Escaping the 'Enlightenment trap'

"Escaping the 'Enlightenment trap'" Continued...

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

A week before the election, a crowd of about 1,500 gathered for a hustings in a Methodist church in central London-most of them black Christians. Top officials from the Liberal Democrats, Tories, and Labour showed up, and video messages from each party leader played.

"Politicians are beginning to realize that black Christians have great political power, especially in London," said Muir, one of those black Christians who heads up Faith in Britain. This election witnessed the most minority candidates in Britain's history, and Christian turnout was expected to be high, 61 percent among those who call their faith "very important" by Theos' estimate.

While Labour has traditionally drawn the black vote, the Tories under David Cameron sought a wider range of supporters. One Tory candidate, a Christian and the grandson of Jamaican immigrants, has become the face of that change in the party. Shaun Bailey, a man not shy about his faith, ran to represent Hammersmith, a hotly contested neighborhood in London that Conservatives watched to see if they could win the broader majority.

Despite the election outcome, Christians have been wary of solidifying behind one party. "You have strongly evangelical Christians within [all three of] the political parties," said Theos' Woolley. "You could have a pro-life leader of any of the three parties." Woolley believes that is healthy for the culture: "When a political party loses credibility, religion or faith doesn't lose credibility."

And the list of issues Christian advocacy groups in Britain tackle in the public square is vast, from the integrity of office holders to education to international development. "If Christians take their agency seriously, there shouldn't be too many things in the public square that we can't add value to," said Muir. But that also means that Christian impact in public life is "dissipated across the parties," Woolley noted.

Positions on hot-button topics aren't clear-cut by party-or parallel to U.S. political divides. Christians who back the Tories because of their support for tax breaks for families, for example, are embracing a party that also defends gay rights. The Tories dropped one of their candidates in the final days of the campaign because he made a comment that homosexuality wasn't "normal."

Further, abortion is not an issue on parties' platforms: It is considered a "conscience vote," so it rarely comes up in political discussions.

Three Christian groups representing three different parties are working together under one organization to engage Christians in the public square, a trio that would be difficult to imagine in Washington. Zoe Dixon with the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, Elizabeth Berridge with the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Andy Flannagan with the Christian Socialist Movement all represent their organizations under the banner group Christians in Politics.

"We all get on really well," Dixon told me from her cell phone as she was campaigning for a LibDem MP in Eastleigh. "We realize that the kingdom and the faith comes first."

"If you want me to talk about abortion, euthanasia, and gay people, I can, but there are more issues out there," she said when I asked how the group dealt with hot-button issues. "The Bible talks about so much more." She mentions addressing poverty, families, and corruption in politics. Revelations that dozens of members of Parliament had expensed personal luxuries like gardens and home renovations rocked England last year.

Berridge, reached while she campaigned for Tory candidates, concurs with some of Dixon's priorities, like closing the gap between rich and poor, but she also emphasizes religious freedom issues-something the other two parties have been hesitant to address.

Coalitions between parties on those issues will be essential for the next government coming in because no party has an overwhelming majority. When Brits went to the polls, they didn't vote for the faces of the parties-David Cameron, Nick Clegg, or Gordon Brown-in Britain's parliamentary system. Though all votes count toward local candidates, the party leader is an important figure on voters' minds because he determines the direction of policy-making. As the government has become more centralized under Labour rule the last 13 years, that position has become even more powerful.

It's possible to overstate the influence Christians are wielding in Britain, since the closeness of this race was what highlighted the importance of the Christian demographic. But Woolley says Britain may be gradually escaping what he calls "the Enlightenment trap," the separation of faith from public life. Candidates and voters, he said, are challenging "the assumptions to do with secularization."

Hear, hear, hear

Before voters went to the polls, the three party leaders each spoke about the role Christians should play in politics, in comments to Christian groups like Christians in Politics and Faithworks.

"I've always believed that our public square is more than a marketplace. Our common realm cannot be stripped of values. . . . I don't subscribe to the view that religion must be somehow tolerated but not encouraged in public life."

-Gordon Brown, for Labour

"[William Wilberforce's] sense of responsibility was fired up by his own personal faith. At the moment we're seeing the same thing happen all across our country. Up and down the country Christians are working quietly and faithfully to help heal our broken society. We need to take that record and apply it in our Parliament."

- David Cameron, for the Conservatives

"The church has played a pioneering role in reaching out to the forgotten . . . I think the churches have played an absolutely vital role in seeking to create a society of compassion. . . . Whitehall [the government] can't do everything. Whitehall shouldn't try to do everything."

- Nick Clegg, for the Liberal Democrats

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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