Escaping the ‘Enlightenment Trap’:With UK’s Election, the Church Stakes Out its Place in the Public Square

Labour candidate Leo Barraclough, running for a seat in Parliament, stood before a gathering of voters at St. Thomas Church in Eastleigh, a town in the southern part of England, and talked about something British politicians have avoided in years past: his faith.

“It’s always been important to me that my Christian values also tallied with my values in politics,” he said. “I’ve tried to look at all the policies of the Labour Party in that light and that if Jesus was looking at these policies He would find something He could approve of.”

Eastleigh was tightly contested, just like all of the May 6 general election, making the Christian constituency there that much more vital. Barraclough is not the only candidate who deployed religious rhetoric. Even the Liberal Democrats’ party leader Nick Clegg, who declared himself “not a man of faith,” said “Christian values” are central to his policies. “I do believe in the separation of church and state,” he told the Christian magazine Faith Today. “But that doesn’t mean keeping faith out of public life.”

Other party leaders were not to be outdone in the days leading up to one of Britain’s tightest elections in memory: Labour leader Gordon Brown talks about the “moral compass” his Presbyterian faith gives him, adding in his own comments to Faith Today: “I absolutely reject the idea that religion should somehow be tolerated but not encouraged in public life.” Conservative leader David Cameron, a member of the Anglican church, commented, “I do think that organized religion can get things wrong, but the Church of England and the other churches do play a very important role in society.”

Mentions of God or religion in British politics have historically been rare. “We don’t do God,” Alastair Campbell, spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair, famously said in 2003—interrupting an interview when a reporter asked the Labour prime minister about his faith.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, as Blair was about to deliver an address to the nation, he reportedly told his advisers he planned to conclude by saying, “God bless you” but they heartily rebuked him: He concluded the speech instead, “Thank you.” Blair publicly converted to Catholicism, but only after he left office.

The separation of church and state was a founding principle in the United States, where settlers first came to escape state religion in reaction to colonial overseers in Great Britain. But the American political firmament is historically more colored by religion, and public religious faith is nearly imperative for viable political candidates. Ironically, Britain, with its centuries of institutional ties between the state and the Church of England, has had little use for religion in politics. Politicians rarely mention personal faith, and they haven’t felt the need to court religious voters like their counterparts in the United States.

But British think tanks like Theos, which focuses on religion in society, have noted increased religious rhetoric over the last decade, partly because issues like religious liberty and faith-based initiatives have come to the fore. “Religion is not just in the news, it’s leading the news,” Paul Woolley, director of Theos, told me. Woolley also credits the new attention to religion to Britain’s increasingly globalized society, where people identify themselves more in religious than ethnic terms.

Brits also face religious freedom controversies that Americans have only glimpsed. Christians have been charged for publicly speaking of homosexuality as a sin, most recently a Baptist street preacher just three days before the election. A Christian doctor was barred from sitting on a public adoption panel when she asked to abstain from adoption decisions involving same-sex couples. Others have been banned from wearing crosses in the workplace. “The rights Christians thought they had in this country are being eroded,” said David Muir, head of Faith in Britain.

Paradoxically, British citizens also rely on the church for many basics of society: Taxpayers fund religious schools, something all three parties support to some degree. The government funds faith-based initiatives domestically and abroad, and party leaders have applauded their work, with Labour’s Brown even insisting that government should provide for “more faith-based services.” Clegg asserted that churches and related organizations will have a “bigger role” under Liberal Democrats. The parties do differ somewhat in their policy approaches to faith-based organizations, such as whether those organizations can discriminate in hiring.

As the church’s influence in society has grown, Christian political groups and think tanks have blossomed, like the eight-year-old Faithworks. The public-policy group CARE, which at almost 40 years of age has been around longer than most, helped organize hustings (similar to town halls in the United States) in more than 250 churches during this national campaign. In fact, most hustings take place in churches, though they are open to the general populace.

A week before the election, a crowd of about 1,500 gathered for a hustings in a Methodist church in central London—most of them black Christians. Top officials from the Liberal Democrats, Tories, and Labour showed up, and video messages from each party leader played.

“Politicians are beginning to realize that black Christians have great political power, especially in London,” said Muir, one of those black Christians who heads up Faith in Britain. This election witnessed the most minority candidates in Britain’s history, and Christian turnout was expected to be high, 61 percent among those who call their faith “very important” by Theos’ estimate.

While Labour has traditionally drawn the black vote, the Tories under David Cameron sought a wider range of supporters. One Tory candidate, a Christian and the grandson of Jamaican immigrants, has become the face of that change in the party. Shaun Bailey, a man not shy about his faith, ran to represent Hammersmith, a hotly contested neighborhood in London that Conservatives watched to see if they could win the broader majority.

Despite the election outcome, Christians have been wary of solidifying behind one party. “You have strongly evangelical Christians within [all three of] the political parties,” said Theos’ Woolley. “You could have a pro-life leader of any of the three parties.” Woolley believes that is healthy for the culture: “When a political party loses credibility, religion or faith doesn’t lose credibility.”

And the list of issues Christian advocacy groups in Britain tackle in the public square is vast, from the integrity of office holders to education to international development. “If Christians take their agency seriously, there shouldn’t be too many things in the public square that we can’t add value to,” said Muir. But that also means that Christian impact in public life is “dissipated across the parties,” Woolley noted.

Positions on hot-button topics aren’t clear-cut by party—or parallel to U.S. political divides. Christians who back the Tories because of their support for tax breaks for families, for example, are embracing a party that also defends gay rights. The Tories dropped one of their candidates in the final days of the campaign because he made a comment that homosexuality wasn’t “normal.”

Further, abortion is not an issue on parties’ platforms: It is considered a “conscience vote,” so it rarely comes up in political discussions.

Three Christian groups representing three different parties are working together under one organization to engage Christians in the public square, a trio that would be difficult to imagine in Washington. Zoe Dixon with the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, Elizabeth Berridge with the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Andy Flannagan with the Christian Socialist Movement all represent their organizations under the banner group Christians in Politics.

“We all get on really well,” Dixon told me from her cell phone as she was campaigning for a LibDem MP in Eastleigh. “We realize that the kingdom and the faith comes first.”

“If you want me to talk about abortion, euthanasia, and gay people, I can, but there are more issues out there,” she said when I asked how the group dealt with hot-button issues. “The Bible talks about so much more.” She mentions addressing poverty, families, and corruption in politics. Revelations that dozens of members of Parliament had expensed personal luxuries like gardens and home renovations rocked England last year.

Berridge, reached while she campaigned for Tory candidates, concurs with some of Dixon’s priorities, like closing the gap between rich and poor, but she also emphasizes religious freedom issues—something the other two parties have been hesitant to address.

Coalitions between parties on those issues will be essential for the next government coming in because no party has an overwhelming majority. When Brits went to the polls, they didn’t vote for the faces of the parties—David Cameron, Nick Clegg, or Gordon Brown—in Britain’s parliamentary system. Though all votes count toward local candidates, the party leader is an important figure on voters’ minds because he determines the direction of policy-making. As the government has become more centralized under Labour rule the last 13 years, that position has become even more powerful.

It’s possible to overstate the influence Christians are wielding in Britain, since the closeness of this race was what highlighted the importance of the Christian demographic. But Woolley says Britain may be gradually escaping what he calls “the Enlightenment trap,” the separation of faith from public life. Candidates and voters, he said, are challenging “the assumptions to do with secularization.”

Hear, hear, hear

Before voters went to the polls, the three party leaders each spoke about the role Christians should play in politics, in comments to Christian groups like Christians in Politics and Faithworks.

“I’ve always believed that our public square is more than a marketplace. Our common realm cannot be stripped of values. . . . I don’t subscribe to the view that religion must be somehow tolerated but not encouraged in public life.”

—Gordon Brown, for Labour

“[William Wilberforce’s] sense of responsibility was fired up by his own personal faith. At the moment we’re seeing the same thing happen all across our country. Up and down the country Christians are working quietly and faithfully to help heal our broken society. We need to take that record and apply it in our Parliament.”

— David Cameron, for the Conservatives

“The church has played a pioneering role in reaching out to the forgotten . . . I think the churches have played an absolutely vital role in seeking to create a society of compassion. . . . Whitehall [the government] can’t do everything. Whitehall shouldn’t try to do everything.”

— Nick Clegg, for the Liberal Democrats 

Copyright © 2010 WORLD Magazine

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