There’s something about the build-up to a General Election that is both fascinating and morbid at the same time, as we, the electorate, see a group of gladiators – some seasoned veterans and others fresh to the scene, eager to capture some of the glory – attempting to take chunks out of each other while avoiding too many self-inflicted wounds in the process. We, the voyeuristic audience, get to watch the drama unfold in minute detail before finally raising our hand and making our mark for the one we have decided is worthy of the prize.
As always with this game of politics, we get to see the headlines and the big names giving us the spin, a few manifesto commitments if we’re lucky, and the odd comment about nuns not being qualified teachers. Behind those there is a huge machinery grinding away nationally and locally which we rarely get to see see. Yet despite (and because of) all of this effort and drama, voter dissatisfaction remains at rock bottom. Polls on trust in professions consistently show that everyone is trusted more that our politicians, even estate agents, and although voting percentages have picked up since the record low of the 2001 General Election, a third of the electorate will probably not vote in May.
But we can say that Christians are continuing to buck that trend. Soon to be published figures from a survey of 2,000 Evangelical Christians conducted by the Evangelical Alliance has found that 94 per cent said they were certain or likely to vote, while, of these, 80 per cent said they would definitely be voting on May 7th.
Living out the Christian faith means that engaging with the world around us is not an option. As Dave Landrum, the Director of Advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, writes in the foreword to Guy Brandon’s Votewise 2015:
God is interested and involved in politics because politics is the process by which we achieve government – the right ordering of our relational priorities. God has a view on what we as a society should spend or not spend money on. He has a view on how we steward the power we have because it ultimately belongs to him. Indeed we cannot be in authority unless we are under authority, and he is the ultimate authority. So, because the government (all government) is on his shoulders, we are accountable for the decisions we make for each other. Put simply, being made in his image we are designed to govern because government is the family business of God.
On this basis, the question is not whether we should be involved in politics, but how. Christians should not – indeed cannot – disengage from politics.
Jesus tells His followers to go into the world and make disciples of all nations and also to serve the vulnerable and needy, which is rather difficult if you’re spending your entire life sitting in front of the TV. Most Christians might not have much more faith in politics than the rest of the nation, but at least many understand the importance of participating in the democratic process.
Churches and Christian organisations together are probably the biggest group behind the Electoral Commission, spending time and effort getting their members to vote. We’re seeing a flurry of activity in this area at the moment. The Evangelical Anglican group Fulcrum held an election event at Westminster on Tuesday with Labour peer Baroness Sherlock and Conservative MP Caroline Spelman. During the discussion, Spelman said that her faith was “the core of my strength in a very difficult job” and her “benchmark for deciding right and wrong”. Christian Aid and the Children’s Society will be hosting a Faith and Politics conference in London on 28th February, examining if and why Christians should be involved and engaged in politics. Speakers will include Rowan Williams, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Giles Fraser and a number of Christian MPs. The Christians in Politics ‘Show Up‘ campaign, which has widespread support, looks to be gaining momentum. Director of Christians on the Left, Andy Flannagan, has a book due to be published this week entitled Those Who Show Up, which ties into the campaign.
Some of the main players have also launched their own election websites, including the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), the Evangelical Alliance and CARE’s EngaGE15 site, which is particularly informative on a range of traditional Christian areas of interest – justice, life and family issues such as trafficking, abortion, marriage and religious liberty (though Christians should and do care about other issues too). You can find out how your current MP has voted in all of these areas, which is particularly useful for those wanting to quiz candidates at local hustings. Again, CARE has a comprehensive range of hustings resources for churches to make use of.
Hustings are a key area of focus that churches are being asked to get involved in and help organise. On the run-up to the 2010 General Election, churches ran 67 per cent of all hustings. Many others were hosted in church buildings. Churches are incredibly good at putting these together because they have the energy and resources that few other community groups possess, and they are usually seen as politically neutral. One complaint that a Christian leader who visited several hustings last time round has mentioned to me is that, whilst churches excel at the hospitality, when it comes to debates, the chairperson tends to be a bit too ‘More tea vicar?’ and not enough ‘David Dimbleby’. Candidates are generally given too much of an easy ride and are not challenged sufficiently on some of their claims and opinions. There’s nothing wrong with Christians being nice and welcoming, but there’s nothing wrong with having some bite too.
There are some interesting observations to be made relating to this particular election. One key factor is the prominence of Evangelical organisations. They have been mentioned several times, not because of any theological bias, but because that is the state of play. Liberals might still be making the most noise when it comes to equality, but when it comes to serious political engagement Evangelicals are leading the way and continuing to up their game. This could be seen as a method to gain influence and exert their faith outside of the Church, but having personally met and listened to many working in politics at all levels, including Government, this is far from the impression given. Rather they see it as God’s calling to be serving others and bringing integrity into this arena.
Things have moved on somewhat since the mid-to-late 20th century when Evangelicalism withdrew from public engagement and focused its attention predominantly on biblical doctrine and personal salvation. Churches and individual Christians have moved on from passive expressions of disappointment with and criticism of the state of society, to a more proactive engagement and remedial participation, most often at local community level. We are now seeing this extend further into the national realm of politics, with a desire to see faith and trust restored.
It is my belief that God is once again doing new things through His Church, and a sign of this is the level of unity that is drawing in different Christian groups and denominations to work toward a common cause. There is a new-found energy and sense of vision.
As we head towards May, there is a consensus that the party political landscape is being shaken up and entering a new and uncertain period. At the same time, the Church is rediscovering its political vocation. As a new ways of doing politics supplant the old political order, we can expect to see Christians increasingly at the centre, seeking to bring in the light of God’s kingdom and serving the common good.