How Number 10 opened its door to evangelicals
Government attitudes towards Christians have shifted dramatically over the past decade, says Tim Wyatt
Last month, the vicar and worship leader Tim Hughes was astonished to discover he had been given an award by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The PM’s ‘Points of Light’ prize was given in recognition of The UK Blessing – a viral video sensation that featured Christians from various denominations.
In the citation, Johnson wrote how he had found Hughes’ “sensational singing masterpiece” to be “truly uplifting”, before praising the Birmingham-based pastor for bringing Christians together through the power of music.
“Obviously it’s hugely encouraging to know that Boris Johnson listened to it and was impacted by it,” Hughes said afterwards. “It’s very special that the leader of our government, our country, was listening to this thing, which I think beautifully communicates and demonstrates the heart of the Church.”
The video has racked up more than 3 million views on YouTube. Nevertheless, how did Johnson himself, in the midst of a global pandemic, stumble across it? Hughes simply remarked that “songs find their ways into the most unexpected of places”. But the case of Downing Street and the viral video also points to something else: there are many more connections between evangelicalism and the top of the government than many realise.
Although we will probably never know who exactly shared The UK Blessing with the prime minister, there are a number of people working in both Downing Street and across Westminster who are not just aware of the evangelical world but actively champion it.
Krish Kandiah, who leads the adoption and fostering charity Home for Good and has spent years working with ministers and civil servants, says the Church might be surprised about how many “faith-friendly” and “faith literate” advisors that are working in and around Number 10.
In particular, Jonathan Hellewell, a former aide to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles, who now works as the prime minister’s special advisor for faith communities. His role was created by Theresa May, but Hellewell has been kept on by Johnson in a sign of the increasing importance given to faith.
A practising Christian himself, Hellewell is well regarded by church leaders across the denominations and is also a useful bridge into the Conservative Party, where he once worked as David Cameron’s private secretary.
“Jonathan Hellewell is great,” Kandiah says. “He is aware and connected and part of mainstream churches. He’s definitely clued up, but he’s not alone, there are a number of them.”
The tipping point
Patrick Regan, who founded and led the widely respected youth charity XLP until 2018, says for the past decade or so there had been “some very good people in Westminster who have championed the causes of faith”. Daniel Singleton, who helps lead an independent evangelical church in east London alongside running the FaithAction charity, said as soon as the Conservatives came to power in 2010 he noticed a new cadre of “HTB-esque” evangelicals prominent in both parliament and government departments.
Many pointed to that year, 2010, as a tipping point. During the New Labour era, although there were numerous high-profile politicians in the party who identified as Christians (including both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), evangelical leaders said they often encountered mistrust or suspicion when they attempted to work with government.
Both Singleton and Regan mentioned the infamous phrase by spin doctor – who told journalists in 2003 “We don’t do God” when they attempted to probe into the then prime minister’s faith. New Labour seemed to worry that it would not be ‘politically correct’ to collaborate with the Church, Singleton added.
Christian Guy, who today runs the anti-trafficking charity Justice and Care, first entered politics working for the thinktank the Centre for Social Justice in the mid-2000s. “I think the Labour government had become quite hostile to faith groups and there was some anecdotal evidence we picked up at the Centre for Social Justice of almost resistance or discrimination against faith groups wanting to make a difference,” he recalls.
And so, when the coalition came to power just over a decade ago, a shift took place. “I think there was a marked change in 2010,” argues Singleton. Conservatives found it easier to use the language of faith and were less squeamish about engaging with Christians than their Labour predecessors.
“I do think it’s a more natural space for Conservatives anyway, but there has been an openness towards faith groups which has really opened up,” Guy suggests.
On top of a clutch of actual Christians among the new government, there was also “no money” left, in the words of the infamous note left in the Treasury by the departing Labour ministers.
The coming of austerity meant a hollowing out of social programmes, and into the vacuum came several Christian outfits. The rise in poverty saw church-hosted foodbanks and the evangelical Trussell Trust network surge to prominence. Christians Against Poverty quickly established one of the country’s largest debt-counselling networks, again hosted by churches. XLP’s groundbreaking work keeping at-risk teenagers out of gangs became even more essential and ever-more recognised. As Downing Street woke up to the crisis in modern slavery, they discovered most of the people already working to tackle human trafficking were Christians.
With Cameron’s rhetoric about the ‘Big Society’ echoing in their ears, government ministers moved away from seeing the state as the essential driver of change and became more comfortable seeing voluntary efforts – often led by churchgoing Christians – step into the breach. “There was a distinct flavour difference,” Singleton recalls. “Tory ministers or the coalition were saying we are more interested in outcomes rather than the way you do things.”
It was in this context that relationships between evangelicalism and government began to shift. Civil servants, special advisors and ministers themselves began working more regularly with the Christians running the growing voluntary sector.
Charities that were proving they could make a difference began to be invited into meetings in Downing Street and Whitehall, and sometimes were invited to bid for major government contracts to deliver services on behalf of the state. As the decade wore on, the projects run by evangelicals often proved to be successful and, in tandem, the figures behind them grew in credibility.
“We are invited into Number 10 and into these meetings not because we’re Christians, but because we have got something useful we can actually contribute,” comments Kandiah.
Singleton says he knows of two studies, conducted by secular academics at Cardiff and Sheffield universities, which have circulated around Westminster. One looks at substance misuse and recovery, while the other examines human trafficking, but both come to the same conclusion: “Both have been saying there is a gap between what needs to happen [and what the state actually does] and predominately churches have stepped in to do it.”
This solid track record began to erode any lingering suspicion of working with the Church and, over time, a new relationship between government and evangelicalism has formed, built on pragmatism and collaboration.
Guy, who was hired as a special advisor by Cameron in 2015, spoke from his experience of sitting on both sides of the church-government divide and says there has undoubtedly been a “big shift” in the relationship.
“Now people are waking up to how the Church is a real source of hope and practical support for people on the margins of society. That has changed the relationship between Christian leaders and Downing Street; Downing Street has come to recognise they are partners in making the country better and reaching some of the darker places.”
If anything, the current coronavirus crisis has only strengthened this. As government, both national and local, has been stretched to its limits, churches and Christian groups have been called upon to help bear the unprecedented load.
Singleton says he recently heard from the Christian Labour MP Stephen Timms how many councils had struggled with getting food to vulnerable people during the pandemic and that they turned in the first instance to trusted churches for help. One council in his own constituency had put the number of a local vicar on its website and said anyone who couldn’t afford food should call him because he could get something to their front door by the end of the day.
Over time, civil servants and ministers have also begun to build personal relationships with Christian leaders.
Kandiah says lots of the civil servants in different departments stay the same even as the politicians at the top change, which has meant he and other evangelicals like him can continue productive working partnerships over the long term. Regan says he first got to know Johnson when he was mayor of London and began visiting XLP projects. This then turned into a genuine connection, which has been sustained all the way to Downing Street more than twelve years later. As Regan wrote on the Premier Christianity blog shortly after the prime minister was admitted to intensive care: “I am not sure where Boris is faith-wise, but he sent me a text I really appreciated just before I had a big operation. It read: ‘Poor you Patrick, I will pray for you indeed.’ Last night I did the same for him.”
“I feel like we influence more through relationship than protest,” Regan says. “As Jim Wallis said, protest is good but alternatives are better.”
Critics are concerned that this more pragmatic focus on working with government on social action has led to the same evangelicals keeping quiet about more difficult moral issues (not least abortion and same-sex marriage). If gaining influence at the top of government costs us a prophetic voice, is it a price worth paying?
Kandiah believes the shift in how evangelicals approach politics should be welcomed. He says we need to get to grips with a “post-Christendom mindset”, which means eschewing special pleading or feelings of entitlement. “We shouldn’t necessarily be listened to because we’re Christians; we should be listened to because we’re good citizens trying to serve the common good. That’s my approach.”
Guy says this shift in the Church’s approach has been key to persuading sceptical civil servants and ministers that working with evangelicals is worth it. Previously the Church was seen as being full of “constant moaners and moralisers…very judgemental, critical and a blocker on social progress,” he states bluntly.
The biblical stories of Joseph and Daniel – as well as the early Church in Acts – have been foundational, Singleton says, to his own network’s reimagining of the relationship between Church and State. “Here you have guys making better the evil empires of their time,” he notes. Seeking the good of the pagan city God had called them to, rather than trying to impose Christian morality on it.
Working in government used to be seen as something inevitably compromising – one interviewee said the attitude around being involved in politics was “like getting in bed with the devil”. But it seems this attitude is falling away and is instead being replaced by a more mature and nuanced theology of public service. Guy says he has spotted an “awakening in Christian circles” that engaging with Downing Street or Whitehall is not just unavoidable but beneficial. “Government matters; it sets the tone, legislation counts – it’s a noble thing to go and do with your life.”
And on the other side of the fence, this rapprochement has undoubtedly been smoothed along by confidence-building gestures by recent prime ministers. As well as appointing faith ministers and special advisors for the first time, in 2014 David Cameron began a new tradition of hosting an Easter reception in Downing Street, something previously reserved for minority faith festivals.
A new voice
In a strange, paradoxical way, as the institutional and established Church has declined and receded in Britain, a surviving core of orthodox, evangelical believers has managed to build a new and more fruitful relationship with the government.
“Right across the board, Christians are finding a new voice, a new way of engaging with government,” Kandiah concludes. But it is vital to not blow it by lapsing back into old habits, he adds.
One well-connected evangelical leader rolled his eyes as he explained how he had once organised a meeting between senior officials and church leaders and they immediately brought the conversation back to: “Oh my goodness, why did you betray us on same-sex marriage?”
Sometimes this is just political immaturity, Guy argues. “Christian leaders will still hammer the government on certain things but then want to turn up on the front door of No 10 and have a selfie. They kind of want the best of both worlds.”
The new mindset means continually exercising discipline and humility, approaching interactions with Westminster as partners rather than proselytisers. Of course, this way of working won’t please everyone. Some Christians who identify with the political left are concerned the Church is merely cleaning up the government’s mess, rather than campaigning to change the policies that lead to poverty and deprivation in the first place. On the other side, more hardline evangelicals see this gentler approach to politics as a kind of compromise.
Regan’s mantra is: “Answer the question you’re being asked.” He explains: “Sometimes I don’t think we’ve done ourselves any favours when we’ve been asked a question about poverty and homelessness and we think it’s an excuse to go and preach the gospel. I’ve always thought: answer the question you’re being asked.”