Over the last couple of months this site has covered some of the most prominent publications that have sought to define an appropriate form of Christian engagement with political matters as the General Election has drawn closer. The Archbishop of York’s On Rock or Sand and the Church of England’s pastoral letter Who is my Neighbour have received a thorough analysis. So, too, has Andy Flannagan’s Those Who Show Up, written on behalf of Christians in Politics.
But one notable oversight has been Guy Brandon’s Votewise 2015, produced on behalf of the Christian think-tank Jubilee Centre. This is possibly the most theologically-grounded book produced which considers a biblical approach to many issues dominating this General Election, including the economy, public services, the NHS and immigration. Brandon, the Jubilee Centre’s research director, has a PhD in Old Testament theology and it shows. Whereas some of the other offerings we have received have skimmed the surface of biblical principles, this book drills deep and, as a result, draws some unexpected conclusions. This will most likely be the case for many readers regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU. Having met Guy and the team from the Jubilee Centre, it is quite apparent that they are not attempting to pursue any party political agenda: the book entertains positions from across the political spectrum, if occasionally giving the impression of leaning more centre-right than the Church of England’s offerings have done.
This is part of Brandon’s presentation of a biblical view on membership of the EU:
We have lost sight of the original purpose of the European integration: peace through cooperation and prosperity. Instead voters now see it in terms of red tape, as a burden that leads to unfair competition for jobs and benefits. To a large number of people, EU membership has become synonymous with issues of immigration…
The Bible has much to say about immigration. How we understand this critical subject is obviously highly relevant to EU membership [the book finds immigration on balance to be positive, but that we should be weary of those whose allegiances lie elsewhere and have little interest in the welfare of the country they have chosen to settle in]. But the Bible also has much to say about the structures of power that govern the relationships between a country’s people and its central and local bodies of government…
Unnecessarily centralized authority comes with a warning attached in the Bible. Instead, the idea is that political and economic power should be as diffuse as possible: ‘Decentralisation of power facilitates the widespread participation in political and economic decisions, which is a necessary expression of every person being made in God’s image’. This also promotes better relationships, since power imbalances and the resentments they breed are kept to a minimum.
Subsidiarity [as set out in the Torah and in close similarity to Catholic Social Teaching] demands that responsibility be devolved to the lowest appropriate level. Stated like this, the principle is little more than common sense: tasks are to be given to those best placed to carry them out. More centralized authorities should be called upon only when a lower body is unable to achieve the required ends. Otherwise government ends up as a force that takes initiative and responsibility away from its citizens, accumulating power and forcing them to rely on it for things that they could do better themselves. In the best cases such overcentralized power is distant and interfering; in the worst, it is abusive. From its positive beginnings after the Second World War, the EU now represents this kind of distant, uncaring micromanager to many Brits.
The application for the UK’s EU membership is clear, and not particularly profound. There are things that the UK cannot do alone. We live in an era of globalization. Dealing with terrorism, international crime and trade negotiations are all easier when we are part of a global community, not isolated to struggle with them on our own.
But equally there is plenty that we can and should do ourselves, but do not. There are the well-known frustrations of EU membership:
While being part of club [sic] of 28 countries inevitably means compromise, there is a particular annoyance at the sense of a creeping extension of EU authority – regulating on trivial issues, sometimes counter to the wishes of the UK and its citizens, rather than focusing on the big picture issues like growth, trade and the Single Market… Areas where UK firms are frustrated with EU regulation, highlighted by nearly half of businesses as having had a negative impact – with particular frustrations around the Temporary Agency Workers Directive and Working Time Directive.
This is one of the few instances in this book where direct specific application will be made based on biblical principles. Staying in the EU but on renegotiated terms, such that we have greater control over the factors that most influence our citizens, is the preferred outcome. If renegotiation is not an option, matters become more complicated.
Brandon is not the only Christian commentator to come to these conclusions. The academic and theologian (..and editor of this site) Adrian Hilton has written a detailed discourse rejecting EU integration for the highly respected Kirby Laing Institute of Christian Ethics (KLICE), as part of their election coverage. He observes:
The localised attributes of national sovereignty and community civility are fundamentally challenged by the overriding and coercive moral-political ‘Euro-nationalism’ emerging from Brussels and Strasbourg. MacIntyre doesn’t specify the secular darkness of the European Union, but by invoking St Benedict, the reputed founder of Western monasticism, he alludes to lay communities comprised of individuals who are zealous for God; who are determined in their flawed brotherhood to reflect, worship and submit to a life of virtue for the good of human community. As St Benedict found, this is best achieved not by the grandiose visions of a prescriptive religious order, but by the conversion and renewal of individual hearts, who then dwell voluntarily in autonomous communities of mutual service and submission under the authority of a local abbot.
Although all of the parties have mentioned in their manifestos a need to renegotiate the terms of our membership of the EU, this line of thought and political rationale are much closer to the Conservative proposals for a UK Bill of Rights, or possibly to Ukip’s EU exit plans, than they are to the more nebulous Labour and LibDem proposals. For Brandon, the most persuasive biblical contention against the EU is not immigration, but the incremental erosion of our national autonomy and democracy. For the next government, whatever its eventual make-up, there are genuine grounds for demanding significant reforms within the EU, and an expectation that our relationship needs to change far beyond a bit of tinkering at the edges.
A key political theme of Votewise 2015 is the restoration of responsibility to individuals and communities, whether this is through repatriation of powers from Brussels; a more responsible attitude to debt; the support of the poorest; education and parenting within the family, or our own health and lifestyle choices. The need for reform in society and the renewal of our politics are unarguable as new challenges present themselves, and Christians should lead the pursuit of a restored moral vision. So, with one eye on Thursday’s vote, it is worth considering Brandon’s final words which pull these threads together:
Jesus said, ‘The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.’ Politicians and political parties come and go, but some things remain the same. Regardless of who is in government, there will always be injustice. Reform will always be needed. Bringing this about is not just the work of elected officials: it is the work of the kingdom.
James 4:17 reads: ‘Anyone, then, who knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.’ As Christians we all have a commission to bring about change in our society. The political system has its faults, and we should work to address these, but an overemphasis on the shortcomings of our politicians provides a pretext to sidestep the personal nature of this call and gives us an excuse not to engage directly with the issues that matter the most. Moreover, the commission is not a five-yearly one: it is for now, and for the rest of our lives. Voting should be a reflection of our ongoing activity to bring about God’s kingdom – not the limit of that activity.