Poverty, Politics and the General Election

AS THE INEVITABLE general election draws ever closer, it is not only the established political parties who are shadow boxing in advance of the real thing. More than ever, Christian groups are seeking to become involved in the debate, some with an explicit party label, some less obviously attached to any party, and all claiming the moral high ground.

Certain Christian leaders have already stated their intention to vote for one party or another. Politicians from all sides of the House of Commons include active Christians. The only thing which can safely be said about the Christian faith and British politics is that no party has a particular claim on the Church.

As in matters of faith, there are some Christians who would prefer to have the Church’s advice as to where to put the cross on their voting paper. Politics, like theology, has its experts, and some people prefer to put their trust in the professionally qualified. Again, although it would be dangerous for the Church to be identified with any one political party, the advantage conferred on a party by ecclesiastical endorsement might be considerable, and no party would wish to be seen to reject support from the Church.

But it would indeed be dangerous for the Church (or any denomination) to be seen in alliance with a political party, or with a particular brand of politics. It is questionable whether Church leaders should even allow their own personal preference to be made known. For the Church has to be able to stand outside politics, to be judged by the populace on its own merits, and for what it truly is – the Body of Christ – and not as an ephemeral political organisation with an agenda which is adjusted daily to take account of opinion polls.

How, then, should Christians of any church decide how to choose between the political parties? There is usually good to be found in every party, both in its track record and amongst the personalities who comprise its leadership, including those who are professed Christians. It would be difficult to obtain election in a democracy such as ours without something to offer the electorate, which retains a sense of justice and fairness often akin to the Christian conscience.

The hard answer, but the only accurate one, is that there is no easy answer. The Christian voter can only look at the evidence, and at the manifesto commitments which are made, and exercise a judgement as to which party – or even which candidate locally – comes closest to sharing one’s aspirations as a Christian for the transformation of the human world into the kingdom of God.

The document produced by the Roman Catholic hierarchy for England and Wales, The Common Good, very properly pursues this approach. It does not tell anyone who to vote for, but offers instead guidelines for making up one’s mind. The validity of its method is amply illustrated by the dilemma which its own principles throw up: what to do in the case of a candidate who is committed to the provision of easy abortion, but is in every other respect preferable as an MP to the other candidates? The decision is appallingly difficult for a Christian, and especially for Catholics whose Church takes the firmest stand against abortion.

If they are to vote responsibly, and to ensure a full measure of Christian influence in an increasingly secular Britain, Christian voters should by now be actively considering the issues on which the general election will be decided. These issues should be set against a Christian conscience which is informed both by the Church’s teaching, and by reference to what the Scriptures have to say.

The long tradition in the Roman Catholic Church of definitive teaching about politics is well worth examination by Christians of all traditions, as it is firmly rooted in the Scriptures, and produced by a Church which has long maintained its independence from secular politics. Catholic social teaching in the modern age began with a landmark document, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891. It has been followed by a series of distinguished encyclicals on the same theme, including the present pope’s Laborem Exercens of 1981.

Anglicans ought, especially in an ecumenical age, to consider studying such documents, for they represent a strand of teaching which is not always available within our own resources. It is a very long time since Fr Neville Figgis CR published Churches in the Modern State (1913), although it remains well worth reading as a foundation document on the concept of what subsidiarity means for the Church in modern society.

A more radical tradition is represented by the liberation theology of South America, which confronts the extreme circumstances of poverty and oppression by reference to Marxist political analysis and the prophetic strand contained in Scripture. Gustavo Gutierrez’ seminal study, A Theology of Liberation, unveils many theological and political possibilities not immediately obvious to Christians in more comfortable circumstances. Those who wish to enter more deeply into the debate between secular Marxism and Christian theology will find the study by Nicholas Lash, A Matter of Hope, to be both challenging and rewarding.

The final arbiter for Christians, in judging the claims of politicians and their achievements, will always be the Bible. God’s bias towards the poor, of which David Sheppard has written so eloquently, is readily to be discerned in the Old Testament prophets, as they remonstrate with Israel for its loss of faith, the corruption of its leading citizens, and its treatment of the weakest members of society. Reading the prophets again, after reading Bias to the Poor, is likely to bring about some considerable heart searching by any thoughtful Christian considering British politics.

The most compelling words of all, however, are those in Matthew 25.31-46, which challenge every Christian and every society with the prospect of one day being judged ourselves, and they ought surely to be the starting point, and the conclusion of any process of political discernment. The criteria will be disturbingly simple: not membership of any political organisation, nor any inquiry as to degrees of orthodoxy or politically correct attitudes. The sheep will be separated from the goats, nation from nation, one from another, on the basis of a profoundly simple test. When did I see the Lord hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and minister to him accordingly? Let us put the question to ourselves first – and then to our political parties.

Stephen Trott is Vicar of Pitsford with Boughton, in the diocese of Peterborough, and Chair of MSF Clergy Section and a Member of the Catholic Group on General Synod