18 April 2013
Finding faith in polarised politics
Changes to the benefit system came into effect at the start of April alongside limited pilots for the new Universal Credit system in four London boroughs. Several churches also released a report on Truth and lies about poverty ahead of the changes which received considerable attention over Easter weekend. The clash between ministers and clergy escalated alongside widespread discussion of whether certain policies were 'Christian'. This was further fuelled following the death of Baroness Thatcher with debate over whether or not she was, as one analysis suggested, Britain's most openly Christian prime minister of recent years.
The changes to the benefit structure include placing a cap on the total amount of benefits a household can claim at £26,000, assessed as the level of average household income, and changes to housing benefit system either known as the Spare Room Subsidy or the Bedroom Tax depending on which party you support. This policy means a reduction in housing benefit if the claimant is considered to have a house bigger than they need, which includes a requirement that children share rooms. This policy attracted particular criticism for its failure to take into account children with disabilities and only a limited and belated amendment to accommodate foster carers.
The debate also underlined the depth of philosophical disagreement that exists in this area of policy-making. For some, the welfare and benefit system should actively promote economic equality, whereas for others it should provide a limited safety net which in order to discourage dependency should not be overly generous.
Within Christian discussion a similar tension is evident which sometimes becomes a deep divide. On one side is the need to care for those in poverty and those who are most vulnerable. There is an urgency about caring for the needy. On the other side is the desire to encourage responsibility, personal freedom and interdependency which some consider is mitigated against when the state takes an active role in economic redistribution.
In a debate with such deep philosophical differences and theological tensions what became clear is how easy it is to brand opinions or positions as 'un-Christian', and to call into question the integrity and intent of those who hold different views. The furore which erupted over benefit changes, and the challenge of finding a Christian response to divisive issues was brought into relief following Baroness Thatcher's death.
For some Margaret Thatcher espoused policies that were wholly inconsistent with the Christian faith, yet others saw her personal beliefs at the heart of her political priorities. This raises the broader question of how Christian a policy can be, and also how we are to use the label of Christian as a descriptor of politicians.
Furthermore, in terms of policy it requires us to look at the intent of policy, the way that policy is implemented and the effect it has. So a policy can have good intents but lead to a situation that is undesirable, and policies can also be implemented in a way that is damaging but ultimately leads to a situation that is more just and more conducive to the common good.
And do we then decide whether or not a politician is Christian based on whether they advocate and implement policies that are consistent with Christian belief in their intent, implementation and effect?
Because that is quite a high threshold. While the words politicians use can lean on biblical rhetoric for oratory effect and Margaret Thatcher may have used that device as much as Barack Obama does today, that can create a false measure of religiosity. Are we ready to adjudicate on the integrity of intent and the theological robustness of public policy from afar? This also misses one vital component of Christian theology: we mess things up.
We get things wrong, and we should acknowledge that before finding fault in others. We can have the best intent imaginable but in trying to reach a goal we end up justifying things we would not have countenanced before. Christians should have the greatest capacity to understand just how wrong we can get things. Sin is not just something that affects us in private; there are consequences that reverberate across society. But we should also know that this is not the end of the story, and nor should getting things wrong be the mark of departure from the Christian community.
This does not mean the Church abdicates its prophetic voice, this is needed more than ever. The Church must be a voice for the voiceless and it must seek goodness and make it fashionable in a political climate that often only values expediency and political gain.
But it means we find a posture of humility that listens before finding fault in someone whose shoes we have not walked in. It means we search for the good in places we couldn't imagine it residing. It means being prepared to find our opponents are right and our allies were wrong.
And it means that instead of expecting someone else to put things right or do it better next time we acknowledge that darkness is only ever extinguished when a light is brought into the room. We take responsibility for what happens in our neighbourhood, our country and our world.