The General Election: Politics and Religion Do Mix!
When people tell me that the Bible has nothing to do with politics, I ask them, “Which Bible are you talking about?” Desmond Tutu.
Politics and religion do mix, they are about life and page after page of Scripture reveals God’s desire and purposes for the world, including how we live and relate to one another, which includes issues of governance.
We celebrate and give thanks to God for the transformation that knowing Christ brings to life but that transformation shouldn’t stop at the boundaries of our personal lives. When the Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Colossae he reminds them of the supremacy of Christ and how all things are held together in him. Every aspect of God’s creation can be transformed by Christ; business, economics, arts, media, education, religion, family and community life, how we use the land and treat livestock, relate to one another and the wider world, which of course includes politics.
Theologians talk about the ‘creation mandate’, the call to reflect God’s image in our lives; how we care for one another and the world. From the opening chapters of Genesis we see principles and patterns that God decrees for his world: giving rather than taking, loving rather than hating, accepting the responsibility to be ‘my brother’s keeper’ instead of selfishness; of how we are to seek peace, putting others above ourselves, stewarding our time and resources for the common good, protecting and promoting the importance of marriage, parenthood, family life, and community. We are called to understand and embrace the co-dependency between freedom and responsibility and between justice and mercy.
If you want to read the most revolutionary manifesto the world has ever seen, take a look at Jesus Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5~8).
Throughout Scripture, there are over 2,500 reminders of God’s heart for the poor and our responsibility to care, to speak up for the marginalised, to proclaim righteousness and justice, showing mercy and compassion. They tell us very clearly that judgement will come upon all those who develop vested interests and oppress and exclude the poor; we are warned about the inherent danger wealth and power can bring, that taxes must be set fairly and collected with honesty. We are told that peace and reconciliation are priorities in God’s agenda for the world, to love our enemies, that vengeance has no place in justice, that good covenantal relationships of trust and respect, fairness and honesty are more important than contracts, both personally and societally.
The Scriptures remind us that we are called not only to love God but to love our neighbour, that leadership should be characterised by faithfulness, integrity, compassion and justice; that human rights and civil liberties are important and why transparency and accountability are important and serving, as a virtue, along with forgiveness is essential in all human relationships.
So it’s ridiculous to claim that politics and religion don’t mix. Those who create a sacred and secular divide have formulated a false dichotomy and fail to grasp what the Psalmist declared; The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, Psalm 24:1.
George Austin, the former Archbishop of York said, For the Christian, to mix religion and politics is not an option; it is an obligation. Certainly this was understood by Christians of previous generations, many of whom, inspired by their faith, were founders and key figures within their political parties. The Labour Party was formed by a fusion of unions and Christian Socialists, whose early party meetings were held in chapels. I remember working in the summer holidays for the local newspaper when we were at college and it was during a period of industrial unrest and many walk-outs and 1 day strikes. We would have to ‘down tools’ and meet for our Sogat Union ‘chapel’ meeting to discuss, mostly hotly debate what action to take against the management who were forcing changes without proper consulation with Union reps. Some members refused to work on a computer, saying it would never replace hot metal printing! In the 1920s over a quarter of Labour MPs were Methodist lay preachers. Go back over 200 years and you see people like William Wilberforce, one of the most influential figures in the Conservative party’s history, compelled by his faith to work for the abolition of slavery. Or William Gladstone, an evangelical Christian and leader of the Liberal party that was largely made up of nonconformists. Saunders Lewis, the founder of Plaid Cymru, was inspired by his faith. I have been inspired by the life and work Marti Luther King, who receiving his honorary doctorate at Newcastle university was presented to the chancellor as a Christian pastor and social revolutionary.
It’s been my privilege over a number of years to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, hosted by the Speaker of the House in recognition of the contribution that Christianity makes to our national life. On this and other occasions where I have been in Westminster, I’m struck by the number of Christians, across all the mainline political parties, who are in politics because of their Christian belief, their faith motivating their work as politicians. Walk around the Houses of Parliament and you are aware that Christianity has shaped the democracy we now have. The Judaeo-Christian values that have had a profound influence on the governance of our country are much in evidence. In its architecture, you see angels looking down on parliamentarians from every angle in many parts of the palace of Westminster. They remind anyone passing below where the real authority lies and to whom everyone will one day give account, God himself. At the top of Westminster Hall there is a huge, dramatic painting of an early piece of legislation. It depicts Moses receiving the stone tablets on which the 10 Commandments were written. How I wish that modern parliamentarians might acknowledge the living God from whom comes laws that bring blessing to the nations and reflect his heart of love and compassion for the world, where justice and righteousness, peace, healing and a true sense of well-being are realised in society.
The first words that are uttered at the beginning of each new day are those of the Speakers chaplain. They are a prayer, which we may wish to use ourselves in the run-up to this general election: Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed. Amen.
I remember hearing about the scripture that was read first thing in Parliament on the day when it was later announced that the stock markets had crashed and we were entering a major global recession. Exodus 22:25, If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.
It was Martin Luther King who said that Christians are very good at being the good Samaritan, tending and caring for the man who was beaten up. What we are more reticent about is getting involved and going back up the Jericho Road and addressing the cause of him being robbed and wounded.
We can think of the remarkable involvement of churches in the establishment of hundreds of food banks throughout Britain. But they are less engaged in addressing the social, economic circumstances and political policies that require almost 1million people to be dependent upon food banks today. Christians and the churches are doing some remarkable things in treating the victims of a society where there is an alarming, increasing gap between rich and poor. Food banks, debt counselling services, childrens, youth and family ministries, reaching out and relating to asylum seekers, the lonely, sick, vulnerable and elderly but we need to awaken our prophetic voice to speak out at injustice, exploitation and a disregard for the poor.
Politics matters and voting in a General election, is I believe, both a duty and an incredible privilege. When people say voting doesn’t matter, we should think of those many countries throughout the world where people are denied a vote, where there is no trace of democracy, in contexts where their governments are not held in anyway accountable and can quite literally get away with murder.
Who and how we vote is a personal matter but as Christians our choices should be governed by those policies that we believe best reflect the nature of God and his ways for the world. For example, any party that proposed a cut in foreign aid, that failed to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, shelter the refugee and care for the widow and orphan would find their policy not only at odds with the ways of God but subject to his judgement, (see Jesus words in Matthew 25:31-47)
The lines are now being drawn on the difference between the various parties contending this election. They are not all the same! We have the opportunity to reflect not only on the policies but the values undergirding their manifestos and plans.
What has not surprised but nevertheless disappointed me is the political mud slinging and the personal attacks on the leaders. In contrast it was so refreshing to see how the three women on the leaders debate refrained from such an approach. It is sad to see other parties using people like Lynton Crosby, renowned as a “master of the dark political arts” governing election strategy for the Conservatives. His masterminding of Michael Fallon’s deeply personal and dishonourable attack on Ed Miliband reached levels of ‘scum politics’ that I have rarely witnessed before in British politics. Regardless of party allegiance, I am glad that such a panic provoked attack rebounded on him and the party and only served to lift the Labour leaders poll ratings and arouse suspicious of a Conservative party that has had to play down claims of it being the “nasty party”. I felt the same revulsion when looking at the video that was released within two hours of Hillary Clinton announcing her intention to run for the US Presidency in 2016. She is loved and loathed by Americans but the vitriol that is being served up in the opening salvos following her announcement is a poor reflection of the nation. The obscene amounts of money that is spent on the US Presidential campaigns is staggering. For example, the Koch brothers, part of the second largest privately owned company in the USA yesterday pledged 1 million dollars to oppose Clinton’s campaign, pledging to do everything to “bring her down”. The fact that she and other Democrats opposed their expansionist policies that are damaging to the environment with their oil into gasoline programmes, evoking their anger. When corporate forces attempt to buy our democracy, we are in trouble. I would certainly favour here in Britain, parties being funded by the public purse, enabling a level playing ground.
Labour’s failed attempt to win the last general election was fought on a budget of £8million, a £10m drop compared with the 2005 election when they won. The Conservatives spent £16.7 million and with the help of the Liberal Democrats came into power. This time the Conservatives are expected to spend double the amount of what Labour spends on their campaign. You can see evidence all around us here in Northumberland, (our constituency is predicted to probably change hands) where a huge and expensive poster campaign is ‘littering’ the countryside.
Add to this the continuing, and baleful influence of Britain’s press proprietors and editors. The media is a big influence on how people think about politicians and politics generally. Broadcasters and bloggers tend to respond to the stimulus of news that originates in newspapers as the material that appears most often in the main current affairs programmes on televison and radio, plus phone-ins and twitter feeds, are almost always based on follow-ups to stories in the national press.
Remember the the years leading up to the 1992 election; the Labour’s leader, Neil Kinnock, suffered horrendous vitriolic, negative coverage. The final assault on Kinnock’s character, which cost him a poll victory, was the culmination of that process.
Similarly, Gordon Brown’s defeat was assured by highly critical press coverage well before he ever called the election in 2010.
Likewise Ed Miliband is portrayed very poorly by the media generally. He can’t even eat a bacon sandwich, how then could he run the country? He stabbed his brother in the back, he’ll do the same to the country! Headline Daily Mail last Thursday “Red Ed’s very tangled love life”. An ‘exclusive’ that exposed Mr Militant’s rather uncomplicated, arguably boring love life before he met current “partner” Justine, (note the Mail’s bias to its readers; suggesting poor moral standards, i.e. he is not married, whereas I fact he is!). The headlines suggested a sex scandal whereas it was in reality a non story; an unmarried man dates numerous unmarried women, but not all at once. Women revealed, in some cases, to be university pals, colleagues and mutual friends. Not very “tangled” at all. The Daily Telegraph, which I would have expected better of, ran a story and published a picture of former BBC Newsnight economics editor Stephanie Flanders, who Miliband dated whilst he was working at the Treasury. Wow! Breaking news sensation! On an altogether more distasteful note was last week’s Mail on Sunday actions in sending two of their senior reporters to question guests at a private memorial service at Guy’s Hospital in London, for Ed Miliband’s uncle. The reporters were attempting to dig the dirt on Miliband, particularly stirring up the accusations that the Daily Mail had made last year about the Labour leader’s father, Ralph Miliband, branded by the paper as, “the man who hated Britain”. The paper’s editorial that day describing Miliband’s father’s legacy as, “evil”. Outrageous, unfounded accusations about someone who fought for Britain in the Second World War and took up the fight for democracy following it. The Daily Mail, we need to remind ourselves comes from the far right of the political spectrum and reader beware, was an enthusiastic supporter of fascism in the lead up to the Second World War. Occasionally I have to buy the Daily Mail on behalf of someone else when I shop for them. I almost feel like putting on a pair of protective gloves to keep me from the overflowing bile that spills out across most of its pages. Read the Daily Mail and you would think there was nothing good about modern Britain, that no pensioner is safe to step outside their houses without the fear of being beaten up, that our problems are down to immigration, working mothers and anyone who takes a centre or leftwing view of politics. To attempt to use a private memorial service of Miliband’s uncle, Prof Harry keen, was to my mind despicable. Attention should have been given to Keen, who was a medical pioneer, whose work led to the early diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. Instead, attention was focused on two disrespectful and irresponsible Daily Mail reporters, looking for a story to blacken the name of a political leader in the run-up to the general election.
But why these stories? Because behind them are newspaper owners who are desperate not to have anything but a right wing government in power. 78% of our press is owned by a handful of mostly foreign-based, non dom billionaires. Between them, Rupert Mudoch and Lord Rothermere own over 50% of our national press. Of course they are going to demonise or run down Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon and, if they were seen to be a credible threat, would trounce the Green Party more than they are currently doing. Why?, Because these parties are diametrically opposed to the free market capitalist wealth culture of those billionaires whose lifestyle is dependent upon keeping the status quo. Too often, far from protecting our democracy, their papers subvert it. The ethos and direction of a newspaper is set by its owner. Press barons wield power and influence their editors commissioning and publishing of stories to further their own interests. Since 2010, the press barons have pushed the argument that there is no alternative to austerity, wealthy billionaires whose lives are barely touched by such measures. They have largely ignored the stories which tell of the alarming, increasing gap between rich and poor and the widening social divisions in our society.
I came across a staggering source of information recently that detailed the power, influence and wealth that these billionaires exert over politicians and the electorate.
UK press weekly print and on-line readership (for papers over 1 million):
|Newspaper(s)||Combined print and online readership(In brackets print alone)||Effective owner/s||Information about effective owner/s||Political orientation of newspaper/s|
|The Sun/The Sun on Sunday||13,674,000(12,765,000)||Rupert Murdoch||Billionaire. Lives in US.Alleged tax avoider.||Supported Tories in 2010|
|The Mail/ Mail on Sunday||12,188,000(9,534,000)||Lord Rothermere||Billionaire. Lives in France.Non-domiciled for UK tax||Supported Tories in 2010|
|Metro||7,986,000(7,597,000)||Lord Rothermere||Billionaire. Lives in France.Non-domiciled for UK tax||Supported Tories in 2010|
|Mirror/Sunday Mirror/ People||7,874,000(7,063,000)||Trinity Mirror plc||Public Limited Company||Supported Labour in 2010|
|The Guardian/The Observer||5,342,000(2,898,000)||Scott Trust Ltd||A company with purpose “to secure Guardian’s independence”||Supported Lib Dems in 2010|
|Telegraph/ Sunday Telegraph||4,998,000(3,128,000)||David and Frederick Barclay||Billionaires. Live on private island near Sark.Alleged tax avoiders.||Supported Tories in 2010|
|The Times/ Sunday Times||4,608,000(4,418,000)||Rupert Murdoch||Billionaire. Lives in US.Alleged tax avoider.||Supported Tories in 2010|
|The Independent/ i/Independent on Sunday||4,002,000(2,770,000)||Alexander (father)and Evgeny (son) Lebedev||Alexander is a billionaire, ex-KGB and lives in Russia. Evgeny lives in the UK||Supported anti-Tory tactical voting in 2010|
|London Evening Standard||3,850,000(3,443,000)||Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev||Alexander is billionaire, ex-KGB and lives in Russia. Evgeny lives in UK||Supported Tories in 2010|
|Daily Express/Sunday Express||3,118,000(2,756,000)||Richard Desmond||BillionaireAlleged tax avoider.||Supported Tories in 2010|
|Daily Star/Daily Star Sunday||2,972,000(2,873,000)||Richard Desmond||BillionaireAlleged tax avoider.||Supported Tories in 2010|
|Daily Record/ Sunday Mail||1,719,000(1,527,000)||Trinity Mirror plc||Public limited company||Supported Labour in 2010|
|Financial Times||1,339,000(928,000)||Pearson plc||Public limited company||Supported Tories in 2010|
Well, it certainly opened my eyes to the forces at work manipulating, exploiting and spinning stories to achieve less than democratic ends. It could make you angry, disillusioned, apathetic and much more but that said, I will be voting. Does it matter? Absolutely! We should do so prayerfully, carefully and wisely, basing our decision not on self interest or personal gain but for the common good and for politicians and policies that reflect the ways of God. The catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that as citizens we have a duty to work with civil authority for the building up of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. By voting, we have a chance to promote such values.
Voting makes a difference just as a grain of salt makes a difference, and is one way, as Christians, we are able to influence our society for good. Voting is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted and by not voting we will influence the outcome. By casting our vote we are exercising our stewardship and responsibility to use all the resources we have been given by God; to waste a vote is to squander a gift.
I hope to have encouraged you to pray, think and more actively engage with the issues that face us in this forthcoming General Election, together with the forces and influences that shape and in some ways undermine our democratic system. These are challenging days. Make your vote count!