Not everyone knows that Shuker did not return to Luton after university to become an MP, but to plant a new church out of the one that he’d been attending in Cambridge. In fact, he convinced ten other Cambridge graduates to follow him there too. Seeking to make a difference, some of them joined the local Labour Party, where Shuker’s youthful enthusiasm and communication skills were noted. Before long he was working with MP Margaret Moran. When she fell in the expenses scandal, Shuker stood for selection, and won. Today he is a shadow minister for the opposition, the youngest person on the frontbench.
That a fresh-faced 28-year old can become an MP may seem extraordinary. That they can be an evangelical church leader too, verges on the miraculous. Whether it’s the pantomime of Prime Minister’s question time, tit-for-tat politics or expenses scandals, a certain cynicism has descended upon many voters, evidenced by increasingly low electoral turnouts. Against that tide, Shuker is one among a number of Christians whose faith has motivated them to get involved in the political process from the inside. So, how are Christians best placed to affect politics and the political system for the sake of the kingdom?
WHAT WOULD JESUS VOTE?
The first thing to note is that religion and politics are not always seen as easy bedfellows. The media often speak of faith and politics in the context of an American-style ‘Religious Right’, where abortion and gay marriage are the issues that believers are seen to be primarily interested in.
Things aren’t that simple in Britain, however. A recent report by thinktank Theos revealed that there is no significant ‘Religious Right’ in the UK comparable to the USA. Its author, Andy Walton, says that while there has been increased activity among socially conservative organisations, especially in light of gay marriage legislation, the average churchgoer isn’t directly voting on the ‘hot button’ issues.
‘If you analyse Christian opinion in the UK, they are more likely to be left-leaning in their economic persuasions. For instance, 64% say they believe the government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. That would be complete anathema to the US Religious Right,’ says Walton.
In the UK it’s almost unheard of for influential church leaders to publicly support one party leader over another, whereas in the US it’s commonplace. The influence of Christian media personalities such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson has recently started to wane, but any Republican candidate would still be foolish not to seek their blessing. US Christians are regularly presented with tick-box criteria of a candidate’s past record on ‘moral issues’, as a guide to voting.
In the UK, however, there is simply no clear-cut religious vote. At the 2010 general election, although Anglicans to some extent lived up to the motto of ‘the Conservative party at prayer’, with 45% voting in that direction, other Christian denominations showed more variation in their voting patterns. Catholics favoured Labour, while other denominations were evenly split across the three main parties.
Martyn Eden, political editor for Premier Christian Radio, believes there is no clear pattern for how religion directs voting decisions in the UK any more, especially since the policies of all three parties have become increasingly similar. ‘The politics of 2013 is about competing for the centre ground, which is why you see the parties arguing over a limited range of issues.’
Clare Mathys of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum says it would be a mistake to assume that Christians come with a predetermined set of concerns that mirror the American Religious Right. ‘In my experience, Christians who are active in politics are interested in the environment, national development, criminal justice, civil liberties and so on. Most Christians involved in political parties are more well-rounded than just being interested in one issue.’
Nevertheless, certain moral issues will still get many Christians stirred up, not least gay marriage. Even though a majority of Conservative MPs voted against it, there have been calls by some Christian leaders to ‘punish’ David Cameron’s party at the voting booth for pushing the Same Sex Marriage Bill through Parliament.
The Coalition for Marriage (C4M), the main group opposing the legislation, had a broad base of support from evangelicals and Catholics. After the defeat, Colin Hart, C4M’s campaign director, gave a thinly veiled warning, saying: ‘Mr Cameron needs to remember that the Coalition for Marriage has nearly 700,000 supporters, nearly six times the number of members of the Conservative Party.
As Christians we need to be keen to say what we positively affirm
Andrea Minichiello Williams is the director of Christian Concern For Our Nation, one of C4M’s partners. She says that if same sex marriage doesn’t get believers politically motivated, then nothing will. ‘David Cameron pushed this through without [a] democratic mandate. For that, Christians need to ensure that the Tory Party is not returned to power at the next election. He has taken the Christian vote for granted.'
But the idea of a dependable right wing Christian vote is highly debatable. Williams herself acknowledges that a vote for one of the other main parties is hardly a vote against gay marriage. Eden believes that Christians who feel disillusioned may end up simply not voting at all. ‘Normally you vote for the party that represents the best cluster of policies you believe in, and support an individual campaign group for something you feel strongly about. My fear is that the 2015 election will see large-scale abstention. That worries me, as I believe Christians need to play their full part in society.’
Meanwhile many Christians whose sympathies lie on the left believe vocal opposition to gay marriage has been a distraction from the important issues of welfare cuts, environment and international aid. Added to this is the growing sense that many Christians, especially of the younger generation, are wary of being perceived as reactionary or ‘anti-gay’. Mathys has spent time working in the office of an MP and is concerned that Christian campaigning on the issue may have a negative effect.
‘I opened those letters that begin “I’m a Christian and…” The response from some Christians to the Bill has produced a real negativity among MPs,’ says Mathys. ‘I think we’ve got a lot of making up to do to show that our Christian motive is about loving people and making the world a better place. People shouldn’t ignore their convictions, but it’s about the tone of gentleness and recognising that just quoting the Bible isn’t necessarily a persuasive argument.’
Conservative MP David Burrowes, founder of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, led the parliamentary opposition to gay marriage. Even so, he too is concerned that Christians need to be clear about what they affirm. ‘It wasn’t seen as an attack on sexuality, it was about marriage. I tried to think about it as what we were for, not what I was against. As Christians we have to be careful what we’re known for ? we need to be keen to say what we positively affirm. We need to get people engaged ? being proactive, not just reactive. The campaigning starts well before legislation; it’s not just about what goes on in Parliament.’
For those who want to connect their faith with practical involvement in politics, each party has a network for believers. The Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum and the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM, soon to be renamed Christians on the Left) all operate under the umbrella of Christians in Politics.
Notably, all three work together on training programmes, theological resources and making spaces to pray. They are keen to stress that they are more interested in Christians getting involved in the political process than telling them which party they should support.
Andy Flannagan, director of CSM has previously been a doctor and a worship leader. When his work led him towards witnessing and speaking about Church action on poverty, he realised that those involved in the politics of injustice were ‘normal’ people like him. He says that Christians working across party lines can have an edifying effect on the whole system.
‘It is an incredible missional opportunity. We are encouraging folks to do the politics thing differently ? to come against the self-promotion and selfish ambition by working and praying together. The old African proverb has become our mantra, “If you want to go fast, go it alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This is not a short-term fix. This is investing in a new generation that I pray will change the face of politics locally and nationally in the UK.’
Mathys uses an alternative to the usual ‘salt and light’ metaphor to make the point. ‘Someone once said that Christians are a bit like manure. If you heap them all up together they can create a stink, but if you spread them out thinly they do a lot of good. Even though I have my reasons for being a Liberal Democrat, it’s really important that Christians are involved in all the parties.’
PROPHETS OUTSIDE OR ADVOCATES WITHIN?
Broadly speaking, Christians have two approaches to politics, both hoping to make a difference. There are the placard-waving single-issue campaigners, whether it be C4M or the anti-poverty IF campaign, who rally outside Parliament. And there are those who infiltrate the system from within. Christians of different stripes will disagree over which campaigns are worth fighting for, but both approaches have a biblical precedent. Prophets such as Isaiah spoke out against corrupt governments from the outside, while heroes of the faith such as Daniel worked from within the political system to effect change.
Christians are like manure. Heaped together they create a stink, but if you spread them out thinly they do a lot of good.
Archbishop Justin Welby’s recent well-publicised denouncement of payday loan lenders is an example of how the Church can maintain a prophetic voice, even if it opens itself up for criticism too.
‘The Church is Christ’s body on earth,’ says Flannagan. ‘Christ was continually acting politically. If he wasn’t having an impact in the political sphere, why else would the political powers of Rome and Jerusalem have been so keen to get rid of him?’
Despite the apparent failure of the C4M campaign, Christians can lobby politicians successfully for change from the outside. Eden recalls how the Keep Sunday Special campaign led to an unprecedented defeat of Margaret Thatcher’s Sunday trading bill. ‘Where there is a clear, well-argued case, and there is division among MPs, there is a chance for a Christian group to make a difference.’
But change is also about the Daniels influencing politics from the inside. One activist likened it to trying out a new church andtelling the leader, ‘I would join your church if you altered the worship style and made the sermon shorter.’ You wouldn’t get much of a hearing. But someone who is a regular and longstanding member of the church is far more likely to be listened to. The same could be said of political parties. Our approach to politics shouldn’t be characterised by a hit and run, but rather a persistent positive contribution to shaping the nation.
This party conference season, Christians have an ideal opportunity to practise scripture and pray for their leaders (1 Timothy 2:1?2). More than that, perhaps we are also beginning to realise that politics (and politicians) needs Jesus too.
4 RESOURCES ON POLITICS AND FAITH
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS DO GOD LDCF A new collection of essays by 12 Liberal Democrat MPs and Peers on the positive influence that Christian faith can bring to politics.
ON GOD’S SIDE JIM WALLISLion Drawing on years of personal experience, Jim Wallis, of US charity Sojourners, makes the case for faith and politics working together for the common good.
IS THERE A RELIGIOUS RIGHT EMERGING IN BRITAIN? Andy Walton’s report will help you understand the differences between America’s and Britain’s approach to Christianity and politics. theosthinktank.co.uk
THE GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUAREOS GUINNESS IVP Big picture thinking from social critic Os Guinness. A manifesto on how freedom of religion can coexist with secular politics.