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The Cross and The Ballot Box

05 May 2015

Alistair Campbell famously informed us that British politicians ‘do not do God’. At this election time that statement might be inverted into a question: ‘Do religious people do politics?’ Are God and ‘Caesar’ so strongly opposed that the faithful have nothing to say on the subject of who rules them and how? The answer, it seems, is increasingly clear: people of faith, and especially Christians, do have an interest in politics. In fact, because their interest in politics arises out of conviction – a sentiment depressingly rare these days – it has a strength and determination that demands attention.

Rather than talk vaguely about the ‘politics of faith’ generally, I would suggest that particular interest ought to be taken in the substantial and growing element in Christianity to which I belong – the evangelicals. It’s hard to know how big the evangelical movement in British Christianity actually is: after all, evangelicalism is not so much a church denomination as a way of taking our faith seriously. According to the Evangelical Alliance there may now be around two million evangelicals in the UK and they represent the only segment of Christianity in Britain that is growing. 

It’s all too easy, however, to leap to considering the attitude of evangelicals to politics without understanding who they are. That would be a mistake. The curious paradox about evangelicals is that their strong commitment to politics arises not because they believe that politics is of ultimate importance but because they know it isn’t. Deep down, they are more concerned about heaven than Westminster, about doing the right thing rather than being elected. The belief that in the long run – and eternity is the longest of long runs – the only thing that matters is the kingdom of heaven, paradoxically insulates Christians from the disillusionment and pessimism that stains and drains so many political careers. In an age of cynicism about politicians, it’s worth remembering that evangelicals genuinely believe not just in doing good but in being good. 

So who are the evangelicals? British evangelicals are widely misunderstood. In part, they have only themselves to blame: there is a price for practising humility and ignoring glitzy public relations. And frankly, in terms of what the modern media want, most evangelicals are really rather uninteresting. Oh yes, if you can unearth accounts of exorcisms, financial misconduct or sex (and preferably all three) among the clergy then you may have the makings of a story. But in the twenty-first century it’s hard to get people intrigued about men and women whose idea of a good Sunday is some exuberant songs, a few heartfelt prayers, a relevant sermon and giving sizeable amounts of money to charity. For the record, an evangelical is a Christian whose faith focuses on the Bible and Christ, an evangelist is someone who seeks to proclaim such a faith; I am happy to be both. Another all-too-common mistake is to assume that British evangelicalism must be identical with the American version, with all its implications of right-wing politics, razzamatazz and strident fundamentalism

Nevertheless, if you are outside it, getting a handle on the British evangelical movement is far from easy. There is no ‘evangelical denomination’, no common slogans or common clothing, and certainly no papal figure who acts as a universally respected leader. Rather, evangelicalism is a cloth woven from many strands. Indeed, much to the frustration of church bureaucrats who would prefer to keep their sheep in their fold, evangelicals hold to denominational distinctives very lightly and are quite happy to jump clerical fences to hear a good preacher or be blessed by lively services. So, for the record again, I am happy to be an evangelical but I work with those who are Anglicans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Catholics and of no known affiliation. Although there are common key beliefs – the importance of the Bible, a focus on Jesus Christ, his death on the cross and his presence today and the necessity of conversion – these are expressed in a bewildering range of worship styles, attitudes and ways of ‘doing church’. 

A factor that should not be overlooked is also the way in which evangelicalism cuts across ethnic and geographic boundaries. Most vibrant churches today (and in this context will include people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Contemporary British evangelicalism includes substantial elements from the Black, South Asian and Chinese communities, and more than a few, like myself, from a Greek Cypriot background. In some towns the largest churches are to be found in the African or Chinese community. There are also strong global links, especially with the churches of Asia, Africa and South America, some of which are growing at an astonishing rate. 

In today’s political context, some other key evangelical traits are worth noting: they have youth and energy and aspire to – and frequently practice – integrity. Perhaps the most significant feature in an age when enthusiasm is ephemeral is that their faith gives them an optimistic confidence. It is typical of the evangelical mind-set that, at a time when many churches are contracting, ageing or simply closing, they are concerned with opening new buildings, training new leaders, creating teaching programmes and caring for the poor. 

News of the growth in evangelical numbers would probably elicit only a comment of ‘so what?’ outside Christian circles except for one thing: evangelicals are now taking a serious interest in politics. The relationship between evangelicals and politics is an odd story. Two hundred years ago evangelicals were a major driving force in British society: research any nineteenth-century social reform and you will find an evangelical pushing it forward. Think Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and their largely forgotten friends. Then, just at the high water mark of their power, evangelicals mysteriously lost the plot, turned away from society and became inward looking, far more worried about their souls than social justice. The pattern, of course, was very different in the United States where, in the twentieth century, evangelicals hitched their wagon to right-wing dogma and played politics with enthusiasm, if not always with success. 

The otherworldly reticence traditionally associated with evangelicals is changing as, in Britain and elsewhere in the world, they are recovering a sturdy vision for social involvement. There are many reasons for this. One lies with the economic crisis that descended on us in 2008 and which exposed a deep-seated malaise at the heart of the global political system. If Christians had hitherto felt that they had nothing to say in the world of politics and economics this devastating revelation – that a combination of greed, folly and falsehood could lay waste entire nations – was a savage reminder that morality in high places is no bad thing. And equally, the almost universal feeling that those who have found themselves in charge of running today’s world do not really know how to manage it is an encouragement for fresh voices to come forward. 

Why should we pay particular attention to the rise of the evangelicals in politics? Let me suggest four reasons.

First, evangelicals have determination. Yes, of course, that determination springs from their belief that they are on God’s side. (A very different matter, incidentally, from believing that God is on your side.) History tells us that such a belief is a remarkably powerful motivation. That determination derived from faith is bolstered by an evangelical sense of history. Evangelicals view themselves not as innovators, but as the custodians of authentic Christianity stretching back at least half a millennium through the nineteenth-century evangelical reformers such as Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, the eighteenth-century revivalists such as Wesley and Whitefield and still further through Puritans and the sixteenth-century Reformers. Ultimately, of course, evangelicals see themselves in continuity with the earliest followers of Jesus: the early church and the first martyrs. In an age of Christian persecution those links do not seem far-fetched: being put to death in the amphitheatre has an uncomfortably contemporary feel to it. The evangelical view is that the world is a pretty hostile place and that if you want to do anything worthwhile then you need to be prepared for a long haul on a tough road – that’s a useful preparation for politics. 

Second, evangelicals have learned how to think. Time was when you could dismiss evangelicals as naive, credulous Bible-bashers who preferred to talk about Jesus but were ludicrously out of their depth in the serious matters of life, such as budget deficits and foreign policy. Not any more: there is some serious thinking at every level about how the good news of the gospel should apply to how we are to live as a society. The shift is typified by Justin Welby, an Archbishop of Canterbury who can speak about economic and political issues in a way that demands respect, while at the same time seamlessly bringing in Jesus. 

Third, evangelicals have come to realise that there is no option but to be involved in politics. Until recently, there was an unthinking assumption among evangelicals that Britain’s Christian roots were so deep and extensive that whatever party came to power would be at least broadly tolerant of Christianity. All that has changed: there is now an uneasy awareness across Christianity – and not just evangelicalism – that a government could, for the first time, make the lives of those who hold to the historic faith extremely difficult. We have seen rulings – and proposed rulings – on prayer in hospitals and schools, on civil partnership ceremonies in churches, on faith schools and on what we may say and cannot say, rulings that risk pushing many churches and many Christians into illegality. This unease is heightened by evangelicalism’s links to the past; there is a widespread feeling that much of what is (or was) good in British society (its once much-envied stability, tolerance and decency) came from evangelical Protestantism. Such views should not be lightly dismissed; such fundamental democratic values as the universality of the rule of law, the value of all individuals and the right to free speech were either first promoted or widely supported by those whose faith was Bible-based. Yet as evangelicals survey the British scene today there is a sense of foreboding as they see what they consider to be their culture changed, and not for the better. With that foreboding comes the resolve to do something while something can be done.

Fourthly, and more positively, evangelicals have hope. If one feature characterises the debates around the current election it is that there is a lack of vision. The arguments being deployed on every side seem to concentrate on fear and greed. Underneath the proud, polished statements there seems to be only the despairing view that the best politics can do is try to keep the ship of state afloat. Beyond the fine words and tuned phrases there is no talk of any dream, only that of nightmares which might be avoided. Evangelicals, however, believe in the future, in the need for a just society and in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. They have hope and hope always trumps despair.

Evangelicals, then, are both important and concerned. But what do they want? I would suggest that two things are important. The first, quite simply, is 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. So, for instance, it is widely assumed that evangelicals and fundamentalists are the same thing, when there are profound differences both in the nature and practice of their beliefs. So it should not really be necessary for me to write here that while all Christians believe in creation, the vast majority of British Christians (whether evangelical or not) would see at least some measure of symbolism in the first few chapters of Genesis. 

But comprehension is not enough; we evangelicals would like consideration. Here we come across one major difference from our American counterparts: although increasingly British evangelicals are getting involved with politics we have no aspirations for political power. Unlike our counterparts across the Atlantic, we do not want to be either kings or king-makers. This may be because of the way that British Christianity is more nuanced and recognises that the world is a difficult place and that there are sometimes rather grey issues that are not best resolved in black and white. We do want to be recognised for who we are and we wouldn’t mind being listened to. In part, this desire to be consulted is self-interest but, more than that, we evangelicals are linked to community and we feel a duty to those at the bottom of the social ladder. I understand that in many parts of London and elsewhere there are very many people who have done very well out of the recession. Let me tell you, however, that there are an awful lot of people at the bottom of the social ladder who are not doing very well at all. Indeed, many evangelical church leaders, whether they call themselves vicars, pastors or ministers, are exasperated at what is said by political leaders who are securely cocooned in council offices or Westminster and protected by healthy salaries, pension schemes and substantial investments. We know what’s really happening and we wouldn’t mind if somebody listened.

Here the powerful sense of cultural history that runs through evangelicalism gives its adherents, whatever their ethnic background, a sense of being guardians of a decent society. Evangelicals have strong and thought-through views on culture and society and we also have grievances. Let me list some of them. We universally lament the rise in house prices, which, by forcing both partners to work, has put pressure on marriages and families. Even before the present financial crisis we were unhappy about a culture that had come to elevate the manipulators of funds and 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, dentistry or decent schools. We are irritated by a culture that has become so shallow that it glorifies sports and media celebrities rather than those who work tirelessly to help others. We are baffled and saddened by a national ethos that elevates the banal and the trivial over the worthwhile and the lasting. We are exasperated by a political culture that wants to see the results of faith but doesn’t care for faith – as if fruit can be produced without a fruit tree. We are aggrieved by the way that almost everything is now apparently controlled by shareholders for shareholders. We are sick of spin, of empty words and of manipulated statistics. Perhaps, above all, we find ourselves infuriated at the way in which, with morality side-lined, politics has become dominated by nothing nobler than a seedy, short-term, must-please-the-voters hypocrisy. 

Yet we want consideration not simply to air grievances. We may be frustrated but we are not ultimately cynical. After all, a central Christian belief is a firm and certain hope that the future belongs to God. While we believe in sin we also believe in grace. We have ideas and suggestions to share, based not on political ideology but on working with real people in the real world.

No doubt you will want me to say who evangelicals will vote for. Here I make no predictions; British evangelicalism’s diversity is so great that there never could be a block vote and certainly not now. Yet I do know that even with a low poll, Christians will vote; we treat politics seriously. The fact is, there is much in all parties to attract us and much to repel us. In short, I do not know how evangelicals will vote in this election; a number of people I talk to have still not made up their minds. I have confidence, however, that evangelicals will play a significant part in the election. I have a still greater confidence that, in the years ahead, the role of evangelicals in the political process will be very significant indeed.

Revd Canon
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