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5 May 2015Why should Christians be involved in politics?

Westminster 720

Some Christians argue that it is not our business to be involved in politics. First, they argue, we have more serious matters on which to concentrate: getting people to heaven is more important than trying to straighten out a fallen world. Second, politics is so corrupt that we must keep a distance, lest we become contaminated. A third argument is that as God is sovereign, so he can be trusted to take care of politics. To this last argument I would respond that we have to be very careful that we do not make God's almighty power a convenient excuse for avoiding our own responsibility: the Bible says a great deal about humans being God's vice-regents in the world and one of God's first commissions to humanity is for us to rule, subdue and be fruitful in the earth. This commitment to involvement is not only significant for how we live our own lives but for how we Christians are to engage with society as a whole. In fact, much of Britain's governmental system and the fundamentals of Western democracy were developed out of the Christian view of who human beings are and how we are to relate to each other.

Let me briefly outline three principles which, taken together, make a foundation for how we view government.

1. There is a need for government

The biblical view is that human nature is so twisted by our rebellion against God that some sort of a government is essential to protect the weak. The worst government is not a dictatorship, but no government at all;in the resulting anarchy everyone is a tyrant and the weak are mercilessly crushed. This principle explains the essentially positive view of government that is found in the New Testament (Matthew 22:15-22;Romans 13:1-7;1 Peter 2:13-17). Our God is a God of order who protects all, cares for all and emphasises the innate dignity of all human beings. This side of God's eternal kingdom we will always need to have some sort of government to protect the weak and defenceless from the cruel and powerful.

2. There are limits to government

Yet if governments have validity they do not have unrestricted authority. Indeed, the Bible is clear that the power any government wields is merely loaned to it by God (John 19:11) and that a government is accountable to him for its use or abuse. We are not God but we are his vice-regents or stewards on the earth. Because fallen and sinful human beings run political systems, there is the inevitable potential for corruption. For this reason, limits need to be set on governments. The most stable states in the world are those that, operating on biblical principles, have created a system of checks and balances to ensure that their governments can never have unlimited and uncontrolled power. Furthermore, precisely because the power any government has comes only from the authority loaned to it by God there are limits on how it may use that power. If it exceeds that God-given authority and becomes unjust and evil then a Christian has a right –indeed an obligation –to disobey the state. Our allegiance to God must always take precedence over our allegiance to a political system.

3. There is no God-given template for a Christian political system

In the Old Testament God established a pattern for how Israel should be governed, with rules for tribes, priests, kings, legislation and rituals. There is nothing comparable in the New Testament. Presumably in anticipation of Christianity's spread outwards into every different culture and society God gave no rules on how his new covenant people were to be governed. Christ's followers are not to isolate themselves to any particular region, location or nation but should be prepared to live among all nations as salt and light throughout the world. There are biblical principles for how we are to live but not for how we are to rule others. The result is that the Christian has no commitment to a particular political structure. Christianity has survived –and even flourished –under regimes of left, right and centre and under monarchies, empires and republics. Today, in Britain, Christians are found in all the main political parties.

With these principles as a foundation let me suggest four reasons why we need to be involved in politics.

1. We have a moral commitment to politics

At the most basic level, everybody ought to be involved in politics. Fairly obviously, if you do not get involved in the political process don't be surprised when you find someone else managing your life for you. We are all affected either directly or indirectly on a daily basis by the way our nation is governed. So it is crucial that all Christians should stay informed on the workings of the governmental systems. This is particularly important because of the tendency of human society to go wrong. Power not only can be abused, it will be. There's a famous saying attributed to Edmund Burke, that 'For evil to triumph it is merely necessary that good men do nothing.' To express that another way, all that is necessary for the weak and powerless to be crushed by the strong and powerful is for no one to stand up for them. You don't have to look far on the news pages of the web or even perhaps on the streets of your own town, to find the powerless being crushed.

Politics should be for everybody;if we want our government to run more effectively and more ethically, we all need to play our part by getting involved. Christians should most definitely get involved through voting. We should not forfeit or take for granted our valuable right to vote. Even in Britain the right of all adults to vote was gained only as recently as 1928. We should also remember that our role as citizens does not end when the election results are announced. MPs are elected to serve and represent constituencies and they respond –or should do –to sensible letters and emails supporting or condemning particular actions.

2. We have a Christian commitment to politics

As Christians we ought to go much further than this universal moral commitment. As those redeemed by Christ and brought into the family of God we need to exhibit a spirit of justice, care and mutual concern for our fellow men and women. As Christ went about doing good (Acts 10:38), so should we. We are to get involved in the way the world is run, and seek to do good and restrain evil. As St Theresa of Avila said, 'we are the hands and feet of Jesus'. St Paul described Christians as 'ambassadors for Christ' with the implication that we are to be doing good things in the name of Christ. Part of being an ambassador for Christ is to promote him and his standards in our political system. We are his workers and by our actions we are helping usher in his kingdom on the earth. The democratic system gives us the privilege of having some small amount of influence in how we are governed. We need to remember that, as Christians, we are not interested in using that influence for our own sakes but in caring for others.

3. We have a historical commitment to politics

In Britain, Christians should feel a particular responsibility towards the political system. Much that is good about our government is due to the legacy of Christians. The basis of modern democracy comes from the biblical concept that we are all made in the image of God, that we all stand as individuals equal before him and that we are all accountable to him for the use or abuse of what we have been given. Throughout the centuries believers of all denominations –Catholics, Reformers, Puritans, Methodist evangelists and Victorian evangelical social reformers –have stood up for justice and freedom and, often at considerable risk, opposed tyranny and oppression. Yet we need to remember that democracy is a fragile thing: it is all too easy for the unscrupulous and powerful to bend it to suit themselves. Democracy is the rule by the many but government can far too easily become the rule of the few, or even –God forbid –the one. Our Christian ancestors laboured for a democratic system and the rights that we have come to enjoy;we need to preserve the inheritance we have received from them.

4. We need a pragmatic commitment to politics

Because the British political system was founded on biblical principles, we have rather carelessly assumed that Christian morality would prevail in the political system. Yet times have changed and all political parties are now aggressively promoting secularism, that view which excludes religious values from politics and government. The trouble is that secularism is in fact a religion of its own and inevitably brings its own values with it. The unfortunate result is that the traditional rights that Christians have enjoyed for centuries are now increasingly under threat. With God removed from politics the state can make up any rules that it wants and the evidence from secular states around the world is that this is exactly what it will do. We need to be involved in politics not just in order that our culture and rights might be preserved but that those of other people might be represented as well.

I have suggested three principles of government and given four reasons why Christians should be involved in politics. Let me now suggest how we should be involved in politics.

How should Christians be involved in politics?

If we are to be involved in politics, even at the basic level of voting, how are we to be involved? Let me suggest four practices.

1. We should become better informed

Most of my discussions with Christians regarding politics are based on their prejudices rather than on a knowledge of the facts! We all need to be better informed and understand what's critical and what's true. We live at a time when people's decisions on how they vote are all too easily swayed by a slick presentation or by glossy PR work. Equally, it's very common in the course of an election campaign for statements to be made which actually bear very little relationship to the truth. Not only that, but promises are often made which quite simply cannot be kept. Sometimes, exactly what an individual or party stands for in a particular area is conveniently overlooked. As the saying goes, 'the devil is in the detail' and sometimes that detail is in very small print at the end of an election manifesto, hidden in a tiny box on the party website or even overlooked altogether.

In any situation involving an election we need to ask questions. Are the claims being made true? Are they feasible? Are there hidden areas in a manifesto that we need to ask questions about? Quite simply we need to be as well informed as we possibly can be.

2. We should be those who vote

When only 30% or 40% of people vote, a minority can end up deciding the fate of the country. This makes it all the more vital that we vote. With perhaps 2 million people in Britain considering themselves evangelicalsand around 70% of the population calling themselves Christian, imagine the impact we could have if we all voted! But remember, we should vote not so much for ourselves as for others. When a country is run badly, the first people to suffer are the voiceless, the dispossessed and the poor. A failure to vote is therefore a failure to look after the interests of those for whom we ought to care (Isaiah 58:5-7).

3. We should carefully consider whom we vote for

Having decided that we are going to vote, we now face the difficult question of who to vote for. Do we vote on local issues or national? Do we vote for a candidate or a party, or even against them? Do we vote for the candidate we want even if we know that they have no hope of winning? Is tactical voting ever permissible? There are no simple answers but we can summarise the areas under three headings: principles, personalities and programmes.

Principles

We need to find out exactly what the candidates and parties really believe. We ought to be very wary of simply voting on the basis of what will be best for us. We should have no interest in self-interest. A distinctive feature of Christians in the political arena should be that they consider what is best for others rather than for themselves.

We need to shun any campaign methods or messages that major on greed, hatred or fear. That is immoral. Equally questionable is the sort of negative campaigning that focuses entirely on the weaknesses of the opposition.

We should strive to see beyond the publicity stunts, video clips, backing bands and glib slogans. We live in an age when words are cheap;it is important to ask what the reality is behind those words and images.

We need to look very carefully at the feasibility of campaign promises. It's very easy to promise the earth in an election campaign. The sort of questions we must ask are whether the candidate can actually deliver? Or, if the promise is delivered, what is the price tag going to be?

Personalities

It is important that we do not cast our vote purely on the basis of how someone is portrayed in the election campaign. Beautiful people do not always make the best politicians. That said, individuals are important and we should do our best to find out about our local candidates. We might want to ask whether they are genuinely committed to moral values or do they simply adopt whatever is the current fashionable view. Do they place their party's ideology above everything else? Would they be prepared to vote against the party line on moral grounds? Are they grappling with the bigger issues or are they simply interested in small-scale, day-to-day matters? Perhaps, above all, we should ask whether potential candidates seek to be elected in order to serve their self-interest or the interests of others.

Programmes

With regard to particular issues, there are several things, both positive and negative, to monitor. At present it is tempting to focus on the economy. But there are broader and more significant issues. One very important one is how we deal with the growing inequalities in British society. The most unstable societies are those in which there is a vast gulf between rich and poor. Over the last few decades the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer. The problem shows itself clearly in the area of housing, where many people –not just the poor –now find it impossible to get on the housing ladder. Housing is no longer considered a basic human right, but a means of financial gain for the upper class. To let Britain become a nation of haves and have-nots is neither moral nor wise.

Another penetrating issue centres on the question of exactly what sort of country we are to be in the world? The banking crisis has concentrated minds on the matter of how, as a nation, we influence the world. Are we to be merely the bankers and financial experts on the global scene or also a nation of innovators, manufacturers and educators? Linked to these questions are issues such as education, transport and infrastructure. It has been said that 'a politician thinks about the next election;a statesman about the next generation'. We need to look towards the future. We should listen out for sensible proposals for long-term solutions rather than expedient short-term fixes.

For the Christian there are also real and difficult questions to ask about the culture of the nation. For well over a thousand years we have developed as a Christian nation shaped by Christian values. It is currently fashionable to want to throw all that away. But if we do that, what values do we replace it with? And what security will there be for those who hold to traditional values?

4. We should make our involvement as Christians known

It will do us no harm at political meetings or in discussion at the door with canvassers to pose sensible questions and preface them with something like, 'As a Christian I feel strongly that … What is your response?' One reason why the Christian voice has not been heard is that we have actually been too silent. Humility may be a virtue, but silence may be a crime.

5. We should maintain our political involvement after the election

The work of governing a nation continues on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis. Our impact may be more important in the time between elections than on election day itself. One obvious way to wield influence is to send letters or emails to our MPs on matters about which we feel strongly. Another way is more costly: we may actually want to get involved in the political system. Why not consider working as a volunteer with your political party? Why not explore the opportunity to serve in political office yourself or help someone else to serve? We can also impact the political system for good through advocacy on certain issues. There is much in the British system that needs examination and probably replacement. The fundamental basis of democracy is that all citizens have a right to be heard. We need to do our best to ensure that the weak and the oppressed have a voice and are not simply swept under the carpet. This will be a powerful witness to the Christian ethic of loving our neighbours as ourselves. So, above all, we should put pressure on politicians to live according to these principles.

It's easy to be depressed about politics and at the moment we face a distinctly uninspiring general election. Let me suggest, however, that the worst we can do is to give up in despair. One of the supreme Christian virtues is that of hope. If we stay out of politics, things may –and probably will –get worse. If we get involved and work in the world of politics then things may be very different. It will not be easy, but we need to do what we can. Mother Teresa was asked how she could persevere in her work when she and the Sisters of Charity were just a tiny drop in the ocean compared with the great need of the world. She responded, 'Ah yes, but remember the ocean is made of tiny drops.' Each of us has a part to play. As Christians we are an Easter people, living in a Good Friday world, so we can make a difference. And remember, we're not alone. After all, didn't Jesus say, 'I am with you even to the end of the age'? That's a promise that covers every area of life, including politics.

Revd Canon J. John is Director of Philo Trust.