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Angela Tilby: Why faith is important at the ballot box    

02 February 2024

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“ONCE to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide.” J. Russell Lowell’s stirring hymn (in the “National” section of the 1906 English Hymnal) reminds us that the choice of good over evil can be very costly: “By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, thy bleeding feet we track, Toiling up new Calvaries ever With the Cross that turns not back.” Elections this year in Russia, Britain, Europe, and the United States prod us to consider what part Christian faith now plays in political life.

In Russia, Orthodox Christianity mostly supports President Putin’s aggressive nationalism. In the United States and Britain, the Christian legacy is complex. Most American candidates for election claim Christian sympathies, while standing apart from the teaching of any particular Church. Europe is moving to the Right, with nods to Christian values. In the UK, Christian continuity is symbolised by the monarch, while most Christians embrace tolerance and free speech: Enlightenment values with arguably Christian roots.

In his book Dominion: The making of the Western mind, Tom Holland argues that our ideals of justice, compassion, and self-sacrifice are still influenced by the image and example of the crucified Christ (Books, 13 September 2019). Recently, a number of intellectuals who had previously written off Christianity have come to embrace it in various ways (Comment, 29 September 2023).

Take the writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Brought up in Somalia, her childhood dominated by conservative Islam, she renounced all religion when she came to the West. More recently, she has become a Christian, seeing her new faith as an expression of the liberal values that she has made her own (Press, 17 November 2023).

Of course, Western liberal values do not necessarily depend on faith; most humanists would claim to espouse them. Yet, if Holland is right, it is difficult so see how they can be sustained without at least some worshipping believers and the visual reminders of the crucified Christ in churches and art. The cultural influence of Christianity may be receding, but, Holland suggests, social-justice movements might be Christianity’s latter-day expression, with their demand for the liberation of victims.

I suspect that there is something in that, but perhaps more important for our freedom and flourishing is the detachment that comes from belief in transcendence. If all political ideals fall short of the justice of God, we are constantly driven to repent, reform, and seek a better way. That must be healthy.

In this election year, we should not necessarily be looking for Christian candidates, but for those who recognise the civilisational importance of the Christian story for the West and, ultimately, for the world. Without the memory of the crucified Christ, the world could become a much more vicious place. As J. Russell Lowell put it, “Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above his own.”

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