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Paul Vallely: Does faith matter at the ballot box?

05 December 2019

The party leaders seem to think that it does, Paul Vallely suggests


Signs outside a polling station in St Philip’s and St James’ Scottish Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, during the General Election in June 2017

Signs outside a polling station in St Philip’s and St James’ Scottish Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, during the General Election in June 2017

SHOULD Christians vote differently? Certainly, it seems that our political leaders have an expectation that Christians will have different concerns. That seems to be the lesson to be drawn from the articles written on these pages by Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jo Swinson.

All three politicians have set aside their conventional campaign preoccupations to focus on something rather different. Perhaps this is simply because they are responding to the particular Call to Action put out by the international aid and development agency Christian Aid. But the leaders’ articles are revealing at a deeper level. There is a clear supposition that Christians do not vote for personal advantage, but for the wider good of society.

Mr Johnson’s approach is rooted in the past and the present, trumpeting the achievements of nine years of Conservative government. Mr Corbyn is more philosophical, making direct reference to St Matthew’s Gospel, tracing a Christian ethic at the heart of the NHS, and acknowledging Labour’s debt to Christian Socialists. Ms Swinson’s is perhaps the closest to her party’s mainstream campaign agenda, placing climate change and the alleviation of poverty centre-stage.

Climate change is something about which all three express concern. But it is hard to make comparisons, from what they write here, on the efficacy of their proposals, since they all offer different yardsticks of progress.

But, interestingly, the consensus on Britain’s spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on aid seems to be maintained. That benchmark was enshrined in law by the Tory-LibDem coalition, and both those party leaders seek credit for it. That is interesting in the light of Mr Corbyn’s suggestion that aid is under attack from the Tories. It is to be hoped that Mr Johnson can be held to his word on this, although a good number of voters clearly think that his track record on trust is risible — and leaves plenty of room for him to engage in slippery manoeuvres on what that aid is spent on.

There is, probably inevitably, a far greater commitment to social justice in the UK in the thinking of the Labour and LibDem leaders. Mr Corbyn’s references to community, compassion, and the common good reveal the extent to which there is alignment between Labour’s tradition and the social teaching of the Church. Ms Swinson notes concerns with the benefit system which are shared by many of the Christians who run foodbanks.

To what extent does any of this help a Christian decide how to vote? One of the great dangers of this election is that it will fragment into a series of single-issue decisions. Some feel it is only about Brexit (Mr Johnson feels compelled to lever in a non-sequitur about it at the end of his article). Some, like the Chief Rabbi, suggest that it is only about anti-Semitism (News, 29 November). Others say that it is about the character of the Prime Minister, which seems to be founded on shifting moral sands. Others dismiss Ms Swinson for hubris and poor judgement.

But this is a General Election, and the word “general” is significant. There are issues of track record, trust, competence, judgement, and morality to weigh. Perhaps it leaves us only with a choice of the lesser of evils — but that is the choice that we have to make.

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