(I'm afraid this post is rather long. In fact, it should keep readers going until the middle of July. Before reading it, make sure you are sitting comfortably, preferably with a mug of cocoa and a supply of buns.)
I’m still on the subject of the way that Christians in Britain see political issues, with particular reference to the recent election. This post follows from my last post, in which I considered the list of questions that the Rev. Guy Davies, a Baptist pastor, put to the candidates in his constituency.
One of the things that interested me about the questions that Mr. Davies chose to ask was that his concerns were remarkably similar to those that the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales expressed in their leaflet “Some issues and questions for Parliamentary Candidates.”
While Mr. Davies had 12 questions for candidates, and the bishops dealt with five areas, both basically had nine areas of concern, and of these nine, six were common to both.
1. Secularisation and the place of religion in society.
Guy Davis: Do you believe that Christian values have a beneficial role to play in contemporary society?
CBCEW: What do you think is the place of religion in society?
Notice the difference in phrasing. The Catholic bishops speak about the place of religion, Mr Davies about Christian values. I think that bishops have asked the better question. It is more open ended, and more likely to get a candidate thinking. It also has the potential to get a more interesting response.
But I suspect that the underlying concern is the same. Both clearly feel that the Church and the Christian faith are being marginalised in modern Britain by aggressive secularism (and also, perhaps, ‘multi-faithism’). The Archbishop of Canterbury has the same feeling. In his recent sermon for the new parliament, he spoke about the way our society has been “regarding religious communities with the mixture of patronage and nervousness that has become uncomfortably common of late.”
This is not just a question of Christians to ask of politicians. It is also one that we Christians need to ask ourselves. What should be the place of religion, and specifically Christianity, in our society? Should Christianity have a privileged position? Does Luke 6:22 have anything at all to say to us on this subject?
2. Religious freedom
GD: Do you accept that people who believe that heterosexual marriage is the only proper context for a sexual expression should be free to say so without falling foul of the law or loosing their jobs? Do you believe that churches should be free only to employ people whose beliefs and lifestyle are in accordance with Christian teaching?
CBCEW: Religious belief is not just something private: it helps create a society that wants to see everyone flourish. It has a contribution to make and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings.
This is closely related to the first point. Indeed, the words “and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings” come just before the question “What do you think is the place of religion in society?” bishops’ leaflet.
Notice that both Mr. Davies and the bishops use similar forms of words about religious groups being allowed to operate in accordance with their teachings. Mr. Davies only asks about freedom for Christian churches, the bishops (in rather curious phrasing), say that “religious belief” must be allowed to make its contribution in accordance with its teachings. While that is rather inelegant, I like the fact that they request this freedom for all religions, not just one. (If you want freedom for yourself, you should be prepared to give it to others, on the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” principle.) In addition, I feel that it might have been wiser for Mr. Davies to ask “Do you believe that churches should be free only to employ people whose beliefs and lifestyle are in accordance with their teaching?” After all, different people have different views about what constitutes “Christian teaching”.
3. The place of marriage
GD: Do you believe that ...it is the duty of the State to do all it can to strengthen and encourage the institution of marriage?
CBCEW: Families are the basic building block of any stable society. Marriage provides the best context for bringing up children and must have the clear support and encouragement of Government. What will you do for marriage and the family? What practical measures will you take to encourage and support stable family life and the institution of marriage?
The phrasing is remarkably similar. But why do they believe that it is the duty of the State to strengthen and encourage the institution of marriage? What is the particular concern? The rising divorce rate? The rise in cohabitation? Do they really believe that anything that the state is likely to do will have any significant effect on divorce or cohabitation rates? The Labour government abolished the married couples’ tax allowance in 1999, but cohabitation and divorce rates was rising long before that. (Of course, it would be completely wrong to have a tax and benefit system that actually penalised married couples.)
GD: Do you believe that the law on abortion is too lax, too restrictive or about right?
CBCEW: valuing life. That means opposing abortion ....What does respect for life mean to you? Do all lives have the same value? ... the unborn?
It’s no surprise that abortion is a political issue for Christians. The bishops, however, are careful to avoid being seen as single issue fanatics, and put opposing abortion together with opposing euthanasia, and life-cramping poverty, and the neglect of the elderly.
GD: Do you think that the law on euthanasia should be changed?
CBCEW: valuing life. That means opposing ...euthanasia
Again, no surprise.
6. The environment
GD: How does your Party propose to protect the environment both at the local and international level?
CBCEW: Our care for each other is also shown in how ...we use – or abuse – the environment we share. We must be good stewards of God’s creation, not selfish exploiters of it. What is our responsibility to safeguard and protect the environment?"
This is an interesting one. It is something that Christians speak about a lot these days - but which, historically speaking, has not been a major concern of Christians. This, of course, is because during the 20th century, people have become a lot more aware of the potential for pollution to permanently damage the earth. Over the past 50 years, the environment has become a major political issue, and curbs have been put on air and water pollution in the western world.
I have a problem with this issue. It is summed up by the way Mr. Davies begins his question. “How does your party propose...?” Mr. Davies’s first seven questions are all “Yes or No” questions. They all begin with “Do you believe?” or “Do you accept?” or something like that. This one doesn’t. And I suspect Mr. Davies knows the answer that he is looking for in the first seven questions. He knows what he wants the law to say about abortion and euthanasia and freedom of religion. I suspect that when it comes to the environment, he doesn’t know what legislation he wants. He knows that protecting the environment is important, and so he includes a question on it. I even have my doubts that the Catholic Bishops know exactly what sort of environmental protection legislation they want. So I guess if Mr. Davies were to ask me, as a hypothetical libertarian candidate, how my party proposed to protect the environment both at the local and international level, I’d probably want to return the question and ask him what exactly he thought should be done, and why.
In addition to the 6 common concerns, Mr Davies and the bishops each had three additional concerns.
In the case of the bishops these were the treatment of immigrants (an issue that was clearly very important to the bishops judging by the amount of space they gave it), neglect of the elderly (this was covered very briefly), and poverty (both nationally and globally). In my opinion, the issue of poverty is like the question of the environment. We all know it’s an important issue - it’s just that we don’t know what to do about it. (And anyone who thinks they do know how to solve the problem of poverty is, in my view, hopelessly deluded.)
In the case of Mr. Davies, the three additional concerns were homosexuality (in particular the recognition of homosexual marriage), sex education in schools, and the local issues concerning hospital and swimming pool closures.
Should we expect so much common ground?
As I say, I was interested that there was so much agreement between Mr. Davies and the Catholic bishops in the concerns that they raised. One might say that this isn’t so odd, since these are issues that one would expect Christians to be concerned about. But we should bear in mind that there are two big differences between Mr. Davies and the bishops. First, they are Roman Catholic, and Mr. Davies is a staunch Protestant - he works part time for the Protestant Truth Society. Second, the bishops are a collection of people with a large organisation behind them, which includes people with political expertise, who have the resources to put together a carefully crafted and thought out document. Mr Davies is simply an individual with, as far as I am aware, no particular expertise in politics. And yet he and the bishops came up with a very similar list of concerns.
(By the way, if we wanted to compare like with like, and were looking for a large Protestant organisation which reflects the theological viewpoint of Mr. Davies, one could do worse than looking at the Christian Institute. They produced an election briefing, which Mr. Davies recommended on his blog, in which they stated “The Christian Institute believes that there are three touchstone issues for Christians in 2010: religious liberty, the sanctity of marriage, and the sanctity of human life.” In other words, they share four of the 6 concerns common to Mr. Davies and the Catholic bishops: freedom of religion, the place of marriage, abortion, and euthanasia. The two that are missing are the place of religion in modern society - probably because they felt that this was simply too general a point - and, very interestingly, the environment.)
The outlook of the ecclesiastical establishment
And what makes this even more interesting is that when I looked at the political concerns raised by members of the ecclesiastical establishment in Scotland in the run up to the election, the picture was entirely different. Not one of the six figures from the ecclesiastical establishment mentioned abortion. Not one mentioned euthanasia. Not one mentioned marriage. Not one mentioned the place of religion in society. And, note this, not one mentioned concerns about the erosion of freedom (religious or otherwise) in Britain. (The four issues that they particularly highlighted, by the way, were the treatment of immigrants, poverty, disarmament, and the environment.)
I find this interesting. Mr. Davies, as a Baptist pastor, has far more in common with the Catholic bishops of England and Wales than he does with his six fellow-Protestants from Scotland. And it seems to me that this is because he and the bishops are outside the establishment, whereas the six Scots are part of the establishment. It could be argued the difference is actually that Mr. Davies and the bishops stand for traditional Christianity, whereas the six Scots do not. But surely traditional Christianity is not so completely marginalised in the Church of Scotland that not a single traditional Christian was selected when six people were to be asked about their thoughts on the election?
Which is why I propose an alternative way of categorising Christians - those who follow establishment Christianity and those who are outside the establishment. The six Scots are comfortable in modern Britain, and one of the reasons they are able to feel comfortable is that they see no signs that our traditional freedoms are disappearing. They are basically optimistic about the political future of British society. Mr. Davies and the bishops are not comfortable in modern Britain. They appear to have a feeling of foreboding about the future. And one of the reasons for that is that they have at least some awareness that freedoms long taken for granted are being taken away by our political leaders. Whatever you may think of their theological views, at least they have their eyes open.