies

  1. Great wisdom my friend. I see your blog as rather skillfully trying to hold all things in balance, whilst at the same time you are quite open about where your current thinking, generally indicating your openness to being wrong! This is the opposite of fence sitting, but is quite a delicate thing to do. Do not do as the world does. God doesn’t need to shout, and you don’t need to be a Daniel! Rather, care for and share your pearls.

  2. I think you are spot on about the difficulty in giving considered opinions in this context. Many in the media love conflict, and I think part of the reason UKIP got so much publicity is that it is a controversial party with many controversial members. Not whether they are right or wrong!

    • Obviously I hasten to add that they are wrong on many things, and many of it’s members lack manners! In case my considered opinion was misunderstood 😉

  3. Perhaps the slightly wider issue is that shows like The Big Questions (along with The Jeremy Kyle Show and Question Time) make entertainment out of conflict. It’s our modern equivalent of the colosseum, where baiting of “the other” (including christians) is just fair game for the entertainment of others.

    Of course, christianity may naturally come into conflict with other worldviews, but to go looking for it and to promote it is quite possibly unhealthy and will almost certainly end up with a soundbite-based caricature of christian belief.

    • It’s rare that Christians should be looking for conflict. Rather we are usually called to heal and resolve it. I have no interest in Christians being pawns for others’ entertainment, which is why a good dose of wisdom is needed when being given public exposure to air your views.

      • Christians have literally been looking for Conflict for Centuries. From Catholic Vs Protestant to the St Bartholemews Day Massacre to the old Troubles in Northern Ireland.

  4. I watched the BBC clip and was dismayed to learn from the scary UKIP guy that Farage is a Christian now. In the run up to the elections there has practically been a revival among politicians becoming Christians! A jaded, cynical person may think they are just trying to win the Christian vote, but we all know that such cynicism has no place among people of faith.

    But I think you dodged a bullet there Gillan. It’s very hard for any Christian to win when it comes to media debates (and even if a Christian wins an argument we tend to alienate the viewers one way or another). Also I’ve found it hard to watch The Big Questions and feel any positive emotions. It is a little like watching Question Time – often the only emotions it produces are anger and frustration and raised blood pressure.

    I keep watching and commenting though so it shows that I’m a fool (but at least I know it).

    Ecclesiastes 9:17

    “It is better to listen to the quiet words of someone wise than to the shouts of a ruler at a council of fools.”

    (Good grief – I’ve started quoted Bible passages – help!!!!).

  5. I think most of us can see if politicians are genuine when talking about their faith. I’m not sure Nigel Farage is much more than a cultural Christian, but I have heard from various sources that since his son’s death, David Cameron has been genuinely taken comfort in his Christian faith, even if his theology is rather limited in places.

    Very helpful Bible verse. I’ve meditated on this a great deal in the past.

  6. Big questions is a frustrating programme, there is so much cutting across where people are not allowed to finish what they are saying. There is always a liberal christian and a traditional one who often end up disagreeing with one another and Jesus is never well served in that situation.

  7. As usual, bro’, you speak good sense; but as you say, that’s not what the media are looking for: to entertain or to inform, that is the bigger question… *sigh*

  8. Great post, I was just lamenting today the way the media love to whip up a story by getting people with extreme views involved.
    Not sure if it made its way over to England but in Northern Ireland over the past week there has been a big furore about an evangelical minister who described Islam as heathen, that Enoch Powell was right about rivers of blood and that he wouldn’t trust any Muslim. He eventually appeared on “the Nolan show” on TV and it was pretty clear he didn’t have a clue what he was talking about (referring to “Sharira law”). This ignorant man was given airtime simply because his views were extreme.
    The DUP first Minister Peter Robinson foolishly weighed in saying he supported the pastor, that we had a responsibility to rebuke false doctrine, that he didn’t Trust Muslims who were involved in violence or terrorism. His words were twisted by the BBC among others who reported that he wouldn’t trust any Muslim. He clarified his remarks today, which wasn’t necessary for those who had read the original interview. In the meantime the only Chinese born assembly member has said she will step down due to this lack of leadership, and political rivals of Mr Robinson have done their best to stir up trouble.
    The combination of coverage of ignorant pastors, foolish statements from politicians who should know better and twisting of words/lazy reporting makes me want to throw the TV out the window.

  9. All that you say in this article is well measured but I think there is most truth in the caveat you add towards the end;
    “If I’d had a choice it would have been too easy to dismiss the Big Questions appearance complaining that more moderate opinions are rarely aired and given a fair hearing. If those in similar shoes do the same though, we can’t complain if those views aren’t represented enough. We need to be willing to overcome our discomfort and stick our necks out when the opportunities do come, whether that be on the BBC or in one-to-one conversations.”

    Extremists usually shout the loudest. If we leave them to it, only the poles of the argument are expressed. If those of us with more moderate views stand modestly back, heat only will be generated. If we speak out, may not the compelling sense of what we say shine as a light? The answer to this lies in whether the it is the Holy Spirit that is compelling us to speak. That we are all called as Christians to speak out is clear from Christ’s great Commission. How and when we should speak should come from time in prayer.

    As to who we should speak to, Christ should be our model. He did not single out the erudite but spoke to all who would listen. Mostly the common man. I have ono idea but it would be interesting to know which has the larger number of listeners, The Big Question or The Moral Maze.

    Many thanks for all you do,


    PS Thank you also for your part in the conference. If it was the one I think it was, the whole thing was a great blessing!

  10. They were lucky you even considered the invite. If I were in your position the invite would have been binned as soon as it became clear what it was.
    There are so many programmes, as has already been noted, that are there only to create controversy and conflict whilst under the guise of having a serious debate on the issues. Big Questions is basically a TV version of Campbell’s Radio 5 show, both of which are some of the laziest attempts at sensational journalism that the BBC has ever done.
    BBC Question Time just about toes the line, although it can sometimes go too far in creating a story, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, when David Dimbleby retires, they get a new presenter who will be there to create argument over discourse. Even the Daily/Sunday Politics programmes have fallen a bit into this trap, as they seek to bait politicians into saying something controversial that they can then broadcast on the new later.
    The best example of positive conversations, at least politically, is This Week, particularly when it is Alan Johnson alongside Michael Portillo. They offer reasoned and sensible comments on the issues raised and don’t seek to create controversy, merely to gain relevant information.

  11. Also, as an aside, I wouldn’t use that link to suggest Lembit is a fully signed up Christian, particularly given that he is quoted as saying “It is not so much about being saved as helping people out.”
    Certainly he is on a journey and we can but hope that that journey takes him closer to God as he goes, whatever stage he is currently at on that journey. But that article at best says that he is a church goer with some concept of the faith, not that he is a believer.

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