What price politics?
Very soon now there will be a general election in the UK. Christians, like everyone else, want to influence its outcome. But danger lies ahead – professedly Christian groups are involving themselves in the political process by attendance at Conservative and Labour Party conferences this autumn.
Such convergence carries a double edge. On the one hand, Christian values can help influence political behaviour, and voting in the Houses of Parliament. On the other, differing political alignments could cause discord among churches whose members are active voters and political lobbyists for opposing parties.
‘Let there be one mind among you’, wrote the apostle Paul. Again, in Philippians 4:2, he entreated Euodia and Syntyche to ‘agree in the Lord’.
While positive Christian influence on political decision-making is commendable, congregations must not allow politics to invade the space of worship and the brotherhood of believers. The communion table should not be marred by disagreements about voting patterns or support for different political parties.
In the USA, for some decades now, swathes of professing evangelicals have been in close alliance with right-wing Republicanism in spite of the shenanigans of American politics. Do we really want British evangelicalism to go that way too?
The Conservative Party conference, held this month in Manchester, is to be the stage for a joint initiative between the Church Society, Christian Watch and Protestant Truth Society. The stated aim of these otherwise admirable societies is to bring a biblical perspective to bear on future legislation, while not promoting any Party.
Speaking of this partnership Duncan Boyd, joint action committee chairman, said: ‘The parliamentary expenses scandal and historic removal of the Speaker of the House of Commons has led to widespread talk of change and reform.
‘If there is to be any change or reform, we felt it was vital Christians didn’t waste this opportunity to make their voice heard at what could prove to be a historic time in our nation’s history’.
The Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) is professedly targeting similar moral goals, but through the Labour Party, with which it is historically tied. It announced that it would be holding thirteen events at the Brighton conference, including one on the Lord’s Day (at 11.00am at Gloucester Place Baptist Church) where Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be attending.
Claiming, together with the Conservative Christian community, that the recession, flawed morality of the markets and expenses scandal have necessitated a strong Christian voice in government, CSM Director Andy Flannagan said: ‘Our events are for anyone interested in seeing change in the world around them’.
CSM claim that the venue will be an interface between Christianity and politics, while the conference itself coincides with CSM’s campaign ‘Be sent’, which encourages Christians into service and mission in politics.
It is true that Christians should be concerned for good government based on biblical perspectives and allowing freedom of worship. We should pray for our leaders that righteousness and justice will flow like a never-failing stream (1 Timothy 2).
We are also morally free to vote in general elections and take part in legitimate politics as private citizens (rather than as churches and para-church groups).
But with comments bandied around in churches, like: ‘How can you be a Christian and vote Conservative [or, Labour, Liberal Democrat, etc]?’ – a question to a long-standing believer really overheard – we easily lose sight of the fact that the government rests on Jesus’ shoulders (Isaiah 9:6-7) and not on those of a political party.
Such division within congregations with its resultant loss of focus on the gospel will bring secularism into the church, rather than Christianity into secular politics.
Naive adherence of evangelical groups to political parties will likely bring political interference in church life in its wake. The Conventicle (1664) and Five Mile (1665) Acts enforced conformity to the Church of England, while the 1689 Act of Toleration (partly designed to prevent a resurgence of Catholicism) allowed dissenters to hold worship services but still excluded them from political office and the universities.
All this was not a result of ‘anti-Christian’ legislation, but of regulations set to enshrine a church-based Christianity deemed appropriate and acceptable by the State. The Puritans strongly opposed it and godly dissenters like John Bunyan, who followed a different path, were imprisoned or exiled to the new world colonies.
By opening up evangelical causes and churches to political allegiances that stretch beyond personal voting patterns, we risk something that will ultimately work against the gospel and our relationships with fellow believers.
Influence is a two-way street. Let’s not go there!