Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn this week faced a grilling from journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil in a BBC interview over the party’s response to anti-Semitism, with the focus falling on his unwillingness to apologise to the Jewish community in the UK.

For many watching the interview, having heard the critique of anti-Semitism by a wide range of Jewish groups, it might be hard to understand why Mr Corbyn did not apologise. Instead, he insisted on his own virtue in standing against racism and his willingness to talk to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to discuss his concerns. Sorry is often a very hard word for politicians to speak. It means admitting fault and accepting the need to change course. It is why the challenge of repentance at the heart of Christian belief remains a stumbling block to many. It means turning away and going a different way. It’s a normal political tactic to demand opponents to say sorry, but sorry can be a bitter pill to swallow.

The interview came on the same day that The Times had published an article by the Chief Rabbi setting out his concerns about the Labour Party’s handling of anti-Semitism. Rabbi Mirvis stopped short of saying how Jews should vote, but was unflinching in his critique of the Labour Party and its leadership: A new poison – sanctioned from the top – has taken root in the Labour Party”, he wrote. 

As a high profile, and I believe unprecedented, intervention by the leader of a major faith community in the UK, this raises crucial questions for the role of faith, and particularly of religious leaders, at election time. Convention, and charity law, has led leaders of religious communities in the UK to steer clear of either explicit endorsement or condemnation of political parties or candidates. 


Lord Griffiths, a Labour Party peer and Methodist minister, commented this week in defence of Jeremy Corbyn and in response to the Chief Rabbi. He preluded his comments with these insightful words: He [the Chief Rabbi] has thus, knowingly or unknowingly, crossed a Rubicon. Faith leaders have a duty to respect the intelligence and the freedom of their co-religionaries by keeping out of such matters. I hope he knows what he has done.” 

I take these words not to mean that faith leaders should stay out of political debate, but that the decision of who to vote for should be left to individual conscience and not directed by these leaders. This has certainly been the convention in the UK – in contrast to the US – that leaders of faith communities have held to. When the most senior Jewish leader in the UK engages in this way, despite veering just away from an explicit direction on how not to vote, it communicates how important this issue is to Jewish communities. The question it prompted for me was, what is the equivalent for the evangelical church?

The Evangelical Alliance has always held that Christians in good conscience vote in a variety of ways, even when we disagree fiercely on the relative merits of those choices. But what would cause us to break this convention, cross the Rubicon, and direct evangelical Christians in how they should vote? Charitable status is an important marker, but if our faith were truly in danger, then charitable status would not be a reason to stay silent. 

It has generally been accepted that churches can refuse to invite BNP candidates to hustings they hold because racist views are in direct contravention of the beliefs of the church and the objects of the charity. Likewise, the Church of England have ruled that it is incompatible for their clergy to be members of that party. 

If a party were to include in their manifesto policies which lead to restricting or limiting the ability of a Christian to live out their faith – to such an extent as to be persecution – that would surely justify speaking out firmly and without equivocation. Validation by the state cannot be co-option by the state. If the state were to prevent Christians from sharing their faith or stop people from converting, that clearly would be an unconscionable infringement of the freedom of Christians. If churches had to be approved by the state in order to operate, that would be reminiscent of tyrannical regimes. 

There are circumstances when we can imagine it as just and essential that Christian leaders speak out regardless of the consequences. Rubicons are there because they sometimes have to be crossed. Martin Luther King defied the conventions of his day, as did Pope John Paul II in denouncing communism in Eastern Europe. In Zimbabwe, Catholic bishops spoke out against Mugabe and refused to separate the spiritual from the political. There is no single model for Christians to respond to persecution, but the witness of the church through the ages is a refusal to give in to the iniquities of the state or the repression of their corporate practice.

The harder task is when there is no such decisive moment of abject persecution, but items of concern across the policies and practices of a range of parties, whether it is policies around the dignity of life, the preservation of the family, the care for the poorest, or the deselection of candidates because of their belief, or unethical campaign practices. The fear is that the environment we are in changes so gradually we realise too late just how challenging it is to practise our faith in society. As I’ve previously said, Christians will choose to view some problems more critically than others; for some it might mean they cannot vote for a certain party, for others it might be an item of deep discomfort but overall is still the party they’ll support. 

When one religious leader speaks out about a hostile environment for people of their faith it is cause for people of all faiths to listen. Freedom of religion and belief is for all and not just those who share the same beliefs. That’s why other religious leaders supported the Chief Rabbi this week, even those who also espoused concerns about the actions of other parties for people of different faiths. 

I suspect, in line with Lord Griffiths, that this move has also made it a little easier for other religious leaders to weigh into political debate with greater conviction and certitude that their faith means voting a certain way – with the implication, either implicit or explicit, that their co-religionaries’ should do likewise. We must hold two things in tension: that there are circumstances that do justify that kind of uncompromising, count the cost, type of political intervention, but there is currently no single issue for Christians that is more significant than all the others. 

It is important Christians engage in politics across the political spectrum because it provides a point of influence – however challenging the times – towards a Christian vision for society that works for the good of all in all of those places. When party divisions become aligned with religious beliefs it gives scope for the party that is in favour to co-opt that group for their political ends, and conversely, for their opponents to discount the votes and pursue policies antithetical to their beliefs. 

Throughout the election we have been encouraging Christians to read through the Psalms of Ascents. Psalm 127 starts: Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.” These are the same words imprinted in the tiles of the central lobby of parliament. It’s a reminder that while our engagement is essential, and our vote is vital, the work building the kingdom that we seek is God’s alone.

Photo: Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Ephraim Mirvis, speaking at the Commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day event (23 January 2018).