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Evangelical Alliance champions one public voice

We can influence public policy when we speak with one accord

What’s the worst thing that an MP could do? You can tell a lot about a profession or a vocation from asking what its worst crime is. For each one there’s often an act of wrongdoing that goes against that profession in a fundamental way. 

For doctors, it’s to do harm rather than to heal. For a journalist, it’s to distort the truth. For a lawyer or police officer, it’s to be complicit in injustice. For a pastor or church leader, it’s to present a false view of God, contrary to the way He has revealed Himself. What’s the equivalent for an MP, or another elected official? It’s to act in their own interests, or the interests of a lobby group rather than their constituents. 

This doesn’t mean that MPs have to agree with their constituents on every matter, but they do have to represent them and act in their interests rather than those of groups with closer, louder or more tempting voices. MPs take this duty very seriously. They’re keen to know what is important to their constituents and are wary of groups that seem to represent other interests.

As the public policy team of the Evangelical Alliance, we work with MPs on a wide range of political issues. In the past year we’ve submitted consultation responses on, amongst other things, the damage done by gambling, charitable tax relief, parental rights in education, especially when it comes to sex education or educating their children at home, and the wide-ranging integrated communities strategy, which covered everything from English language learning to British values and extremism. Our teams in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also work with the devolved administrations on current debates.

When we write to elected officials, meet with ministers or respond to consultations, we have to remember that the worst thing they could do is ignore the voices of their constituents in favour of some other group, including us. So we’re not there to get them to follow our instructions, or to persuade them privilege religion over others. Our main aim is to get them to acknowledge the concerns of two million evangelicals in the UK, many of whom will live in their constituencies.

We couldn’t do this without our members. Here are four of the ways in which members of the Evangelical Alliance enhance and enable our public policy work.

Polling

On key political issues we often conduct mini-surveys of our members, or of a representative sample of the evangelical community. This has been a key emphasis for the Evangelical Alliance since we conducted the 21st Century Evangelicals research in 2011, which polled a large number of evangelicals on their attitudes to many different social, political and
theological issues.

On some topics, evangelicals are pretty unanimous, especially when it comes to religious liberty. For example, in one survey we found that 89 per cent of you supported the right of Asher’s bakery in Northern Ireland to choose not to bake a cake supporting a cause its owners did not believe in. On other topics, there will be big differences – after all, evangelical Christians can be found in every major political party.

We also do surveys to see where evangelicals are placed in relation to the rest of the country. While on some issues we are in the minority, in other debates the concerns of evangelical Christians are echoed by wider society. For example, evangelicals have frequently expressed religious liberty concerns around wide-ranging proposals to counter non-violent extremism’. A ComRes poll commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance last year showed that this concern was matched in the wider population: more than half of those surveyed believed that extremism was not a helpful term when discussing political and social opinions.

Earlier this year we also found that, like evangelicals, a majority of the wider public believed that parents are best placed to make decisions on relationships and sex education, and that this should be recognised by school policies. It’s thanks to the response of our members that we can set evangelical priorities in this wider context in our policy work. Polling is part of our listening to the whole of our membership and not just people we know – the plural of anecdote is not data!

Mass response

The second way our members contribute to our policy work is when we prompt mass responses to government on key issues for the church. For example, some of you may have responded to the call for evidence on out-of-school settings after we publicised it two years ago. When first proposed, this registration and regulation of out-of-school education settings (including Sunday schools) was backed by the Government and Ofsted, but recently the Government announced that it would not be pursuing these proposals.

What stopped them was not – as the secularists claim – a secretive religious cabal with undue influence over our government. Had it just been the Evangelical Alliance expressing concern, this policy would surely have gone ahead. Instead, what stopped them was 18,000 responses to the call for evidence, from those with direct experience of such out-of-school settings, registering their dismay at such a disproportionate policy.

Profiling

The third thing we do is profile the work and concerns of our members. Many evangelical churches and organisations are already deeply engaged in political and social issues, and have gained great expertise in different areas. In What kind of society?, for example, we illustrated the themes of Christians contributing to society with four member case studies: church responses to the Grenfell Tower fire, Betel’s work with those recovering from addiction, the work of Christians Against Poverty with those in debt, and church hustings during an election. So, part of our policy work is showing our leaders what our members are doing and can do.

We also seek to magnify the voice of particular churches on specific issues. For example, earlier this year we worked with the One People Commission (OPC) to call for more action to tackle modern slavery in Libya. Following the images of slave auctions in Libya, representatives of the OPC and the Evangelical Alliance met with Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East, to highlight the anguish caused by these images in OPC churches. Again, in these cases, the best thing we can do in policy terms is to showcase what our members care about. If anything, we’re the microphone for the church, allowing its voice to be louder and more united as it speaks up for justice.

Say nothing

The fourth thing we do as the Evangelical Alliance is keep silent. This seems an odd conclusion to our list, but sometimes not speaking is as important as speaking to represent evangelicals in the UK. In Ecclesiastes 3:7 we read that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak”. There are some issues on which our members either don’t have a view or have very different ones. We would be misleading those we meet if we were to take a stand on these on behalf of evangelicals.

A key current example is of course the EU referendum and its result. We haven’t spoken much about this, not because we don’t have our own opinions – we do. Not because it isn’t important – it is. But we can’t honestly say that there is a clear evangelical option to campaign for. I’ve met passionately committed Christians on both sides of the debate. So the best we can do is make sure that both sides are resourced to engage with this debate from a Christian perspective.

This illustrates a key point about our advocacy and public policy work: we’re no replacement for you, our members, and your political engagement. As you pray for your leaders, write to your MPs on issues of concern, and engage in politics, you are the real voice that our leaders are interested to hear. Thank you for all that you do yourselves, and for supporting us and making our work possible. As evangelical Christians in the UK, we’re in this together.

About the author

John began working at the Evangelical Alliance in 2016, focusing on issues of debate in parliament that are relevant to evangelical Christians in the UK. Before this he worked as a research assistant for the Church of England Bishop of Coventry, supporting his work in the House of Lords and his focus on freedom of religion or belief and global reconciliation. He holds a BA in Theology and an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world, and he remains very interested in biblical studies and inter-religious dialogue. He also teaches English to speakers of other languages at a class run by his church.

See more from John Coleby

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