Disharmony and disillusion: the failure of Christian politics

Posted on June 1, 2010

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The conservative politics of George Hargreaves have repelled Christian voters

All is not well within Christian democracy in Britain, with internal divisions and antipathy amongst their would-be supporters looking set to destroy the movement in its early stages.

A disappointing election result and continued grumblings of discontent from within suggest that the attempts at establishing a specifically Christian form of politics in this country have failed. In last month’s local elections the Christian Peoples Alliance (CPA), formed in 2000, lost the only three council seats they had. An alternative, George Hargreaves’ Christian Party, put forward 70 candidates at the general election, but not one was able to reclaim their deposit.

The departing leader of the CPA, Alan Craig, blamed the party’s defeat in its Canning Town South stronghold on the London-wide surge of support towards the Labour party for fear of a Conservative victory. “We fought a good campaign but we were on a hiding to nothing,” he says. “There was a tsunami against us, which we had talked about as early as January”.

Formed by leading members of the non-party parliamentary group Movement for Christian democracy, the CPA had seen three councillors elected in Canning Town South between 2002 and 2006. But its decimation at last month’s election and ongoing dissatisfaction within its ranks mean that the future of the party is by no means clear. Craig, elected leader of the party in 2004, gave up his role for a period of almost over two years after a series of heated rows over both party organisation and whether or not it was appropriate for a Christian party to have a Muslim candidate. Craig did not. “I found that a nonsense,” he says.

The party recovered, and Craig returned as leader, but disharmony within the camp has translated into poor returns politically. Membership has stagnated at around 600, and recent campaigns to prevent the demolition of 1900 homes as part of the Canning Town regeneration and amend plans to modernise Queen’s Market have been unsuccessful. Moreover, the party has faced competition from an alternative party, the more right-wing Christian Party.

Founded by the Reverend George Hargreaves in 2004, the Christian Party is a slightly more conservative incarnation of the CPA. The parties have plenty in common, but Craig says working together is not an option.

“George Hargreaves is more concerned with God, Queen and country,” he says. “He is more concerned with promoting the church, but I’m hesitant about that. The church can look after itself. We want to promote Christian values, which we believe are good for all people, Christian or not.

“We want a reassertion of Christian values in public life. I don’t like the aggressive secularisation of public life that we’ve seen over the last few years”.

Disagreement is also rooted in the fact that the Christian Party is an altogether more sinister animal than the CPA. Hargreaves and his colleagues are pro-life, and have opposed legislation aimed at giving equality to women and homosexuals. Hargreaves’ view towards mainstream political parties is uncompromising. “They are not rooted in Christ and are therefore doomed to achieving nothing in God’s eyes, and thus ultimately produce policies and laws that do not serve us well,” he says.

Even were it not so divided, the Christian political movement would still struggle to make any sort of impact in a country that seems generally hostile to political parties that put religion at their very heart. Dan Kingsley, 22, is a committed Christian and works for the charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), but when it comes to politics he says Christians are unlikely to turn towards the likes of Craig and Hargreaves.

“I don’t know any Christians who would vote for any of the “Christian” parties,” he says. “They often don’t have any good policies on a lot of the important issues in running a country and also don’t have a chance in winning even if every Christian voted for them!

“Simply I think people have realised that the Bible doesn’t say anything about politics and therefore doesn’t mean we have to vote for one party or another.”

Success for either of the Christian parties is extremely unlikely when they cannot even command a majority within the churches, never mind on a larger scale, according to Reverend Dr David Thompson at the University of Cambridge. Part of the problem with both the CPA and the Christian Party is the narrowness of their respective visions. “Both are rather unusual alliances in the form of some right-wing American Republicans,” he says. “They are evangelicals and Catholics that unite on ethics and sexuality. They are not exactly single issue, but they are bordering on it.”

The failure of Christian democracy in Britain is a marked contrast to elsewhere in Europe, especially Germany, where the President is a Christian democrat and the party regularly plays a prominent role in coalition-building. A recognised phenomenon from Norway to Italy, Christian democracy has never take off in this country. The simplest explanation would be that Britain just isn’t as religiously-minded as the rest of the continent. Yet at the 2001 census, 72% of people chose to identify themselves as Christian. Alan Craig rejects the idea that religion just doesn’t matter anymore, suggesting that in London in particular it is thriving.

“The church is thriving in London but not impacting on decision-making,” he says. “It’s a nonsense to talk about London being a secular city.”

He blames a recent move away from religious  values by all the major parties for the increasing unimportance of Christianity in British politics.

“Until recently, all three major parties had strong Christian traditions,” he says. “But increasingly rapidly and aggressively they have accepted the secularisation of public life. The application of Christian values is not seen to be relevant. What the church thinks and what Christians think is not seen to be relevant. An aggressive atheism driven by people like Dawkins is becoming increasingly dominant”.

Reverend Dr Thompson offers a different explanation, however. According to him, the Christian democratic parties of Europe were a product of Catholic involvement. “Catholics are a small minority in the UK, and have historically been core supporters of Labour,” he says. “Even in this year’s election Catholics voted for Labour, though more voted for the Conservatives than usual.”

It is not just within Christian circles that the parties are approached with suspicion. Craig’s inhospitable attitude towards people of other faiths, demonstrated by the row over Muslim candidates and an ongoing campaign to prevent the building of a “mega-mosque” near the near Olympic Stadium, has led to concerns from other religious groups. Reverend Andrew Pakula, whose Unitarians pride themselves on inclusivity and modernity, says parties like the CPA and the Christian Party are potentially dangerous influences on British politics.

“They frighten me because they are exclusive and would tend to impose one religion’s views and teachings on the whole society,” he says. “I think that multicultural inclusivity has got to be a key value and these groups would counter that value. I also think they are dangerous because they purport to represent the Christian perspective, when there are, and should be, many different Christian perspectives.”

Yet while Christian politics appears to have hit the wall, Christian charities continue to flourish. Perhaps wisely, these charities choose not to align themselves politically, recognising that political opinion within Christianity is just as diverse as outside it. Luke Boulton, of Christians Against Poverty, says that charities such as his offer Christians a way to contribute to society in a way that the Christian parties do not.

“Like many other charities, our work is driven by our faith and the biblical call to help the poorest and most marginalised in society,” he says. “We currently have over 10,000 individuals who donate monthly to support this work.

“In the absence of homogeneity or clarity, donating and volunteering for charities can be a simpler way to engage with society in a meaningful way. Charity can sometimes transcend the deadlock of political difference and mobilise people to help make the world a better place.”

Aside from charities, there are numerous Christian groups that seek to engage with society and promote Christian values without following the relatively fruitless route into politics that Craig and Hargreaves have. Faithworks, launched in 2001, has 22,000 members and seeks to promote faith-based community projects and ensure accurate media representation of churches and other faith-based projects. Both Faithworks and the Christian Institute ran pre-election campaigns to encourage Christians to be more politically active, suggesting that though the role of faith is downplayed in British politics, it is certainly at work.

In spite of the criticism and the failures of recent times, Alan Craig is adamant that Christian democratic parties can begin to have an influence on British politics at a time when mainstream parties appear to be moving away from religious influences.

“Christian charity work has a long history. Charitable giving is a major part of your Christian discipleship, getting involved in politics less so,” he says. “Christianity in democratic politics is a new thing and it will take time to establish itself.

“The need for the CPA or an equivalent remains very important. The sort of secularisation we have will lead more and more to the nanny state.

“If you take God out of the picture then man becomes God. That’s a quick route to totalitarianism”.

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Posted in: Issues, Politics