Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Should church leaders declare party political allegiance?

By Sam Tomlin

The church's relationship with politics has always been a tricky business. Many Christians simply disengage, thinking it has nothing to do with the spiritual task of the church and God in the world. I would argue strongly against this, with many others, suggesting the gospel is a significantly political proclamation as much as it is a 'spiritual' one (if indeed it is possible or helpful to separate the two).

But politics and party politics are subtly different things. Most Christians have opinions, however strong, on issues of defence, welfare, taxation, and if not those, certainly on same-sex marriage and abortion. These views will broadly put us in a traditionally viewed 'camp', be it 'left', 'right', 'liberal' etc.

For some, this is as far as it goes, but for others it will lead to allegiance to or even membership of a political party which, again broadly, encompasses these views we have on a variety of subjects. A party will have a set of concrete policies at any one time that supporters will (in theory) be endorsing. Clearly this is not always the case, but it does help differentiate between a political ideology (or set of values) and a party, the former concerning theory and the latter its application.

I have a number of Christian friends who are members of all the major political parties and some of the smaller ones too. Some are critical friends of their own parties and some are wholly devoted to their every policy move.

I am a member of a political party; anyone who knows me well or sees my posts on social media will probably be able to have a good guess which one, but in the last few months I have had an ongoing internal monologue going on in my mind. Jenni and I have known for a few months that we would start training for Salvation Army officership in Sept, where we have now been for the last month. Knowing we are in many ways representing the Salvation Army on social media and in various conversations, and will one day be in leadership at a local church, should I air my party political views?

There is no question about airing political views. As I said before, the gospel is inherently political and the church and Christians always need to stand for justice, peace and what we see as right wherever we are (e.g. Micah 6.8). The church has both been the driver behind movements for justice and also shamefully silent or even antagonistic at the same time: apartheid in South Africa and civil rights in the USA are good examples.

But does party politics go too far? I know dozens of vicars, priests, officers and pastors I respect deeply, who think very seriously about theology and politics. What challenges me is that some do not seem to have any issue with declaring political allegiance, whereas others (who are still very political) do.

Illustrating this monologue, here are some rough outlines of arguments on both sides of the debate as I see it:

Church leaders should declare party political allegiance

- Politics (how we choose to structure our society) still primarily works through the party political system, and it is good to encourage people in congregations to be voting. If we do not vote and encourage others to participate in parties, it opens to doors for extremist parties.
- Just because I say I vote for a party doesn't mean I will be telling people in the congregation or local community to vote for my party; it can promote discussion on various issues.
- It is good for political parties to have Christian voices in them, and church leaders are often well placed to speak prophetically into parties. Being a declared member of a party will give more scope for this.
- Church leaders are people with views (often very strong) - it is understandable they will want to express this through a channel which will challenge them to think, reflect and be active. 
- We can still be critical of our party's policies and their implementation even if we broadly sign up to their philosophy and vision for society.

Church leaders should not declare party political allegiance

- However much we think declaring an allegiance may not influence others, being in a position of authority means people will always listen to us and this can be (and has been) abused - look at church leaders endorsing parties in the USA, saying 'if you don't vote for 'x' you're not really a Christian'.
- Politics is much more than the 'party' - we should be engaging primarily in our local communities, listening to people's hopes, fears and aspirations and fighting alongside them for the system to allow their voice to be heard and for power to be held within the community whichever party is in power
- It is the church job to hold all political parties to account, and being perceived as a member of one party may limit our ability to do this. As church leaders, we have a specific responsibility to do this. It may limit our ability to do this if we are seen as 'in one of the camps'.

With the general election in the UK just seven months away, it is vital that church leaders engage in the process, ensuring politicians are urged to stand for justice and are held accountable for the promises they make. Discerning exactly what form this engagement should take is also important, however and I would be keen to hear others' perspectives on this, especially church leaders who have thought about this question with regard to their own ministry.

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