During the run up to May’s General Election, we had a few polls that attempted to gauge what the Christian vote would look like. Carrying out such an exercise has a good deal of value as it’s well established that Christians are more likely to vote than the average member of our population, and even allowing for church decline, with church membership still around the 5 million mark, that’s a lot of votes that were up for grabs.
Christians are, in theory, of one mind when it comes to the divinity of Jesus Christ, but when it comes to political matters there really is no such thing as the ‘Christian vote’, unless you happen to live in the US and are a white Evangelical, in which case there’s a extremely high likelihood that you vote Republican. A well-researched report from the Theos think tank last year found that Christians here in the UK tend mostly to inhabit the political ‘middle ground’, with Anglicans and Evangelicals swaying gently to the right and Roman Catholics generally going in the opposite direction. The exception was for those who called themselves Christians but never attend church: these nominals are considerably more left-wing than those who are committed enough to go to church.
With this in mind, both Populus and Lord Ashcroft polls carried out research in February which found that Christians were broadly in line with the general population, with one exception: they tended to favour the Conservative Party. There was a lead of 3 per cent with Ashcroft, and 7 per cent with Populus. An Evangelical Alliance poll a month before the election gave the Conservatives a 2 point lead.
In hindsight, we now know that the vast majority of pre-election polls failed miserably in predicting the outcome, but this week ComRes has published results of a survey commissioned by Tearfund which asks church-going Christians how they actually voted. This was carried out the week after the election and released to coincide with tomorrow’s mass lobby of Parliament by the Climate Coalition, which includes a number of major Christian organisations. But it gives us the first post-election Christian voting data and also with all of the questions being open and unprompted, it gives a snapshot of views, avoiding any charge of respondents being steered in a certain direction.
Were Christians who were polled more reliable and trustworthy with their choices? The answer is mostly affirmative, with the numbers coming out roughly between the Ashcroft and Populus surveys. 28 per cent voted Conservative compared to 24 per cent Labour. But the surprise comes with the minor parties. The LibDems did much better among Christians, gaining 15 per cent – almost double the national share. Ukip ended up with 8 per cent, but were edged into fifth place just behind the Green Party which performed far better than their overall result.
When you probe a bit deeper, it leads to some fascinating findings. Roman Catholics in particular have moved away from their love for the Labour Party and are turning blue. The Methodists are now the only denomination to have Labour as their most popular party. However, Labour’s support amongst Evangelicals has collapsed: at 16 per cent, they are now one point behind the LibDems and one point ahead of Ukip.
Moving on to the main social issues facing us today, Tearfund’s survey finds that inequality and social justice come top. This is as might be expected given the tendency of many churchgoers to have an interest in these matters, not to mention biblical emphases and the churches’ ever increasing social action. Spiritual decline and the rise of secularism is next on the list, followed by immigration, poverty and the NHS. The economy is another four places down, but comes top as the reason given for supporting a particular party. The other primary reasons (in descending order) were: parties being closest to their own position or aiming to keep another one out of power; the qualities of an individual candidate; promotion of equality; and ‘Europe’. Issues which are supposedly more relevant to Christian voters, such as religious freedom, gay marriage, abortion and assisted dying didn’t get much of a look-in at all.
So here we have lots of numbers and statistics, but what does it mean? Well, if there were such a thing as the Christian vote, it would look pretty centrist politically, but the Conservatives are undoubtedly the party of the moment. Christians do care about a whole range of moral issues, but when it comes to who to vote for, like so many others, they want a government which they can trust to manage the economy. And the party deemed best placed to deliver that was the Conservatives.
It also indicates that the LibDems still have a lot of Christian friends, and chances are that if they avoid going down a more secularist route as a party (which is a real possibility) then they should retain that support. Labour, on the other hand, has credibility issues even among those Christian denominations which traditionally have supported them. When it comes to rebuilding confidence, they obviously have a lot to do, and it is seemingly only going to happen if they head back towards the crowded political centre-ground.
There’s been plenty of talk over the last few months about us experiencing a new form of politics, with the smaller parties gaining attention and increasing influence, while the more established ‘main’ parties struggle and mostly fail to keep the upstarts at bay. It’s also time to that accept as outdated the notion that political-social attitudes which arise from biblical inspiration should lead Christians toward Socialism. The relationship between faith and politics is more complex than that, and many committed church-going Christians are manifestly reaching different conclusions. A new, more intelligent form of political understanding needs to be developed within our churches, too. Church leaders who enter the political fray need to be careful to embrace (and learn from) the wider and changing political inclinations of their members. They need to speak into the current situation with clarity of thought and using the political vernacular. The gospel does not change, but society and culture do. If Christians are moving politically in one direction, church leaders would be wise to examine the reasons for this and respond accordingly.