King's Evangelical Divinity School

14 May 2010

Effective Christian Engagement: When Is It Right to Form Alliances?

Last week a Christian political party bravely fielded numerous candidates in the general election but typically secured just several hundred constituency votes. Unfortunately, the declaration of number of votes cast was accompanied by the party's byline "Proclaiming Christ's Lordship", while appealing to Christ's suprageographical kingship at the constituency level was somewhat ironic. I have no doubt members of this party are committed Christians desperately keen to impact society for good. Yet their poor performance raises the inevitable question concerning how a Christian minority might effectively engage the political realm. (I assume here that the vast bulk of Christians, even those apolitical believers keen not to mix faith and politics, nonetheless accept Christians should be salt and light, speaking out on issues such as, for example, abortion).

I am not convinced forming Christian parties is a particularly effective way of "doing politics", particularly in regions and countries where Christians represent a small minority. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that even where Christians represent a significant proportion of the population, Christian parties nonetheless still perform poorly. For example, in the 1996 Nicaraguan presidential election the Pentecostal leader Guillermo Osorno secured only four percent of the vote in a country where Pentecostals accounted for 15-17% of the population. Also, despite a strong Evangelical presence in the U.S. (and arguably even stronger within the Republican Party) broadcaster Pat Robertson failed to secure the Republican nomination for the 1988 presidential election. There are exceptions, notably Ian Paisley's DUP, but in Northern Ireland of course religious and political identities are inextricably intertwined (in other words people are not voting for the DUP strictly for religious reasons). New Christian parties emerging in regions such as Latin America where Christian populations are very high have generally met with little electoral success (see Paul Freston, Protestant Political Parties: A Global Survey. 2004). It is difficult to see, then, how a Christian party in a strongly secular country such as the UK, where the Evangelical population represents around two percent, could conceivably buck the trend.

There is also the issue of why Christians themselves tend not to vote for Christian parties (after all, if every Evangelical had voted for the above party, this would have secured at least 1300-1500 votes in a typical constituency numbering 65-75 thousand voters). I suggest there are various reasons for this. First, Christian parties may not be perceived as viable or serious electoral forces. Also, there is surely something about the typical sectarian nature of Protestantism, where different groups are mututally suspicious of each other's doctrine and motives (so that, arguably, Reformed Evangelicals are unlikely to vote for Charismatic candidates, and vice versa). Meanwhile, Evangelicalism's propensity towards free-enterprise makes it difficult to rally behind a particular bloc or individual. I also see other problems with Christian political parties. For example, power all too often eventually corrupts and it takes an incredibly focused and spiritually mature individual not to become enchanted by the trappings of power. Historically (and biblically too, for example, the Old Testament prophets) Christians have always been on the outside of the political system, speaking prophetically and counterculturally into it. Too often when Christians have secured power it has brought Christianity a bad name, not because it is inherently flawed, but rather because Christian parties are composed of humans who, like every one else, battle the flesh (and very often lose).

So how else might Christians successfully and effectively engage the political sphere? If not through forming Christian parties, the obvious possibility is through existing political parties. Consequently, Christians regard - for varying reasons - one or other of the main parties as more conducive towards their faith and values. Thus for some who focus on traditional values and personal responsibility, the Conservatives represent their instintive choice. Yet for others emphasising help for society's poor, centre-left parties are seen by some as better representing Christian values of protecting the vulnerable. Such an approach is flawed, however, because it stereotypes or generalises the views of the "other party". For example, there are Tories who are committed to social justice, while many Labour Christians are deeply troubled by their party's secularism and anti-Christian legislation over the past thirteen years. We must also take great care as Christians not to cherry-pick individual issues and give them a Christian gloss merely as basis for rationalising our instinctive preference for a particular political party (in other words, to spiritualise our political preferences). Thus, selecting a party's stance against abortion on demand or another's policy towards helping the poor, while ignoring a raft of other policies held and promoted  by that party, which are clearly anti-Christian, can become a disingenuous way of providing a rationale for supporting the party we instinctively side with for other than faith reasons. I do not say some political parties are not more conducive towards a Christian worldview - clearly some are, while others are quite clearly removed from a Christian base or founding values. But secular parties are not the ideal vehicle through which to pursue Christian policies.

Furthermore, Christians considering entering the party political system should also note how political parties are often strategic alliances incorporating special-interest blocs, and supporting or working within the party inevitably means exercising collective responsibility and ignoring (or compartmentalising) the party's other policies, some of which may be quite anti-Christian. I do not suggest Christians can't work within the party political system. Many do, and effectively. However, it is difficult to excel and especially rise within the party hierarchy without surrendering one's Christian views to the greater will of the party. Just look at the discomfort clearly demonstrated by some sitting UK Christian MPs concerning some of their party's policies. These people find themselves in a very difficult position between, on the one hand, wanting to stay in power to promote a Christian worldview and values and, on the other, having to dilute such views in order to remain in power. It's a catch 22 situation.

So what is the alternative? What is a means for effective Christian engagement with the political realm? Well, I'm a great believer in an issue-based approach to politics, for several reasons. First, a piecemeal approach is always a useful way to secure successes relatively quickly. Also, as someone who holds to a Lutheran dualist perspective rather than a Kuyperian-type totalist approach to religion, society and politics, I am not convinced every issue falls within Christ's sovereign realm and thus demands a Christian response ("Render to Caesar..." and all that). By concentrating on issues, Christians can pick and choose which areas to engage with politically, rather than having to develop a totalist worldview which, inevitably, leads ultimately to a grand strategy aimed at capturing entire social and political institutions to usher in the Kingdom of God. This issue-based approach also makes way for battles to be won, while recognising the ultimate victory can only be achieved with the return of the Conquering King.

The most effective method of pursuing issue-based politics, of course, is through plebiscites, allowing the people to express their views on particular issues through a referendum. This is what happens in Switzerland, where if enough signatures are collected the government is constitutionally bound to hold a referendum on any given issue. Imagine how this would reengage people with politics, so that decisions are not made by politicians who, all too often, hold vested interests, while the people take responsibility for the outcome (both good or bad) of their decisions. Interestingly, Switzerland has, I understand, been successfully goverened by a four-way coalition for more than half a century. Clearly, its role is to make sure the country can get on with business, while many social and political issues are left to the people through the various referendums (referenda?) which the Swiss system allows for. I think this would be a useful contribution to our political system, but of course it is unlikely to happen; politicians hate giving up power.

The alternative to plebiscites, then, is to pursue issue-based political engagement through other means, notably pressure groups, petitions and single issue organisations. Such an approach can be more successful than forming Christian political parties because it allows Christians to rally behind the issue in question while  diluting the sectarianism detailed earlier that leads Christians to eschew supporting Christian parties. This approach also allows believers to focus all their energies and resources to the pressing issue at hand. It also offers a greater prospect of success (it's always easier to win a battle than a war).

There is another important reason why an issue-based approach can be highly successful: it permits Christians to coopt help from outside their bloc, that is, get non-Christians on board to strengthen their hand, and thus offering a greater chance through a wider bloc to achieve a change to the law. Which leads me to the thrust of this post: the value of drawing on a wider single-issue alliance to change the law on some issues. I support the concept of co-belligerence, that is, informal alliances with non-Evangelicals to seek social and political change. For example, it is to our nation's collective shame that the law permits an unborn child to be aborted at 24 weeks, especially bearing in mind prematurely born children can survive earlier than this. Shocking, too, that liberal democracies in the European Union such as Italy and France have far lower limits than here in the UK. But it is not only Evangelical Christians who want to work see the limit lowered. Catholics, Orthodox, some liberal Protestants, indeed even many non-Christians are equally sickened by our abortion laws and would dearly like to see the limit lowered. Would I share a platform, then, with for example Roman Catholics if there was a possibility of seeing these laws changed? Absolutely! There is no way Evangelicals - two percent of the population - will ever bring about change to the law by themselves. But co-belligerence means far stronger representation, and thus a greater chance of seeing the the law changed.

Of course, some Evangelicals are strongly opposed to any non-official alliance, even on a single issue, assuming (wrongly in my view) that this would somehow taint a doctrinally pure church. Yet consider how in Acts 23 Paul, who had no love at all for the Pharisees, nonetheless associated himself with them in a bid to divide the Sanhedrin. He was not endorsing Pharisaism, far from it, but rather highlighting an issue (resurrection of the dead) in order to divide his enemies and win a battle. And this was over an issue of doctrine, whereas the co-belligerence I am talking about is far removed from doctrine, concerned primarily with social issues.

Co-belligerence does not require endorsement of the other party's raft of policies, or translate into collective responsibility, or agreeing with issues which fundamentally go against our beliefs, values and worldview, unlike party politics or ecumenism which demands all of these. Rather, it is a loose, single-issue temporary alliance to see changes made in a particular area. Importantly, co-belligerence allows Christians to punch far above their weight and change society. Instead, however, too many Evangelicals, obsessed with doctrinal purity when doctrine doesn't even come in to fighting an issue such as our abortion laws, choose to retreat to sectarianism and shout from the sidelines. Important changes to, say, our abortion laws will never come about that way. Much better - and effective - to work with others who are like-minded on particular issues.


Stephen Kneale said...

I absolutely agree.

Evangelicals simply cut off their nose to spite their face when they refuse to share platforms with those who agree with them. Such refusals only serve to weaken the stance and inevitably end in the 'nobody ever listens to us' and 'Christian's are being persecuted' refrains oft trotted out when such efforts come to nought. One can't help but feel it's brought upon ourselves to some degree and, dare I say, feeds into the martyr complex that seems to pervade Evangelicalism?

...but perhaps I'm being unfair.

Stuart said...

I also utterly agree with the premise of this piece.

The entire notion of the existence of separatist "Christian Parties" must now be reviewed and in my opinion they should be abolished as they are divisive, unrepresentative and doomed to impotent failure.

Separatist "Christian Parties" are also prone to hijack by well funded elements representing a narrow definition of Christianity.

I believe cobelligerence is the only effective mechanism for Christian influence on a political level (just as other minority groups). We will find plenty of bed fellows in the most unlikely places, where our interests overlap etc.

We must work within parties and this is already being acomplished within the Tories, much to the consternation of some!

Please see my recent blog post on the ascension of Christian influence within the Tory party:

Conservative Party and Christianity: Tories and the new evangelical right