SOME British politicians, Alastair Campbell famously informed us, “don’t do God”. At this election time, a related question ought to be asked whether people of faith do politics. The answer, it seems, is that they do, and increasingly so — particularly Evangelicals. This is something that ought to give the political parties pause for thought.
Although they have an honourable history of social involvement (including the Wesleys, Wilberforce, and Shaftesbury), Evangelicals have not, until recently, been bothered much about political matters. This is partly because they tend to be inward-looking, more preoccupied with their own relationship with God than with the state of the world.
Another significant factor is that, until recently, there was an unthinking assumption among Evangelicals that Britain’s Christian roots were so extensive that, whatever party came to power, it would be at least broadly tolerant of cultural Christianity.
As someone who travels widely throughout Britain, I sense that this indifference is now changing. One reason is the almost perverse fact that, as the spiritual void in British society deepens, the Evangelical community has a growing self-confidence. Despite the protestations of a few animated atheists, it is now acceptable to have faith; the only question is what kind of faith to have.
A more important reason is that there has been a gradual loss of that comforting view that politicians were fundamentally irrelevant. There is now a troubled awareness that a new government could, for the first time, make the lives of those who hold to historic Christianity extremely difficult.
We have seen rulings and proposals on prayer in hospitals and schools, on civil-partnership ceremonies in churches, and on faith schools, which, if formalised into law, would make at least some of what all churches do illegal.
Such unease is heightened by Evangelicalism’s links to the past. Much of what is (or was) good in British society (stability, tolerance, and decency, for example) came from Evangelical Protestantism. The universality of the rule of law and the right to free speech were first promoted or widely supported by those whose faith was Bible-based. Yet, as Evangelicals survey the scene, there is a sense of dismay as they see their culture changed, and not for the better.
WHAT do Evangelicals want? I would suggest that two things are important. The first is simply comprehension. British Evangelicals would feel happier if those who aspire to lead would at least go to the trouble of trying to understand who we are.
One example is the assumption that we are some sort of imported American novelty. Another is the way in which it is widely assumed that Evangelicals and fundamentalists are the same thing.
But comprehension is not enough: we would like to be listened to. Unlike our American counterparts, British Evangelicals have no aspirations for political power. This may be because of the more nuanced form of British Christianity, which recognises that the world is a difficult place and that there are grey issues that are not resolvable in black and white. It may also be a distant memory of the failure of the Puritans and the catastrophe of the English Civil War.
In part, this desire to be consulted is self-interest. Yet there is something else: we Evangelicals are indissolubly linked to community, and we feel a duty to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Many Evangelical leaders feel exasperated at what is said by political leaders cocooned in council offices or in Westminster. We know what is really happening, and we would like somebody to notice.
Here, the powerful sense of cultural history that runs through Evangelicalism gives its adherents a sense of being guardians of what it is to be a decent society. So, for example, we lament the rise in house prices, which, by forcing both partners to work, has put pressure on marriage and families.
Even before the present financial crisis, we were unhappy about a culture that had come to elevate the movers of paper above those who actually made things. We are angry when we see the poor suffering because they cannot afford proper health care or decent schools.
We are exasperated by a political culture that wants to see the results of faith, but does not care for faith itself, as if fruit can be produced without a fruit tree. Perhaps, above all, we find ourselves infuriated at the way in which, as morality has been sidelined, politics has become dominated by a seedy, short-term pragmatism.
we may be frustrated, but we are not cynics. While we believe in sin, we also believe in grace. We do not expect the creation of the New Jerusalem, but we would like the abuses of Babylon to be restrained. We have ideas to share, based not on political ideology, but on working with people in the real world.
I make no predictions about whom Evangelicals will vote for. British Evangelicalism’s diversity is so great that there can be no block vote. Yet I do know that, even with a low poll, Christians will vote: we treat politics seriously now.
There is much in all three parties to attract us. We admire Labour’s commitment (at least in theory) to social justice; we respect the Conservatives’ appreciation of the rights of individuals; and we find the Liberal Democrats’ defence of personal freedom engaging.
Yet there is also much that troubles us about all three: Labour’s refusal to apologise over its mishandling of the economy; the Conservatives’ evident social élitism; and the worrying illiberality of the Liberal Democrats.
I do not know exactly how Evangelicals will affect this election, but I have no doubt they will play an important part. The time is not far off when their place in politics will be critical.
J. John is an evangelist and Director of the Philo Trust.