Russell Brand created a stir in 2013 when, in a Newsnight interview, he told Jeremy Paxman he would not bother to vote as party politics made no difference in the world. Despite the moral outrage of those who believed he was promoting political apathy, the celebrity comedian was merely voicing the feelings of a generation of disenchanted voters.
Trust in politicians is at an all-time low. In 2004, 31% of respondents to a survey conducted by the Commission for Standards in Public Life believed that ‘all or most MPs told the truth’. By 2012, this had dropped to 20%. In 2004, 50% of respondents believed that ‘all or most MPs did not use their power for personal gain’, but in 2012 this figure had dropped to 33%.
Since then, of course, there have been a number of scandals, especially the recent ‘cash for access’ allegations against Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw. By comparison, the average level of trust in judges from 2004-12 was more than 80%, while trust in MPs was below 30%.
The report also shows that some 40% of respondents were, in effect, disconnected from the political system. The discontented spirit of Russell Brand shone through the report’s assessment: ‘This alienated group of citizens just sees no party that could sufficiently express their political views or represent their interests, and is overwhelmingly sceptical or deeply sceptical about public life. Moreover, they are particularly located in the younger age groups, with 46% of the under-30s falling into this category.’
LOSING FAITH IN POLITICS
No Christian can be content with this deep distrust of politicians and the alienation of so many – especially young people – from the political system. But I believe that the values of our political system are, in fact, fundamentally rooted in the Christian faith.
Take just one example: the fact that we all now have the vote. This is based on the principle that we are all of equal worth and dignity. Whether we are rich or poor, women or men, we have an equal right to say who will represent our views. Such equality did not exist at the time of the Roman Empire. It emerged with the New Testament and gradually worked its way into European legislation.
Christianity also has a lot to say about freedom. Here, I want to focus on a subversion of this value, which has warped our society in recent years: the belief that it is only freedom of choice that matters. I want to suggest that Christians have a key role in helping us build a much deeper and richer sense of what binds us together, of the common good, in political society. Christians could be key to restoring faith in politics.
WHEN FREEDOM GOES WRONG
This freedom flaw has been vividly exposed by American philosopher Michael Sandel. He claims that society has traditionally been driven by a combination of social liberalism (letting people choose their own lifestyle) and market liberalism (letting people buy and sell what they want), so that individual choice overrides every other value.
Sandel draws attention to what happened in New Orleans after the terrible floods of 2005. Some people tried to exploit the situation by selling basic goods at truly exorbitant prices. People were so desperate they were prepared to pay 100 times the normal value of goods, and there were people ready to sell them for that price. Market liberalism in action, it could be argued.
But there was a widespread sense of outrage in America that people’s desperate need was exploited in this way. It was considered wrong; honourable people in an honourable society simply did not do this kind of thing. In short, moral judgements and values came into play.
SOCIETY VERSUS CANNIBALS
More widely, many people feel that there are certain areas in which the market should not rule. It would be wrong to have a free market in bodily organs, for example. It would be wrong to sell university places to those who can pay the highest price for them. Nobody wants an oppressive moralism, but can we avoid making judgements about virtue and value?
Sandel gives an example to show that we cannot. A man in Germany advertised for someone who would be willing to be killed and eaten. Two hundred people responded to the advert and four were interviewed. One person was killed, cooked and eaten.
German law could not convict the person of murder, as it was entirely consensual (although they did find another way of convicting and imprisoning the man). But whatever the law says, most people would find such an action deeply abhorrent; something that society should not allow, however consensual. Again, issues of value emerge, not just for the individual, but for the kind of society we desire. When we begin to reflect on the kind of society we want, we cannot avoid asking the question of what society is for.
What is Society Sunday?
A designated Sunday when churches are encouraged to put on a service to celebrate the work of faith in society, and to pray for the Queen as well as local and national government.
What is the aim?
To place the Church back at the heart of the community, demonstrate the positive benefits of faith and deepen the relationships between different local community groups.
There is a Society Sunday order of service, which includes prayers for the Queen, members of national and European parliaments, councillors, mayors, police and crime commissioners and other elected representatives.
Who should I invite?
You may wish to invite your local MP, councillors and other people who work to do good in your community, and then pray for them during the service.
To sign your church up for Society Sunday and download free resources, visit premier.org.uk/societysunday
SHAPING OUR IDENTITY
The same question is raised in relation to every institution. What is a university for? What is a school for? Until you answer that question you cannot begin to consider what it is that the institution should value, or on what basis people should be allowed to enter it. If a university exists to foster intellectual excellence, then this is what it will honour, and it is on this basis that people will be allowed to enter.
Before the Reformation, Britain was held together and shaped by a more or less unified understanding of the Christian faith. There was, effectively, a common purpose. That can clearly be distinguished from a state in which there is no sense of overall purpose but each individual chooses their own for their own. What binds the state together on this view is a framework of law that everyone has to obey, whatever their own world view. Neoliberals, who were until recently so influential in the US and Britain, argue for individual choice and maintain that taxes should only be raised to pay for the public services we all need, and which cannot be allocated according to individual use, such as the army, the police and clean air.
However, the notion of a common good for the state need not just be one that is imposed from above (by a dominant religion, for example). It can also be built up from below as society responds to its own history, and can be influenced by fresh insights from religious and secular thinkers alike. This is the healthy situation we are in now.
There is widespread realisation from a whole range of thinkers that something has gone fundamentally wrong in our society when it comes to voter apathy. At the same time, there is a much broader consensus about the kind of values that should imbue our lives and be expressed in our institutions.
This country’s (and political parties’) widespread support for the NHS is the most obvious one, with its continuing philosophy of medicine being free at the point of delivery. (Neoliberals in America almost evicted their president for trying to implement a similar system.) Again, our education system, though it has flaws, has an underlying philosophy that everyone should be able to develop their abilities to their limit, whatever their background.
Christians, together with others, have an important role in the further strengthening, enriching and developing of this overlapping consensus of shared values and purpose for our society. It should be an organic, evolving sense of purpose built up from below by reasoned argument as part of the democratic process.
Christians have dual citizenship. We are citizens of the world, as Jeremiah 29:7 expresses: ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you’ (ESV). But we are also told to: ‘Live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in manner worthy of the good news about Christ’ (Philippians 1:27, NLT).
Christianity has always grounded this need to work for shared values under political democracy in its understanding of the relationship between heavenly and earthly citizenship. St Augustine pursued that same project during the fifth century when he wrote his classic work The City of God, and we are called to do the same in the different political circumstances of our own time.
WHAT KIND OF SOCIETY?
Against the background of these considerations, what kind of society should a Christian desire? Of course, there will be always be disagreements about the nature of the good we should be pursuing, but if liberals fail to take part in this debate because they think there can be no agreement then, as Sandel puts it, writing of the American scene, ‘fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread’. The imperative is that we should all bring our idea of the good into debate and reason together about our inevitable disagreements. In The Idea of a Christian Society (Harcourt), TS Eliot described the society he wanted in these words: ‘It would be a society in which the natural end of man – virtue and well-being in community – is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end – beatitude – for those who have the eyes to see it.’
That is a good starting point. It is interesting that, in their recent pastoral letter, the Church of England bishops specifically mentioned virtue as a value we now need to work towards in our public lives.
For Christians, God is good. All good. Our true and everlasting good. The end or goal of human life is to grow into that likeness; not as solitary individuals, but within the mystical body of Christ.
While we are on this earth, there is a counterpart to this in our human communities of all kinds, including civil society and the body politic. Although our society is riven with fundamental disagreements about the nature of the good, such is the crisis of our time that it may be ready to slowly build up from below a more thoughtful, richer understanding of the values that should hold us together: a real concept of the common good; not just of individual or sectional interest.
Now is not the time to disengage from politics. Politics needs Christians more than ever, because society needs to be reminded of the fundamental value of the common good that is woven into our Judeo-Christian heritage. Christians have an important role to play in this, not least at election time.
LORD RICHARD HARRIES, former Bishop of Oxford, is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords. His book Faith in Politics? Rediscovering the Christian roots of our political values (DLT) has been reissued with a new introduction
Who is your political hero?
He is an unsung hero from the 18th century. Born in 1762, Spencer Percival has two distinctions. He was the only evangelical prime minister we’ve ever had. He used to write tracts on the end times while he was at 10 Downing Street. Can you imagine David Cameron writing tracts? The second distinction is that he was the only prime minister ever to be assassinated in office. His wife had a dream the night before that he would be assassinated. She begged him not to go into parliament, but he did. He was in office for about two years… but no one has ever heard of him.
Rev Greg Downes, theologian and missioner at St Michael le Belfrey, York
Diane Abbott MP
She was the first black woman to be elected in the House of Commons and she really cares passionately about her constituents in Hackney North and Stoke Newington. She speaks really eloquently about young people (and that’s what’s on my heart); the things preventing young people from reaching their potential.
Rachel Gardner, president, Girls’ Brigade England and Wales
Wilberforce was able to see, in his day, what was an unpopular cause, but the right cause: the abolition of the slave trade. He wasn’t afraid of the unpopularity. It took him 45 years, but he did it. He changed the nation through a persevering struggle on behalf of people who have no voice. We need people like that today, who will fight the injustices in society, who won’t fear unpopularity and who will persevere until they see change.
Rev Nicky Gumbel, vicar, HTB
What issues will influence your vote at the General Election?
We canvassed the views of a variety of ‘everyday’ Christians about what issues are most important to them at the ballot box...
I joined the Scottish Green Party recently for several reasons. The main one is a determination to create an economy that benefits everybody, not just a wealthy few at the top. Austerity has punished the weakest and most vulnerable in our society and made them the scapegoats for our economic ills. I believe that the Green economic plan, including a living wage of £10 per hour and a citizens’ income, is closer to what we see in Matthew 25 than the old traditional parties. That’s not to mention the Greens’ policies on climate change, scrapping Trident and a less confrontational immigration policy. My decisions are informed in a large way by my faith and Jesus’ views on social justice, poverty, and standing up for the marginalised in society. Darren
The UK has degenerated from a confident world power to a guilt-ridden society that lacks vision. Our problem is fundamentally a spiritual one, a widespread apostasy from the Christian faith, but nonetheless we are invited to seek the best political solution we can this May. We need new political parties to redress the imbalances of the old. That is why I am voting UKIP. Whether it is points-based immigration policies to protect our borders and defend our culture, opposition to gay marriage, upholding Christian beliefs and values in the public sphere, the reduction of the corrupt and excessive Foreign Aid budget, the return of grammar schools to restore social mobility, or saving billions in EU contributions, UKIP will return to the British people the power to rule ourselves and make our own laws. Laurence
I’ll probably be voting Lib Dem as I agree with the coalition policies more than any other. I think Labour gave benefits away willy-nilly and encouraged a ‘something for nothing’ culture, but I think the Tories let the rich get away with too much, eg tax evasion. So a middle ground is where my vote lies. I agree with aspects of all the parties’ policies – even Green and UKIP make sense on certain matters – but no one party encapsulates all of what I’d stand for as a Christian. I guess I’d vote Christian Democrat, but we don’t have them in this country, so Lib Dem is as near as I get! Kate
I’m not sure if I’m going to vote. If I don’t, it will be the first time ever. The political class has lost all credibility for me and I’m not sure I will be able to trust any pre-election promises made. Luke
I will almost certainly vote Conservative; I trust them most with the economy. It’s a tough one, though, because things like zero-hours contracts and housing (which I care about) tend to be more Labour territory. I’d also like to see the UK leave Europe, so I guess I should also be voting UKIP! Mark
The Green Party’s policies, on tax, welfare, social justice and the environment are closest to my own values. Unfortunately, a vote for the Greens would be a wasted one where I live. Therefore, I’ll be voting for Labour in the hope that Ed Miliband stays closer to his left-wing background and the roots of his party. I believe the politics of Jesus is about protecting the most vulnerable in society and building a fairer economic system, and somewhere in the back corridors of Labour HQ, they might still believe that. Jamie
People are disaffected with politics. Incidents that show a lack of integrity have impacted the public’s confidence in politicians. The parties have been too slow to address it, resulting in a last-minute rush to step up to the plate to convince the public on these key issues. I am at present undecided about how to vote and who I can really trust to deliver what they promise. Sandra