If you are of my generation (ie. born somewhere in the 1980s) and were at all involved in church life between 1995 and 2005 you will have almost certainly come across the W.W.J.D. bracelet fad beloved by young Christians of that time. The bracelet was meant to prompt the wearer to ask, in any given situation “What Would Jesus Do?” On the whole, I think aspiring to act like a man who urged his followers to love their enemies and to treat others as we would treat ourselves, is rather good advice. The trouble is that we are rather good at applying it to some obvious scenarios (not gossiping about the questionable office colleague; being patient with your annoying family member) and find it trickier when it comes to questions like “How would Jesus vote?”
Yet, that question is asked, both by those who profess faith in Christ, and also by those who possess no faith or a different faith. It is manifested in such questions as “How can you be a Christian and support your party on this policy?” or “As a Christian, what is your perspective on this issue?” It is also manifested in the assumption that there are certain ‘Christian’ issues that are pretty much all Christians care about in political life; though one must concede that certain individuals don’t do the church a lot of favours in this regard.
So I’d like to tackle the question head on – is there a distinctly ‘Christian’ way of voting? Well, firstly I’d like to recognise that I am addressing two distinct audiences – those who would count themselves as followers of Jesus, and those who have a differing faith or belief (NB: As per the NUS, I use the term ‘faith and belief’ to cover all religious viewpoints, which includes agnosticism and atheism). I hope though to communicate a message that encourages Christians considering their vote this week, and also gives non-Christians a perspective on how we determine our vote.
In a brief blog I cannot do the question the full justice it deserves, but I would use one piece of Scripture as a reference point, taken from the book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Jeremiah is writing to a group of Israelites exiled from their home nation, subjected to a foreign ruler, and longing to return home. You would expect his advice to be ‘sit tight and wait for help to come.’ Instead he writes the following:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
Jeremiah Chapter 29, verses 4-7 (My emphasis added)
Jeremiah’s advice is probably the best political manifesto a Christian can carry. It applies in the United Kingdom; it applies in other European democracies; it applies even in non-democratic states such as China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea. It is essentially that in certain respects, a Christian’s concerns for government, community, and society, should not be substantively different to that of their neighbours. To put it another way; if your neighbour is concerned about funding for their local school, the Christian should be concerned too. If your community is worried about the local economy and the prospects for training and jobs, the Christian should be concerned too. A Christian should care about the economy, healthcare provision, defence, law and order, education – everything that causes a community to prosper where it is governed well, and to struggle where it is governed poorly.
In certain respects, while the Bible has a lot to say about what we should aspire to in governance, a lot of it shouldn’t be that different to what those who are not Christian also aspire to. To give just a few short examples, the Bible opposes dishonest trading (see Proverbs 11:1 and 20:23, also Micah 6:11); affirms the role of the state in upholding justice against wrongdoers (Romans 13:4); and even affirms that most unpopular of things – you should pay your taxes! (Romans 13:6-7, also Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, and Luke 20:25) The Bible holds a high view of government and governance, which is not out of place with a universal human desire for good government.
There remain two major challenges however:
- What about uniquely ‘Christian’ issues?
- Surely one party or cause captures ‘Christian’ priorities better?
To address the first challenge, this is mostly about issues where Christians may find themselves in disagreement with others. This frequently comes up (for Christians at least) in questions such as “can I vote for a candidate whose views on abortion are different to mine?” Such questions are deeply emotive, and so I would venture three simple thoughts.
- The first thought is that all of us, whether we have a religious faith or not, should seek to contribute positively to public life; we need the Christian perspective, but we also need the Muslim perspective; the Jewish perspective; the Atheist perspective (and many more … but I’d be here all day!) We ought to strive for what social critic Os Guinness calls ‘the Civil Public Square’ – where we are able to speak about such deep matters of conscience and reason with one another.
- The second thought is that we should remember that these are deep matters of conscience, and it is not anyone’s job to change how another person thinks. We can certainly share our perspectives with one another, and in so doing challenge and shape one another, but we can also recognise that another person can sincerely disagree with us on ethical issues. The apostle Paul, as one example, makes clear that the teaching he offers the Corinthian church was not meant for those outside of the church, while also making clear he felt they would benefit from it. He recognised that one does more harm in forcing someone to act against conscience.
- The final thought, more directly concerned with how we choose an MP or government, is that ultimately we are seeking to choose the best person or persons for the job. Christian thinker Tim Keller very helpfully points out that if one requires heart surgery, your main concern for your particular surgeon is not their faith, but whether they are good at their job! This enables the Christian to consider what one might call ‘conscience issues’ as one of factor among others in considering a person fit for office.
The second challenge I set out above concerns more than just Christians, and comes where deeply held convictions about governance come into conflict. Whether your ideals are Christian, Utilitarian, Communitarian, or just a general sense of fair play, you have an idea of what ‘good government’ should look like; and it might not look the same as someone else!
For issues where Christians care passionately I will raise the most significant front and centre: the Bible has an unashamed concern for the poor and the marginalised. While many verses (and many blogs, articles and books!) are given to this, to quote just one: “Learn to do right. See that justice is done — help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows.” (Isaiah 1:17)
I will not pretend that there are not individuals, both inside and outside politics, who show a shocking lack of compassion for the poor. I would contest that the majority of individuals who seek political office at all levels (including devolved and local government) do so with the intent of helping communities to flourish. The aim is shared, but they profoundly disagree as to how that aim is to be realised.
In the same way that I think civil society flourishes where different faith and belief perspectives bring their contribution, I believe the same is true of the political. To the Christian, knowing that our world is not perfect and hoping for a future perfect world that is to come, we should understand that no political creed, ideology or grouping is perfect either. We are all truth seekers, and we need each other to put forward ideas for how we should govern our world; to challenge one another, test ideas, hold government up to scrutiny and make those who govern answer for how they govern. When we think about meeting the needs of the poor, it is right to ask questions about whether a government of any composition is doing what they should be doing.
My conviction is therefore that Christians can vote for just about any political party (barring obvious exceptions such as the BNP) – and I would go further and say that every party needs to have Christians (and people of all beliefs and none) involved with them, for in so doing, they contribute to our democracy, and help society to flourish.
I know that certain readers will read the above, and reasonably expect that I should defend how I believe my support of the Conservative Party is compatible with the message of the Christian gospel. My thoughts on why I do, and why you should consider supporting the Conservatives in the General Election too, are to follow in my next blog, so that I can give them the space and time you would hope of me!