Anyone who thinks that Christianity and politics should never mix must be highly irritated at the moment. A week doesn’t seem to go by without some form of conference, event or launch where these two subjects take centre stage, giving media types more than enough to pontificate about in the process. As someone who has made a commitment to studying and discussing the matter on a regular basis, I have to say that I am greatly encouraged. As we head towards this year’s General Election, a growing movement is taking shape: the widespread involvement of Christians in politics, which has played such a crucial part in defining this nation’s history, is being rediscovered with a new-found passion and vigour.
Last Saturday saw the turn of Christian Aid, the Children’s Society and Greenbelt coming together for their first ‘Faith in Politics?‘ conference at London’s City Temple. Given the ethos of Greenbelt in particular, along with that of the Rev’d Giles Fraser and self-confessed ‘bearded lefty’ Dr Rowan Williams, who were the headline speakers, there was a good chance that the day was going to have a more Socialist flavour to it.
Certainly, during the opening sessions, any Ukip supporters would have been uncomfortably squirming in their seats as their party was targeted on several occasions. Giles Fraser, never one to hide his left-wing fervour, commented that “Nigel Farage wouldn’t recognise a Judaeo-Christian value if it bit him on the bottom”. Rowan Williams raised this too during his keynote speech. He talked of the “Ukip factor”, where a minority sets the agenda – in this case immigration – and the other parties respond by competing to be perceived as tougher than their neighbours. The result is an increased and unsubstantiated rise in anxiety which spreads with great ease. Dr Williams said there was a real need to deal with the “stupid stereotypes” that people live with. To counter these views he called for a theological anthropology from Christians, i.e., a restoration of trust in our fellow humans rooted in God’s trust in us. He added: “It’s not about – God forbid – protecting Judaeo-Christian values. You will search Scripture from end to end and you will not find the term Judaeo-Christian values… so for goodness’ sake let’s park that term.”
This was a curious thing to say when his entire address was centred about the need for more truth, trust, justice and other fundamental Judaeo-Christian values in our political system.
However, despite the bashing of Ukip, the most controversial topic of the day had nothing to do with the usual concerns that our politicians fight over. Instead it was whether or not Jesus would vote.
Giles Fraser was in no doubt: “Obviously yes,” he said. “I’m even puzzled why we would ask the question in the first place. Jesus was fully human, fully involved in the politics of his day.” Colin Bloom, Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and also on the panel. disagreed: “The answer that I have is that I don’t know. For nearly 2,000 years men and women standing on a soap box, holding a microphone or writing a blog have sought to speak for Jesus Christ in that kind of way. What we can speak about is this: What would His followers do and what should His followers do? And I think without any question that they should vote. If they have the opportunity to exercise a democratic vote then they should. Then it comes down to what kind of party should they vote for and what sort of person they should vote for. I’m pleased to tell you there are Christians in all parties and we mustn’t get seduced by the lazy narrative that says somehow Christianity is the preserve of one political party or one way of thinking.”
Fraser later responded: “I find it odd that you think that Jesus would be above the fray, beyond this conflict of party politics. The idea that (Jesus) walks five foot above where the rest of us walk and wouldn’t get his hands dirty, involved in the messy business, is actually a renunciation of the Incarnation. The whole point of God becoming fully human is that God is fully involved in the plumbing of our lives and that is politics. I’m not trying to say that this leads to any political conclusion about who you should vote for, but in the idea that, in theory, all political parties should be given the same treatment, and Colin does the same sort of relativism here where he goes there are Christians in this, there are Christians in that and there are Christians in the other party, well so what? Christians can be wrong. This could be actually leading to the conclusion ‘vote Tory’ – it isn’t.”
Talking about whether Jesus would vote is, of course, hypothetical, and at one level pointless: democracy didn’t exist in first-century Palestine. On another level, though, the conclusions we reach can potentially impact our attitude toward politics.
The danger with Giles Fraser’s thinking, despite his assertion that we can’t pin Jesus to one political party, is that by dismissing the alignments of some Christians involved in politics as being wrong, we come to the conclusion that Jesus would rule out voting for certain parties, and therefore so should we.
If Jesus were on earth in this country right now, there’s every reason to believe that He would be befriending politicians and engaging with our contemporary politics, but for Him to actually vote would cause all sorts of serious problems of allegiance. It would be similar to the Queen doing the same. As the theologian NT Wright recently said: “The question of whether Jesus would have voted is rather like asking whether the referee is allowed to score a goal in a football match.” Jesus was fully human and also fully divine. How could God in Jesus align Himself through the ballot box to one party, which could then potentially claim to have Him on their side? Every political party is flawed: none is perfect when it comes to questions of truth and justice. Jesus’ purity and holiness can never be contained within man-made structures.
But we are not God, and that makes things very different for us. We do get to vote, and there are decisions and consequences that go with that responsibility. Giles Fraser (and Lord Williams to a lesser extent) may think that Ukip and the Conservatives are not to be trusted, but there are plenty of Christians who have come to a different conclusion. The latest figures from the Evangelical Alliance put support for the Conservatives amongst Evangelicals at 28 per cent, and at 12 per cent for Ukip. Amongst Roman Catholics, who are traditionally the most left-leaning Christians, a recent poll found 29 per cent intend to vote Conservative and 13 per cent Ukip.
To dismiss outright such a large number of fellow Christians is anything but helpful. Christians ought to be willing to have sensible, grown-up discussions about the merits and failings of different political parties and the flaws in their policies without jumping in and accusing those they disagree with of being somehow mentally deficient or treating them as outcasts.
Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy isn’t faultless, but we could certainly do a lot worse. It’s what we have and we need to make the most of it. None of us can say for sure whether Jesus would have voted or not, but through our imperfect system we have a chance to do our bit to bring God’s kingdom (Judaeo-Christian) values into the world. When it comes to poverty, injustice, freedom and respect for each other, our democracy gives us the opportunity to edge things in the right direction.
And just because some Christians believe that those values might just come from voting Ukip (or Green, or SNP), doesn’t mean they deserve to be belittled or to have their views peremptorily dismissed.