It might seem an odd question to ask on this blog, but should Christian leaders identify their politics? It is only an odd question to ask here because it doesn’t take much to figure out where this blog stands politically. There is the About Page, which tells you my political penchant. Then there was my defence of Tim Farron, in which I made clear I am not a Liberal Democrat. There was a similar defence of Andrea Leadsom in which I make clear I am not a Conservative. Likewise, there were early comments on the Corbyn leadership of Labour. There was also a defence of Socialism against Wayne Grudem/John Stevens, a second defence against John Piper and a third against Rick Phillips. Admittedly, I’ve never quite said for whom I tend to vote but I’m sure you could hazard an educated guess.
As a young student, with a propensity toward radicalism, I didn’t support any of the mainstream parties. Disenfranchised by Blairism and finding the Liberal Democrat programme under Charles Kennedy more radical than anything tabled by the Labour Party, I had a (very) brief flirtation with the Socialist Workers Party. It didn’t take long to realise that our respective understandings of radicalism were quite different. Whilst my views perhaps haven’t changed all that much, my affiliations most certainly have.
I have certainly never used my platform to tell anybody how to vote. I have, however, occassionally expressed how I intend to vote. I have rarely done so at general elections, though if you follow tweets and the like it would be easy to figure out what I was intending to do. I did, however, speak directly about my intention to vote leave in the run-up to the EU referendum as well as continuing the discussion in the aftermath (see here, here, here, here, here and here). Nonetheless, the question is whether I, as a church leader, ought to do so?
First, I think we must distinguish between an insistence that others must vote the way you do and a statement that you will vote a particular way. I have been in churches where a strong sense was given, oft repeated from the front, that there was a particularly ‘Christian’ way to vote. There was an insistence that X or Y issue was the issue of the election and that one particular party was the Christian choice. The strong inference was if you didn’t vote in the way stated by the leadership it was dereliction of your Christian duty. It is an issue noted by many American believers in respect to the Republican Party and their links to the Evangelical church. It is also an issue that was seen in Free Presbyterian circles in Northern Ireland. It was hard to sit in many FPCU congregations without being a DUP voter, if not only because of the things their former moderator would say in the week with his DUP leadership hat on.
This linking of politics to Christianity is rarely a good move. Whilst it is likely Christians at large will hold similar views on certain issues, that does not mean they will view the solution to those issues the same way. Likewise, it doesn’t mean they will view the issues with the same degree of importance as one another. Further, just as all mainline parties have a range of views within them, so Christianity has a breadth of views. You will find Christians in just about all political parties, voting for just about all political parties and holding to all sorts of political positions. That is why, just because there is a Christian standing for parliament, you won’t necessarily get all Christians voting for him/her. Although Luther never said it, there is truth in the quip, ‘I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian’.
Nonetheless, I think it is perfectly legitimate for Christian leaders to make their voting intentions known. For one thing, we think far too highly of ourselves and patronise our people if we genuinely think our opinions (for that is all they are) carry that much weight. The people of Oldham are far too independent-minded to be swayed by an admission from me about my voting intentions.
During my brief career as an RE teacher, I remember a discussion with a head of department regarding my being a Christian. I said that I was coy about it in the classroom because I didn’t want the pupils to say things just to impress me or write essays to curry favour. My high view of myself was quickly deflated with a simple question, ‘do you really think you have that much influence?’ From that point on, I was less quiet about it when it came up and – as far as I can remember – nobody changed their views or opinions because of it. If such is true of children, how much more of adults?
Second, we are actively trying to encourage independent thinking in our people. Although we want people to respond to the preaching of the Word, we want them to learn to handle the Word for themselves. Though we want people to handle the Word themselves, it doesn’t stop us preaching truths as matters of fact. Acknowledging there are areas of theology with a range of acceptable views within the bounds of orthodoxy, doesn’t stop us preaching clear views from the pulpit. Likewise, acknowledging there may be different political views in the room needn’t stop us from stating our own political positions.
Third, we are clear that believers are not called to compartmentalise their faith from other parts of their life. We all know that a faith with no outworking in practice is no faith at all. If Christ is Lord of all areas of our life, he must impact all of our decisions and views. If we never talk about politics, and how our faith impacts our politics, we give the impression that this is a compartmentalised area of our life on which Jesus has nothing to say. If we never speak about politics, though we might like to think we’re just being careful not to influence, we are indirectly making a case for quietism. We effectively model that politics is not for believers. That is surely a mistake.
Fourth, if we want our people to think through issues in a Christian way, we must model Christian thinking to them. If we want our people to reason their political views biblically, it helps if we model it to them. If we never discuss politics, and never show how scripture influences our political position, how can we expect the rest of our congregation to do so? They may draw different conclusions to us, they may vote for other people, but we can’t expect them to do so biblically if our basic position is to avoid talking about such things altogether.
Whilst we should never insist our people vote as we tell them, I do think Christian leaders should be open about their politics. We should model thinking biblically about politics. We should reason our views in public so that our people can see our working. By saying nothing, we suggest politics is an area over which Jesus is not Lord. We encourage quietism by modelling the view that politics is not to be discussed among believers. If we accept there are differing theological views within the bounds of orthodoxy, without watering down our preaching and teaching, we ought to be able to openly discuss our politics and disagree well.