Beyond Individualism – the imperative of Christian political engagement
His Grace was very interested to learn of a conference taking place in London this week – ‘Beyond Individualism – Why Civil Society Needs Christian Political Engagement’, with speakers including Phillip Blond, Lord Glasman, Professor John Milbank and the eminent Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali.
The event appears to tap into a growing exasperation over the Government’s conflicting and contradictory treatment of British Christians. On the one hand, churches and Christian groups are courted as partners in the ‘Big Society’ project (unsurprisingly so, given they have a centuries-old track record of building crucial social institutions and a continuing presence in serving their local communities through a network of parishes). On the other hand, the Government continues to pursue policies which make it nigh on impossible for Christians to participate in the ‘Big Society’ while simultaneously maintaining their Christian identity.
The conscience of the individual and the distinct ethos of Christian organisations are neither recognised nor respected by those who prioritise the inviolable creeds of equality and inclusion. Meanwhile, the Christian commentary on the fundamental building blocks of society – such as the nature of marriage and the status of the family – seems to fall on deaf (or deliberately blocked) ears. The suspicion is that the ‘Big Society’ isn’t really big enough to include Christians (unless, of course, they are prepared to leave their faith at the door).
All this spells problems for David Cameron’s flagship project: the danger is not only that an enormous and otherwise willing group of citizens is effectively excluded. More fundamentally, it is that the ‘Big Society’ project falls flat on its face precisely because of a refusal to engage with the reality that any successful manifestation of civil society requires a rich and robust common narrative, capable of delivering a shared collection of goals, values and motivations. Historically our Christian heritage has provided that, and it remains the only credible candidate for it. Government grants, initiatives and ‘nudges’ are certainly not a sufficient alternative.
So Christians are rightly concerned. Until these fundamental tensions in government policy are resolved there will be no rich, civil society. And, in the meantime, Christians will increasingly feel as though they are being sidelined, abused, taken for granted, exhorted to work hard on delivery but also to keep silent about their concerns over the direction of the whole project. At best, the situation stems from a fundamental failure on the part of government to understand that religion in general and Christianity in particular is a ‘public’ and not just ‘private’ phenomenon. At worst, it reflects a deliberate refusal to listen.
Such a state of affairs cannot be expected to continue. Perhaps the Coalition’s plans to ‘redefine marriage’ will provoke a rallying call. There are already signs that Christians will express their concerns at the ballot box. As His Grace has reported, a recent ComRes survey suggested that 57% of UK Christians will abandon the Conservatives over ‘gay marriage’.
Whatever happens on that issue, Christians need to consider how to strengthen their political engagement and this event provides an opportunity to do so. And perhaps it suggests a growing recognition of some of the fundamental challenges. That it has attracted ‘Civil Society’ thinkers from across the political spectrum is perhaps indicative of the realisation that engaging with these issues is not peculiar to one particular political hue but fundamental to the very concept of ‘civil society’ and successful manifestations of it. That the conference is a hosted by the European Christian Political Movement allows for the possibility that there are lessons to be learned from ‘Christian Democracy’ in other parts of the continent.
So, perhaps there are stirrings of something new. Perhaps this event will act as a catalyst for that. His Grace looks forward to seeing what emerges from it. If it leads to a more coherent and robust Christian presence in the political discourse, that can only be a good thing.