Sam Hailes considers the place of moral character when choosing political leaders
If I were accused of being a Christian and had to stand trial, would there be enough evidence for a jury to convict me?
It’s a challenging question, and a helpful one for each of us to ask ourselves. It’s a reminder that if we're to identify as a followers of Christ, we must live in a way that stands out as markedly different.
The temptation, of course, is to turn this question around and ask it of other people - or worse to judge another person’s faith as inadequate or non-existent.
We must balance two truths. On the one hand only God knows the heart. On the other Jesus said we would be able to tell who was a follower of him “by their fruits”. (Matthew 7:20)
As Christian journalists, our approach has generally been to take people at their word. When well known politicians identify as “Christian” we will report their statements, and trust our audience to exercise discernment.
I am aware that mere profession of belief is a very low bar to set, but the alternatives are far worse. We can’t exactly demand to see a certificate of baptism before reporting a politician’s profession of faith.
St Paul taught that being a Christian meant confessing with your mouth and believing in your heart that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9). It’s notable that, while we’ve no clue what’s going on inside their hearts, every Prime Minister over the past two decades has at least used their mouths to profess a Christian faith.
Theresa May, famously the daughter of a vicar, said Christianity was “part of me” and “helps to frame” her political approach. David Cameron said he was “evangelical” about his Christian faith. (He also said “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago”). Gordon Brown wrote of his regret at not being more open about his faith while in office, while Tony Blair said he prayed about the decision to go to war on Iraq and believed God would ultimately judge him for that decision.
So what about Boris? Well, he once compared his faith to the radio reception of Virgin in the Chilterns (ie patchy, and easily lost). But more recently he’s denied being a “serious, practicing Christian”.
Given how our society is becoming increasingly post-Christian, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our next PM doesn’t share our faith. We should also acknowledge that this country has had plenty of Christian leaders in our history who have got things wrong and led the country down roads that have not honoured God. Just because someone claims to be a Christian, its no guarantee they’re a good leader.
There’s an almost palpable longing for good political leadership in our country right now. Until Christ returns, no leader will be able to satisfy this longing for a trustworthy ruler who is full of grace, truth and wisdom. Jesus is the most perfect example of a good leader the world has ever seen. We don’t know exactly what Jesus’ political policies might be. Many have guessed (here’s an educated guess on his tax policy, for example). But we do know plenty about his character. When he returns, and sets everything right, he will rule with justice and mercy. He will show love and grace to the poor and powerless.
Rather than only looking for a leader who has said some nice things about Christianity, we should look for a leader who has moral character, who can be trusted and who is wise.
You might think Christians would be agreed that we should elect officials who have moral character. The fact that 81 per cent of white evangelicals in the US voted for Donald Trump suggests we are not united in this belief. But before throwing stones across the pond, we should consider what has happened in our own nation. Like Trump, Boris Johnson has been accused of lying numerous times. He is also an adulterer, accused of having multiple affairs. Most of his colleagues (56 per cent) admit he does not have a good moral character.
Increasingly, it seems that as long as a politician promises to deliver a policy we approve of, we will turn a blind eye to their lack of personal morality. Many have decided policy is all that matters. It is lamentable how voters have deemed a politician's character irrelevant to their decision.
Perhaps the Christian members of the Conservative Party who voted for Boris Johnson believe that delivering Brexit is the most important political issue facing UK society right now, and Boris is right man for the job. That might be true. But a politician’s character, understanding of morality and trustworthiness really does matter. So #PrayforBoris all you want - he needs it. But let's also pray that our country will elect politicians who will demonstrate leadership not only on political matters, but on moral matters as well.