Why Christians can never be 'the Tory Party at prayer'

(PA)

The Church of England has traditionally been called "the Tory Party at prayer" – and research just released suggests the tag still has some truth in it.

As has already been reported here, a survey by the think-tank Theos reports that Anglicans are much more likely to vote Conservative than Labour. And the more often they attend services, the higher the chance their ballot will be cast that way.

In the US, many Christians have become particularly identified with the Republican Party. In the UK, the picture is perhaps more complicated – as Roman Catholics, for example, are more likely to identify as Labour supporters.

Yet to what extent should Christians ever hitch their faith to one particular political brand? In Britain, it is arguable that the most ideological of recent Conservative administrations – the Thatcher government of 1979 to 1990 – was highly destructive of the country's Christian heritage.

After all, it was Lady Thatcher's government which liberalised Sunday trading – thus ending a centuries-old tradition of a national day for rest and worship. Many would also argue that the profit-driven ethos which accompanied it was one which exalted Mammon at the expense of God.

Then again, others might lament the massive social change undertaken by the Labour government of 1964-1970 – perhaps best summed up by the misguided assertion of then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins that the permissive society was in fact "the civilised society".

When we open our Bibles we see that Scripture is deeply political. To pick just one example, this statement from the New Testament has all sorts of implications: "Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you... Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you..."

The truth is, of course, that no one party has a Christian monopoly. That's partly because every political organisation is made up of sinners: individuals who, like all of us, fall short of God's standards and are often deeply flawed.

But it's also because seeking change merely through external structures – whether that be through free markets or state control, or a mix – takes no account of the human heart. For it is here that radical change truly starts.

People sometimes wonder why the New Testament is reticent about abolishing slavery. That's not quite true, of course – St Paul tells slaves to gain their freedom if they can (1 Corinthians 7v21). Moreover, making slavery vanish in that context was about as practical as suggesting the "abolition" of internet pornography today.

Yet the Bible makes it clear that societal change happens as hearts are transformed. Thus slave-owner Philemon is urged to welcome back a slave, Onesimus – who had apparently stolen and absconded from him, before coming to faith – "no longer as a slave but as... a beloved brother".

So it is with a Christian approach to politics. As hearts are renewed through Christ, so relationships and ultimately societies are transformed. A hard-nosed factory boss becomes a generous employer and abundant philanthropist; a lazy employee becomes hard-working and helpful. The two might even become friends.

Thus our faith is inevitably political. As Tim Keller puts it in his book Generous Justice: "There is a direct relationship between a person's grasp and experience of God's grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor."

But faith is not necessarily ideological. For whether it is better to help those in poverty through state intervention or cutting tax to encourage philanthropy is a secondary issue for legitimate discussion and Christian diversity – and the precise answer may vary according to time and place.

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