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25 April 2014

The politics of Christianity

The politics of Christianity

Cameron's Easter reception. Photo credit: Crown Copyright

At his Easter reception this week the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said: "I don't think anybody should impugn or question your motives for seeking to do the work that you do voluntarily in your communities for those who need help. And those who deliberately try and distort your motives, I think, need to take a long, hard look in the mirror at their own… moral judgements. In doing so, you should only be praised for the work that you're doing to help those who are much less fortunate than many of us."

These comments follow a vast amount of discussion and debate over the Easter period around the role of religion in public life, and in particular whether Britain is a Christian country and what David Cameron meant when he was calling for more evangelism.

The prime minister held his own Easter reception a fortnight before and in comments to an invited audience of church leaders, including Evangelical Alliance general director Steve Clifford, praised the work of the Church and called for a greater confidence about its role in public life. This was followed by further statements including an article in the Church Times.

As predicted there was a strong response from secularist and humanist groups unhappy with the government courting Christian voters and promoting a greater role for faith. However, there was also significant criticism from Christians weary at being courted for political purposes.

Following the Easter reception Steve Clifford commented: "It's encouraging to hear the prime minister speak supportively of the role of Christianity in society, and stand up for Christians persecuted for their beliefs overseas. Those words need to be backed up with action.

"Politicians come and go, and they may well try and court the votes of Christians like they will try to appeal to many other groups in society, but the mission of the Church remains the same - we'll continue to be passionate about sharing the good news and eager to see the work of the Church change communities around us, for good.

"We don't go looking for political favour, that's not why we work in communities up and down the country. We do it because our faith forces us to act, it makes us care for our neighbours and show love to those who need it most."

In the week before Easter the Trussell Trust, the largest provider of foodbanks in the UK released figures showing a continued surge in use, with nearly a million food parcels given out in the past year. The statistics were accompanied with a letter to all the major party leaders calling for action on food poverty which the Alliance supported.

Dr Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, told Al Jazeera: "David Cameron's call for faith to play a greater role in society is welcome and needed. But his comments this Easter can also be seen as an effort to charm Christian voters after his government's redefinition of marriage, and to distract from church leaders' recent criticism of food poverty in the UK."

Of all the party leaders' Easter messages, the least commented on has been Ed Miliband's. His message touched on familiar themes, weaving in his recent trip to the Holy Land, the message of Easter, and the work of churches across the UK. However, it also mentioned the Gather conference taking place next week where leaders committed to transforming their communities, in the UK and across the world, will come together to share stories of hope and spur each other on to have a greater impact.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has also commented on the debate over whether Britain is a Christian country, saying: "It's all quite baffling and at the same time quite encouraging. Christian faith is much more vulnerable to comfortable indifference than to hatred and opposition." He continued: "It's a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society, all have been shaped by and founded on Christianity."

At the heart of this is debate is a challenge to Christians as they are praised for their actions and potentially courted for their support. How do we combine a thoroughgoing prophetic critique of actions that are unjust and harm society with serving that very society in all ways we can? Furthermore, while it is relatively easy for church leaders to come together to call for action on poverty, and ask politicians to address the scandal that we need, and increasingly need, the charity of foodbanks, it is harder to agree on what to do to address it. Christians disagree on the best way to tackle poverty, whether tax cuts harm or help. And yet it is these very debates, with their incumbent complexity, that Christians need to engage in, and the political process has to be a place where Christians are active and serving, and seeking to find solutions.

Danny Webster, advocacy programme manager.