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Where do our party leaders stand on faith?

As the general election approaches, we asked James Mildred from Christian political engagement charity Care to analyse the faith (or lack of) of the main party leaders. This was his assessment:

In the last four years we’ve had the 2015 General Election, the 2016 EU Referendum, the 2017 General Election and now, another one! It’s hard not to feel a certain apathy and disinterest. But politics matters enormously. The decisions taken by those we elect will change lives, for better or for worse. I believe that showing up to vote is one of the main ways we love our neighbours as Jesus commanded us.

While we go to the polls on Thursday 12 December to elect our local MP, the character of the party leaders also matters. So, what do the six main party leaders think about God and Christianity? Here is an honest attempt to summarise where they are all coming from.

Boris Johnson: Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party

Trying to discern exactly where Mr Johnson lands when it comes to Christianity is a challenge. On the one hand, there are times where he’s been nothing but positive about Christianity. But you then look at his colourful private life and cannot help but wonder if he’s ever actually read the Sermon on the Mount.

He has spoken about his own beliefs, using fascinating and typically eccentric language: "I suppose my own faith, you know, it's like a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio when you're driving through the Chilterns. It sort of comes and goes. I mean sometimes the signal is strong, and then sometimes I'm afraid it just vanishes. And then it comes back again."

While he was London Mayor, he even said he had no problem with Christian groups and churches doing social action and proselytising: "Faith groups who want to slip in the odd coded message in favour of salvation...I have absolutely no problem with that and why not? One of the things that I think has been going wrong in the last few years is we've got a slightly politically correct super sensitivity to anything that can be remotely classed as religious advocacy and frankly I've got no difficulty with it whatsoever."He also attended Global Day of Prayer at West Ham’s former stadium and spoke out strongly in favour of prayers in Parliament.

Mr Johnson is honest enough to admit he’s not a serious Christian. In that respect, I fully believe him. I think his willingness to say so reflects the changing nature of the Tory Party and the fact that leaders don’t feel the same pressure to identify with Christianity as in previous generations.

Jeremy Corbyn: leader of the Labour Party

There is no evidence Mr Corbyn is a Christian or claims to be one. But what you will find is a happy willingness on his part to identify with strands of Christian teaching and behaviour that are in accord with his own leftist outlook.

For example, he has routinely praised the work that churches do to help the poor. In September 2019, he said: "I thank Christians and other faith communities and faith organisations for the work they do in our communities supporting the vulnerable and oppressed, and my message to you is that the values of solidarity, loving our neighbours, unity in our communities and seeking justice at home and abroad are the values that we hold dear in the Labour Party and will continue to do so."

Interestingly, Corbyn’s dad was a Christian and he also went to a Christian school. In the past, he’s attended services put on by Christians on the Left where he has also thanked the church for its actions to help some of the most vulnerable in society. He’s even taken communion, although he irked some Catholics by doing so.

Many Christians will be concerned at Mr Corbyn’s views on abortion and transgender after the 2019 Labour manifesto showed the party supports radical abortion laws and moves to make changing gender easier. 

I think Mr Corbyn genuinely admires the elements of Christianity that easily fit with his own worldview. But that is clearly not the same as actually believing yourself.

Jo Swinson: leader of the Liberal Democrats

So, here’s the thing about Ms Swinson. Try as I might, it has proved difficult to find anything on record that she has said – positive or negative – about the Christian faith. Making any assessment then is automatically more difficult.

Of course, from a Christian perspective the party she leads presents some significant challenges for believers. Who among us will forget what happened to Tim Farron, the previous leader, during the last general election? He was hounded by the media because of his Christian faith and in the end, he quit saying it had proved impossible to serve two masters. More recently, there was Rob Flello, standing as a Lib Dem candidate who was then sacked over pro-life twitter posts from a few years ago. This will make many Christians understandably nervous.

There will also be very real concerns about policies included in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. For example, the plans to allow self-registration of gender, the support for decriminalisation of abortion up to 24 weeks and the idea of enabling the CofE to conduct same-sex marriages. 

Swinson has attended events by Open Doors and signed pledges about the persecution of Christians, but she has also been very vocal in support of abortion and ‘reproductive rights’. In some ways, I think Jo Swinson represents the next generation of political leaders who don’t feel the same pressure to talk about any Christian faith they might have.

Jonathan Bartley: co-leader of the Green Party

The co-leader of the Green Party is a confessing Christian. He has talked openly about how his faith drives his politics. He was baptised into the Church of England and previously has sat on the CofE’s evangelical council. He has also said his ancestors’ Quakerism is what he most closely identifies with.

He set up Ekklesia, a Christian think tank interested in the environment, social justice and progressive expressions of Christianity. During a debate on Premier’s Unbelievable show, he also said eugenics abortion was “abhorrent”, but he did not say what he thought about abortion in general. He is also a firm supporter of same-sex marriage and has spoken publicly about the need for the Church of England to be more “progressive”. He has also argued that there is a compelling religious case for removing the bishops from the House of Lords.

Bartley has said that faith for him is less about doctrine and more about a certain way of living. When Farron was criticised for seemingly holding the view that gay sex is a sin, Bartley explicitly criticised him and revealed that, as far as he was concerned, gay sex was not a sin and indeed, should be celebrated.

Sian Berry: co-leader of the Green Party

Sian Berry is co-leader of the Green Party, alongside Jonathan Bartley. She’s a patron of the British Humanist Association and supports a secular state. In 2010, Berry and 54 other public figures signed an open letter criticising the State Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK. There is a profile of Berry which you can read on the British Humanist Association’s website. She has also spoken out in the past against faith schools. In 2014, she signed a letter alongside a number of others to the Telegraph criticising former PM David Cameron for calling Britain a Christian country.

While running for London Mayor in 2016, she told Premier Christian Radio that the work faith groups did was the very best in London. She said: "The multi-cultural nature of London, the fact we're the most diverse city in the UK, that we have such strong groups from different groups is part of our strengths - it's what makes London great.

"It's important that the mayor does engage with the faith groups that we have, helps them to work with each other but also just appreciates the work they do on the ground as volunteers."

Nicola Sturgeon: leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP)

It is not easy to decipher exactly what Nicola Sturgeon thinks about the Christian faith. She does not claim to be a Christian herself and her public support for same-sex marriage and abortion will trouble many Christians in Scotland. She also refused to issue an Easter message a few years ago, which drew some criticism.

That being said, she spoke out clearly and strongly against assisted suicide in Scotland in March 2015. This proved to be a decisive moment in the campaign to prevent assisted suicide becoming legal in Scotland. She has also had warm words for the Church of Scotland and, at the Church’s General Assembly in 2019, she even went so far as to say she thought the church was very much still at the heart of public life in Scotland. In the past, she has also praised Catholic schools.

I don’t think Sturgeon is very warm towards Christians, but since becoming leader, she knows full well that some of the SNP’s support comes from Catholics and the Church of Scotland. I would take her appreciative comments about Christianity with that in mind.

Nigel Farage: leader of the Brexit Party

Finally, to one of the youngest political parties, led by one of the most experienced politicians in the UK. Set up last year, the Brexit Party is really all about one thing: leaving the EU. Its leader is the enfant terrible of British politics, Nigel Farage. He has been a constant presence ever since UKIP first came on the scene.

But what does he think about God? In 2015, he told the Telegraph he “sometimes” prays to God. He has spoken out in the past about the need to defend Christianity. For example, in 2015, he said Christianity was a significant part of his vision for Britain. He has also said Britain needs to stand up for its Judeo-Christian values and, in the past, he has been quick to defend Britain’s Christian traditions.

I suppose the question I’ve got is: to what extent is Mr Farage tapping into the fears of a group in society he knows might vote for him and his party? His enthusiastic defence of Christianity would be easier to believe if he evidenced a more personal faith himself.

Your vote matters

It’s been fascinating speaking to Christians in the run-up the General Election because so many are scratching their heads, utterly perplexed about who to vote for. The truth is that there is no party that is perfect, and all have their flaws. It comes down to deciding what issues matter the most to you, be it Brexit, the environment, pro-life or the economy. Then, prayerfully and thoughtfully, looking at where the different parties stand and making your mind up. I hope you’ll vote in this election and above all, I hope you’ll join me in praying that God will give us leaders of his grace and not the ones we deserve.

James Mildred is Communications Manager for CARE. The charity’s bespoke election website is engage19.org.uk where you can find a wealth of information to guide your thinking and inform you ahead of 12 December.

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