The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People
This report, commissioned by the Free Churches Group, investigates how churches in England contribute to social cohesion. (2020)
The title of this new collection of essays, published by the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum is, of course, a reference to Alistair Campbell’s (in)famous line on New Labour. The purpose, however, is different. Campbell was seeking to neutralise a contentious question from a journalist who wanted to explore Blair’s religious views. This short book, which draws together pieces by twelve senior Liberal Democrat politicians, is trying to open exactly that question up. In the introduction it states that it hopes to highlight that “Christianity is alive and kicking in the Liberal Democrats”.
Campbell’s comment was made with one jaded eye fixed firmly on the headlines. The purpose of this collection seems to be more introspective, challenging the authors to justify how they can actually be Christian Liberal Democrats. In other words the collection’s authors are attempting to prove not only that there are Christian Liberal Democrats, but that Christian Liberal Democracy is a sustainable and consistent intellectual position.
To that end the book is divided into two sections, the first deals with the more theoretical side of the question and considers how Christian faith and the history and ideology of liberalism might mutually support one another. The second section is more practical, exploring a series of policy areas in which Christianity could provide new impetus and ideas to the Liberal Democrats themselves (with examples provided on welfare provision, justice, immigration, international development and poverty). In this latter section Sir Alan Beith’s chapter on justice ‘Should the State Forgive?’ provided a particularly interesting approach to combining liberal ideas on justice with Christian repentance and forgiveness.
It would be fascinating to see how the UK’s other major parties’ Christian politicians would approach a similar task. However, it is the first section of the book which is the key to assessing whether the authors have succeeded in their task. It is this section that sets out to prove that Christian liberal democracy is actually a consistent and meaningful position.
On the question of if someone can be both liberal and a Christian the book makes a strong case, with Tim Farron and John Pugh leading the way with appeals to history, theology, and ideological convergence. Greg Mulholland follows up with a more combative approach that attacks the party itself for flirting with the danger of moral conformism and abandoning liberalism when it comes to religion. Maybe at times the case is even overstated - much of the press coverage of this book has (rather unfairly) lampooned pensions minister Steve Webb’s introduction for suggesting that “God is a liberal”. However, while the case for the compatibility of Christianity and liberalism is made throughout (both theoretically and practically), an opportunity was lost to attack a more fundamental possible problem – can politics itself “do God”? This, more interesting, question has been ignored by both the press and the authors.
Central to Christian thought is the idea of loving one’s neighbour and of solidarity. Sadly there is little evidence of either in Westminster. The entire system of British politics is based on conflict. Conflict between parties, not only on election day, but at every parliamentary debate, with rows of Government MPs sat on one side of the room directly facing rows of opposition MPs. Many important debates rapidly descend into a series of tit-for-tat exchanges about whose party is in the wrong. This raises what should be a serious concern for Christian politicians – is this style of politics compatible with their faith?
Not one author really challenges the idea that Christianity and the politics of today’s Westminster are good companions. Sarah Teather comes closest when she considers the effect of politicians’ words and demonization of scapegoats on society. However, even she pulls up short of going further and challenging whether these dirty tricks of politics are not fundamental to the parliamentary game and potentially at odds with her Christian faith.
This is not to say that Christians should play no role in politics, but to challenge the Liberal Democrat authors, and their Christian counterparts throughout Parliament to go further on what this book has started and provide an honest self-appraisal of the way in which Christianity and parliamentary politics in the UK interact. Liberal Democrats Do God marks an important point of departure, but having justified the compatibility of party ideology and Christianity, perhaps it is now time to ask the harder question – can UK politics itself really, meaningfully, and without internal contradiction “do God”?
One suspects, without putting words in their mouths, that the answer to that question will be far harder to arrive at. It is easy to see how Christian faith might help inspire thoughts on a particular social policy. It is more difficult to see how today’s Christian politicians can rise above the methods of modern UK politics. A strong, cross-party Christian voice on certain issues would be welcome, but difficult to maintain, not least when on so many issues - as this book itself demonstrates - the “Christian voice” is an extremely diverse one. Yet it is a good question and, hopefully, one which this book will lead to reflection on.
Ben Ryan is currently undertaking an internship at Theos and has recently completed a Masters in European Studies at the LSE.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.