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01 March 2008

Are we really salt and light?

Are we really salt and light?

Christian involvement in the political scene is one of the five focal points for the Alliance's Forum for Change. Hazel Southam reports...

Britain's tax system 'penalises' married couples on one salary," read The Daily Telegraph's front-page headline one day in January. The reporter went on to explain that couples living on a single salary of around £30,000 pay more than 40 per cent more tax in the UK than they would in any other major industrialised nation and 25 per cent more tax than is the norm across the rest of the European Union.

These statistics were the findings from a study launched by Christian Action, Research and Education, better known to Alliance members as CARE.

Now there's a thing: a Christian organisation making front-page news in a quality newspaper for a story that isn't related to abortion, homosexuality or Jerry Springer: The Opera. It begs the question: how politically involved are evangelicals? How active are we in our society? And as a consequence how visible is our Christian witness?

"Evangelicals have always been involved in politics and society," one national newspaper's religious affairs correspondent told me. "Their faith makes them do this." And there is certainly plenty to support this view, not least the establishment of the Alliance itself, the abolition of slavery, the Sunday school movement and so on.

But abolition was 201 years ago. Is there anything more recent that we can point to that supports the theory that evangelicals are active in society? Or are we merely resting on our laurels?

Justice campaigns

How active are we in our society?
And as a consequence how visible is our Christian witness?

Perhaps we need look no further than the Jubilee 2000 drop-the-debt campaign that led on to Make Poverty History and now Micah Challenge, three high-profile justice campaigns spearheaded by Christians. Then there's the establishment of Tearfund, the relief and development agency that sprang out of the Alliance in 1968. And what about Oasis, Stop the Traffik and CARE itself?

We are surrounded by excellent people doing excellent work in public life. But that is not the same as a national Christian culture that promotes social, democratic, or political involvement - whatever you like to call it. The jury is out on how successful the evangelical movement has been in that regard in recent decades.

"I would hardly say that we have a good track record in recent times," says the Alliance's Head of Public Affairs, Don Horrocks. "In the 20th century, evangelicals were largely inward-looking, which means that they have been outside of politics, not just in taking on any roles, but in involvement, understanding and awareness. Possibly - and this is speculation - that came from a theology which said that politics is not the province of evangelical Christianity.

"In our view, that's a wrong theology. It perhaps comes from saying, 'The Church is to be engaged in the world but not of it.' But in the last 10 years a positive change has been taking place. It's encouraging, but it's too minimal."

His words are echoed by Nola Leach, chief executive of CARE. "There was very much a theology that said that if you are an evangelical Christian you are about saving souls. It's not your job to engage with your community and make a difference," she says. "The social Gospel wasn't bought into. That's very, very sad. It's not a true theological position. The Gospel is about salvation, and its outworking is about caring for the vulnerable and being engaged in life. It's a holistic worldview."

This led CARE to establish an intern programme that places "exceptional" young people in the offices of the country's movers and shakers for a year. After 15 years, 180 interns have gone through the process, including Stephen Crabb, now MP for Preseli in Pembrokeshire. And this year, 24 interns are engaged in the scheme.

"There is a myth that young people are turned off by politics," says Ben Gilchrist, a director of SPEAK, a network of politically-active young people that lobbies for change on subjects such as the arms trade and the legal responsibility of company directors. "Yes, most young people are turned off party politics. But campaigning and wanting to make a difference - well, there's a huge chunk of young people who are passionate about planning and doing something."

What began as a few like-minded individuals encouraging each other to action 10 years ago has become an international network today. There are 30 local SPEAK groups in the UK and others in France, the USA and Spain, as well as Africa, Brazil, Holland, Sweden and Germany. And some 4,000 UK-based members stuck with the organisation once they left university, so many of SPEAK's network are now in the 22-to-30 age bracket.
"Student campuses are not the hotbeds of political activism that they were," Gilchrist acknowledges. "But students are excited by action. Before the Jubilee 2000 campaign, issues of left and right had intimidated people. But making a stand on a political issue where there was something clearly wrong gave people confidence that they could actually do something. Most people thought, 'What will signing a petition achieve?' But it was the biggest petition in the world, and as a consequence $110 billion of debt relief was cancelled."

The spirit of the prophets

The latest beneficiary of the interest in campaigning for the developing world is Micah Challenge. "It's caught the imagination because it resonates with the spirit of the prophets," says Alliance

General Director Rev Joel Edwards. "If you look at the Old Testament, it is impossible to tear the prophets away from political involvement. There is a spirit of anti-poverty with what God is about as a God of justice. Evangelicals have felt that. If there's a door open by which a Christian can help someone understand God's love and justice, we should go through it."

God made main in His own image. It doesn't get much more fundamental than that

There is, Edwards says, a danger that evangelicals can be perceived as single-issue people, endlessly beating one particular drum. But Gilchrist says that concern for a single issue can be a springboard to wider political awareness. "I'm passionate about single-issue campaigning because it's a part of empowering people and helping them to engage in politics," he says.

This is politics at its broadest, whether that's being a school governor, helping run a local youth club, attending council meetings or being an advisor to your town's hospital. It can be about signing online petitions such as those posted by the Alliance, Tearfund and CARE. It can be about joining anti-poverty marches or services linked to the annual G8 summit. Or it could be about having a vocation in public life as a civil servant, a magistrate or an MP.

Why should evangelicals be doing this? Because it's biblical, according to Lord Brian Mawhinney, former Conservative Party chair, now a member of the House of Lords and chair of the Football Association.

"My commitment arose out of my theology," he says. "The Bible talks an enormous amount about the poor, and it says that God made man in His own image. It doesn't get much more fundamental than that. It has enormous social implications. How could you be racist if you believed that, for example? How could you demean women or participate in human trafficking if you believed that man was made in the image of God?"

Lord Mawhinney is clear that this biblical mandate should lead more Christians to action than is currently the case. "The world - the country - would be a better place if Christians were more democratically active than they are. I come across Christians who have the ability to influence what's going to happen in their community and they are too busy going to prayer meetings.

"Now, I'm the last person who's going to knock a prayer meeting. But there is often no understanding of the fact that God works in a myriad of ways. Christians like being in the comfort of the ecclesiastical scene because it is much less challenging," he says.

His tip for the future of Christians' involvement in the democratic process is simple: "If Christians want to win, one of the things that they have to do, as an increasingly small minority, is to find the other people who want the same end point for other reasons and make a common cause to achieve an end. But that offends the purity of too many people. They would rather lose and complain than work with like-minded people."
Don Horrocks agrees. "Retreating into some kind of Christian ghetto is not an option," he says, offering two tips for any Christian who wants to live out their faith in society: become aware of what's going on and get interested in at least one issue.

"There seems to be a huge ignorance of what's actually happening in our society that's impacting the future," he says. "We can read the papers. We can listen to the news. We can receive briefings from organisations like the Alliance. Everyone should have an interest in at least one issue and do something about it."

A grace-filled message

For Nola Leach, that activity has to be coupled with sensitivity and careful speech. "Evangelical Christians in politics have felt that the worst letters they get are from other evangelical Christians," she says. "That's terribly sad. We have a grace-filled message. We don't need to write ranting letters. It's very hurtful. I don't think it's a good witness. So the language that we use when we engage with issues is very, very important."

She adds, "I have a fear about issue politics. If you just become so fixed on a single issue, it's very easy to come over as harsh and condemnatory. If the focus is Jesus rather than the issue, the way that you deal with the issue is different. The focus is love, respect and care."

The core message is clear: democratic involvement in public life isn't an option for Christians. It isn't something for just a few members of the congregation. It's for everyone.

That doesn't mean that every member of each congregation will stand for Parliament. "God forbid," as one socially involved person said to me. But it does mean everyone getting more informed, praying in an informed way and then turning that prayer into action whether at a local, national or international level.

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