Has the Christian voice in politics changed since the coalition was formed? And just how influential is it?
When William Wilberforce, the politician and philanthropist, found a deeper faith, he faced a dilemma. Should he continue in his position as an MP, or follow his heart and become a minister? As it was portrayed in the film Amazing Grace, he seemed to lean towards becoming a pastor. But when deciding whether to do ‘the work of God or the work of a political activist’, some friends suggested, ‘we humbly suggest that you can do both’. The result? The abolition of the slave trade, and many other achievements.
Perhaps it is a similar drive that has inspired an increase in the MPs who declare a Christian faith in the new Parliament – at least 15 to 20 new MPs. The all-party group Christians in Parliament does not give exact figures, but estimates that there has been at least a 20% increase in new members. And this change could have a big impact on the Christian influence in government. ‘What we have seen since the election is an increase in the number of MPs who are Christian and supportive of Christianity in Parliament,’ says Daniel Webster, parliamentary officer for the Evangelical Alliance. ‘That has bigger influence on an organisation than outside organisations ever can. That’s why trying to encourage Christians into Parliament and politics is the most effective instrument for political change.’
There are a number of other ways in which Christians influence the work of Parliament. There are lobby groups, whether they are broadly putting a Christian case on issues, such as the Evangelical Alliance or CARE, or there are singleissue campaigns on issues such as abortion or poverty. There is the Church of England and its bishops, who sit in the House of Lords, and the grass roots Christians who write letters and meet their MPs. But many agree that those with the strongest influence are the people who become MPs or work in government themselves.
‘I feel very strongly that Christians should be involved in the public square,’ says Gary Streeter MP, who heads Christians in Parliament. ‘They should bring integrity, a focus on service, prayer, and compassion. I’m very encouraged whenever Christians get involved to bring those qualities into Westminster. We want to be bringing them, and bringing them in abundance.’
Get Yourself Elected
Many of the new Christian MPs are Conservative, mainly because most of the new MPs are. But here has also been an increase in the voice of the Christian community within the Tory Party. Some say that the Conservative Christian Fellowship, which is based at the party’s headquarters, is highly influential and has had a major impact on their seeking to become more ‘compassionate’. One lobbyist said that they are ‘almost like a think tank’. However, Elizabeth Berridge, the executive director of the CCF, states that their work is more about increasing the voice of the church in the Tory Party, through activities such as introducing church leaders to people in Parliament. ‘Influence is very hard to measure,’ she says. ‘We have quite a number of MPs who are members. We have started the [Conservative Party] conference church service again. I believe that is influence. We are also raising the profile of Christianity in the Conservative Party.’
Prime Minister David Cameron professes Christian belief. ‘My own faith is there, it’s not always the rock that perhaps it should be,’ he told The Evening Standard last year. ‘I’ve a sort of fairly classic Church of England faith, a faith that grows hotter and colder by moments.’
But it is not just the Tory Party that has Christian influence. The Labour Party’s beginnings were said to ‘owe more to Methodism than to Marx’ by one of its early leaders. They tend to keep it quiet, but many New Labour politicians have a Christian faith, although they are less likely to be seen at Christians in Parliament events or anything that draws attention to their beliefs. Tony Blair is the most well known, although his press spokesman famously avoided questions on the subject. Lord Boateng, the former Cabinet minister, is a committed Methodist, while other Labour politicians who cite Christianity as an influence in their life include Gordon Brown, David Blunkett and Jack Straw. Stephen Timms MP and Alun Michael MP are both committed Christians and open about it.
The Liberal Democrats Party also has a Christian group, the most high-profile member being Simon Hughes MP, who is an evangelical Christian. ‘Over the years there has been plenty of Christian activity in all the parties,’ said Alan Beith MP, a long-serving Lib Dem MP who heads the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum.
He points out that there are many politicians who have a Christian faith but who do not advertise it, or join the public groups like Christians in Parliament. ‘Most Christians [in Parliament] are a little bit cautious of either appearing to have a Christian arrogance or indeed making it such a defining characteristic, [in case] other people would not want to support them,’ says Beith. ‘You can take it to extremes [such as] Tony Blair did… Some people, their Christianity is [something] they like to observe quietly, quietly doing good.’
Some Christian MPs don’t see their faith as anything other than shaping their beliefs about society; they don’t see their role as delivering an explicitly Christian viewpoint. ‘I don’t try and influence Parliament with a Christian message…being a Christian influences me and my moral compass,’ says Sharon Hodgson, the Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West. ‘It makes me who I am. That led to my being interested in politics and working for the Labour Party. The teachings of Jesus...about helping our fellow man and helping those less fortunate than ourselves…leads me to be a socialist or left of centre. The pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake is not what should drive any individual, community or society.’
As well as their obvious role of voting through legislation and taking part in debates, MPs are also able to table their own Bills. For example, Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP for mid-Bedfordshire, attempted to put through a Bill to reduce the age at which foetuses can be aborted in 2006, although it was defeated.
However, there are less direct ways in which Christian MPs and policy staff can influence Parliament, such as the way in which they interact with their fellow parliamentarians. ‘Christians in Westminster have a reputation of being people of integrity, not always hammering the party political message,’ says Streeter. ‘We are plying our trade in a more positive and mature way.’
Unlike America, at present the Christian voice is fairly spread over the spectrums of political belief with a variety of voices, liberal and conservative. ‘I don’t think there is a Christian block,’ says David Landrum, the parliamentary officer for the Bible Society, which is an influential voice in the House of Commons. ‘Within Parliament, Christians add a lot of value. Party politics is really quite tribal. Christians can and do show that we can develop and maintain good relationships despite party differences.’
This cross-party harmony applies to their prayer and worship services, where Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs worship together and pray, and even to small fellowship groups where MPs from different parties will support each other in depth and pray for one another, transcending the tribalism that is usually entrenched in the House of Commons. Streeter has been in a weekly cross-party fellowship group for more than a decade, alongside two Conservatives, two Labour MPs, one Lib Dem and one DUP member. ‘There wouldn’t be much trust normally between people of different parties…but we have never had a leak or problem like that. That’s quite impressive,’ he says. ‘There have been times of tremendous fellowship and prayer. We have become very close. We are very much there for each other.’
And at some point, Christians can become ministers in a department, where they will have a significant role in policy development. A strong area of Christian influence in the new government is the Department of Work and Pensions. Committed Christian Steve Webb is a minister there, while Iain Duncan Smith, who is a Catholic, heads the department. His parliamentary private secretary is Andrew Selous, who previously headed up Christians in Parliament. And Philippa Stroud, the well-respected evangelical Christian who advised David Cameron before the election but failed to win a seat as an MP, is now a special adviser in the department.
Some say that in this unlikely coalition of disparate politics, from the right-wing conservatism of Duncan Smith and the social liberalism of Webb, it is their faith that will bind them together in the difficult task of sorting out the country’s welfare system. ‘I think the chemistry will work between IDS and Steve Webb, because they are both Christians,’ says one political insider. ‘They are both engaged in welfare reform, both are aware of the need that the welfare system has to meet but also very aware of personal responsibility. [They believe] you have to account for your actions before God. Therefore you can’t build a system on the basis that people have no responsibility.’
Lobbying for Causes
There are many outside organisations who lobby Parliament with a Christian message. The most respected of the Christian groups are said to be those who have worked over time to build relationships and who provide support to MPs, such as CARE, the Evangelical Alliance and Tearfund. These groups take part in traditional lobbying activities, including producing briefing papers for MPs and meeting with ministers and civil servants. CARE also provides interns who work for no pay within the offices of MPs, although CARE states that they do not try to influence the politicians. However, the scheme is positively received by many non-Christian MPs. ‘CARE certainly has influence,’ says Martyn Eden, Premier Radio’s political editor. ‘It has gone so far as to put people in Parliament. It has given something; it is not just nagging and taking. MPs appreciate being given something they can use.’
One of the key figures in Parliament is the Bible Society’s Landrum, who also helps to run the Christians in Parliament group. His office is within Parliament, and his work is to ‘drink coffee for God’ and network with MPs, both Christian and non-Christian. ‘Our agenda is to encourage people to take the Bible seriously in decision-making,’ he says. ‘I was talking to a non-Christian MP yesterday about rest, and the need for rest over the summer. The expenses issue and the election has been really gruelling. I started talking about why God commands us to rest. We got into a wonderful conversation about [the] need to have one day off…how holidays are really important as part of people’s lives. [Another MP] noticed that church people are [the] only people who seem to be helping immigrants who don’t have citizenship and are in limbo. We got into a conversation about how the Bible calls us to look after foreigners.’
Last Parliament, the groups like CARE and the EA were focused on legislation such as the Equality Bill, which some Christians felt would lead to discrimination against them, or the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. This Parliament it is not forecasted that there will be as much difficult legislation. New campaigns include getting involved in the ‘Big Society’ discussions, in particular endorsing church involvement in more welfare provision, which CARE, the Evangelical Alliance and Faithworks are all to campaign on. The Faithworks 2010 Declaration calls on government to support faith-based groups in their community work rather than discriminate against them. CARE wants to encourage the Conservatives to ‘roll back some of the excesses’ of the equality Bill, and will continue to campaign against assisted suicide. Landrum states that protecting the most vulnerable from the impact of the cuts will be another important issue within the Christian parliamentary community.
It is not just those in Westminster who influence Parliament. Many of the Christian lobby groups cite one of their priorities as getting Christians on the ground to be more involved in politics. The Bible Society has produced a website, SUSA.info, which informs Christians of ways in which they can get engaged in the political process.
For example, Christians can influence their government from home by writing letters. And large groups like Tearfund and Christian Aid say that their face-to-face lobbying with ministers is strongly backed up by supporters on the ground who write letters on aid issues. ‘Messages become national if they can be built up by local members in churches,’ says Paul Brannen, head of advocacy and influence for Christian Aid. ‘That’s when we find ourselves at our most effective.’
But there is another side to the Christian voice. Frequently, MPs receive angry letters from the Christian population – particularly on the issue of homosexuality – that have given our community a reputation that is not as positive. ‘A lot of MPs say that Christians write the worst letters,’ says one party aide. Streeter agrees. ‘It does more harm than good,’ he says. ‘It’s not very pleasant. Still now, the most aggressive letters I get are from members of the Christian community.’
A positive way of influencing Parliament is to pray for people in Parliament. ‘The strongest influence in Parliament is prayer,’ says Landrum. ‘There are so many Christians praying, I do believe that is what is having an influence. Christian can provide vision and fresh thinking...There are no great ideas in politics any more, with no vision for society. It’s a desert. The Bible truths are eternal and timeless.’
Another significant influence on Parliament are the bishops in the House of Lords, although this may soon change through reform. Currently bishops have votes on all legislation that goes through Parliament. There are 26 and, according to the Church of England, they will try to have at least one bishop present in any debate, although they are not necessarily going to be presenting the agreed Church of England policy on issues. The Archbishop of Canterbury also has influence in government and through the media, and the Church of England is consulted on a wide number of policy issues. ‘Bishops in the Lords hear from a large number of people they are in contact with from the parishes,’ says a Church of England spokesman. ‘They bring that knowledge and experience into the debates in the House of Lords. One of the reasons the Church of England can speak on all debates is because it draws in such a wide number of people with different experiences and understanding, not just a group of people on a single spot on the religious spectrum.’
Challenges for Christians
One difficulty that Christians face in the public square is the secular view on Christian beliefs in areas such as homosexuality or demon possession. The Tory Party’s Stroud faced a critical newspaper article that alleged she had tried to exorcise homosexual and transgender people of demons; there is legal action pending as she denies this occurred. There have been a number of articles in the press in recent years that raise fears of the Christian right emulating the US and becoming more political.
This scepticism from the secular media tends to focus on the more vocal lobby groups such as Christian Voice and Christian Concern for our Nation. Christian groups can be flagged as extreme just for declaring a literal belief in the Bible; there have been a number of comparisons with the political campaigning in the US that formed the right-wing Moral Majority organisations. It means that Christian MPs have to be careful about what they say, and the language they use.
This kind of opposition should not put Christians off from entering politics, according to Webster at the Evangelical Alliance. ‘Christians who are involved in politics would find it no surprise that the world around them does not always agree with everything they have to say,’ he says. ‘In my experience Christian politicians realise this and find a way to act with integrity to their beliefs, but [are] also aware of the views of those who might disagree. Within the church it is important [that] we encourage people to get involved in politics, but also provide support for them and understand some of the difficulties they might face, particularly if they have a high-profile role. Christians are called to be present throughout society, to be salt and light, and that includes the political system. I think that precisely because working in politics can be tough it is essential that Christians do not stay on the sidelines – even if that might mean a quieter life.’