Hold onto your hats for this big admission: I am not a Conservative Party member, supporter or voter. Shocking, I know. Sorry to shatter any illusions.
But as somebody who has never voted Tory – and struggles to see a time when I might (even if stranger things have happened) – I am less comfortable with all the vitriol those who do vote Conservative seem to get. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with them. But then, I don’t agree with those who subscribe to utilitarianism, or Buddhism, or people who support Leyton Orient, but I don’t hate them.
In the context of something else altogether unrelated, one of my elders talked about the importance of assuming good intent. I may not agree with Conservative voters – and even less with party members – but I don’t think there is a cabal of evil people actively signing up to what is objectively amoral because they are sadists. I’m convinced most of them genuinely believe that what they are advocating is in the best interests of most people. Now, I happen to firmly disagree with that, but I don’t think it necessarily makes them terrible people.
I am sure that there are some Conservatives who are self-interested, odious people only out for themselves. But then, I am also convinced there are plenty of self-interested Labour, Lib-Dem and any other kind of party supporter too. But I don’t think that is most people. I think most people genuinely believe that they are supporting the best option whose ideas will work for the benefit of most people. We may disagree with them but I think it’s important to at least assume good intent.
But still, there persists a view that one cannot be friends with a Tory. Another friend of mine – who is (broadly) Conservative – had this to say:
Those who can’t or won’t extend friendship to others who don’t share their political views are probably incapable of true friendship with anyone.
That comment has stuck with me because I think it is essentially true. I disagree with my friend over lots of aspects of politics (though, inevitably, not on everything) but he nevertheless remains a good man for whom I have nothing but the deepest respect and whom I like personally very much. I can think of other Tory supporters who fall into the same bracket. Their politics baffle me. How they work out what they think is in people’s best interest makes no sense to me. But I know enough about them as people, and have spent enough time with them, to know that whether I get it or not, they are not acting with malign intentions and deeply ingrained selfishness.
Here is the thing, if we are only capable of being friends with those who affirm our existing views, in what way are we real friends? We are only really bandying together with those who affirm that we think all the right things, just like them. Our friendship is, ultimately, one of convenience because it serves me principally by making me feel good about my right thinking. As soon as the friendship ceases to affirm my correct opinions, I will cut the person off. It may well be couched in terms of their opinions being beyond the pale, but in reality, it is just a dressed up way of saying my friendship was all about me and as soon as it stopped serving me in the way I want – particularly affirming my excellent opinions and views – it is no longer of value to me and will be ended unceremoniously. That cannot be considered real friendship by any normal definition of that word.
The same issue exists throughout the church. There are dozens of theological and ecclesial issues on which good men disagree with me. I have lots of friends who hold substantially, and some less substantially, different theological views to me. But neither of us hate each other. We affirm each other as believers and we both believe – although we disagree and can’t really understand how the other comes to different conclusions on what we think is achingly clear – that we are both honestly trying to understand what the Bible says about any given issue. We don’t fall out, even if we disagree.
But there is a church-based equivalent of the never-kissed-a-Tory/lower-than-vermin view. There are those who simply cannot cope with any level of theological disagreement. Naturally, there are some issues which are so important it makes it hard to affirm somebody as a genuine believer. But not everything is a first-order gospel issue. That is the mistake of fundamentalism. There are no tertiary, even properly secondary, matters. Everything is a gospel order, membership resigning, affiliation breaking matter no matter how fringe.
It is entirely valid to say, if you want to join this particular church there will be certain things we require of you. That is fine. But in terms of personal friendship and inter-church working, there is surely a fairly wide scope for disagreement on non-essential gospel issues. That I may not be able to welcome someone into my church (just like the Conservatives wouldn’t necessarily let a Lib Dem in active membership of the Liberals into their party) doesn’t mean I can’t be friends with that person or treat them with the same respect I would afford my friends.
I appreciate we’re all going to draw our lines differently. But there really is nothing stopping us being friends. I don’t mind if you won’t let me join your church because I don’t share the convictions on which you stand – realistically, neither are going to be that happy if you let me in under those circumstances – but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. Non-essential theological matters shouldn’t impede basic friendship. If it does, it is likely that we are only able to be friends with people who affirm all our views. And if that is true, as much as it holds in the political realm, it may well be the case that we aren’t capable of real friendship at all. And for believers, that should not be so.