What does it look like to be a Christian involved in politics? Isn't party politics too messy and corrupt for Christians to be involved in? Shouldn't the church get on with its job and not bother with politics?
Gary Streeter is a Christian and has been the Member of Parliament for South West Devon for 23 years. He talked to Christian Today about his faith, the Conservative Party and why he can't bear party politics.
In many ways the question of whether Christians should be involved in politics was a debate that was going on a few years ago. Do you still find some resistance to the idea of Christians getting involved?
I am a living example of how that debate has changed in this country. I have been here 22 years as an MP. When I was first selected as a candidate back in the early 1990s, fellow Christians from whichever denomination would say, "well how can you be a Christian and involved in politics?" Honestly people couldn't get their minds around it! And certainly they would say, "how can you be a Christian and a Conservative?" Well, thanks very much for that!
But virtually nobody says that now. There has been a shift in the attitude of the Church in this country towards engagement with the public square. I think it is a hugely important shift. Lots of people have been responsible for it. Now I think there is a recognition that if we are going to be in a country which is going to make good decisions, has a strong framework of values, then we need men and women of faith and values to be involved.
So why should Christians be engaged in the public square?
I think Desmond Tutu put it quite well. He talked about being alongside a raging river and pulling the bodies of drowning people out and helping people. That is what we Christians are good at doing – caring for people. Well why not go round the river bend and find out who is throwing them in in the first place and stop it? That is really what it is about. It is about going upstream. We know we are called to love our neighbour and serve in our communities but let's go upstream and get involved in the council chambers and the parliaments where decisions are made and see if we can help make better decisions in the first place.
Cross-party relations is one of the values of Christians in Politics. Many of our readers may find this impressive if not surprising. How do you get along with people who you disagree with about so many things?
I have been fortunate in my time in this place. In the very early days we put together a small fellowship group of two Labour MPs, two Conservative MPs and one Lib Dem and one DUP. Although a couple of people have since lost their seats, we still meet regularly and have learned to love each other and trust each other. So I suppose that helped challenge some of our fundamentals.
[These fellow Christians in other parties] challenged my thinking that if you were a Christian you had to think x, y, or z. That is completely wrong. As a Christian, there are different interpretations, viewpoints, perspectives on all kinds of issues and as Christians, we have got learn to embrace difference to learn to get along with each other nonetheless. And that is what I have been trying to do for the last 15 years.
There is a perception, that while the Church of England is no longer the Conservative Party at prayer, it is perhaps easier to be a nominal Christian in the Conservative Party. You had James Arbuthnot, the former Conservative MP for North East Hampshire, saying it is very difficult to be an outspoken atheist in the Tory Party. Do you agree?
No I don't agree with that. It's probably easier to be Christian in the Conservative Party than it has, at times, to be a Christian in the Labour Party. I think in the 1980s in particular it was quite tough to be an overt believer in the Labour Party but that season has come and gone.
I don't think you get any plaudits or advantage for calling yourself a Christian in the Conservative Party, either in the selection process or in in doing the job or promotion when you are here in Westminster.
I recently spoke to Dave Thompson MSP of the Scottish National Party. He told me it is difficult to be a Christian in the public square. Can you tell me about your own challenges?
I think it's a challenge to be a Christian in the public square but its a challenge to be a Christian anywhere nowadays; to be a teacher, or a farmer or whatever, is a challenge. And I don't think that will ever change. It does bring with it conflicts; issues of integrity, trying to do the right thing for the right reasons, trying to tell the truth at all times. All these things are challenges but they are challenges that are not insurmountable.
One of the reasons we need one another, and one of the themes of the forthcoming Show Up weekend is to buddy up – to have two or three people around you who understand your passion for politics and to meet up with, to pray with and do the things we have been able to do in our small group of six since 1998. Someone is always going through something; a challenge or a difficult decision to make and we can stand with that person and pray for that person.
One analysis of our society is that we are on a trajectory to becoming gradually more liberal and more secular. Is it becoming harder to be a Christian in politics?
I don't think it's any harder to be a Christian in politics. Our Christian faith is very much still alive but we are having to adapt to a country where fewer people automatically embrace what we might consider our Christian principles. I've never called this country a Christian country, I don't know what a Christian country is. Certainly it isn't that now but what we have to do is to make our case in the marketplace of arguments and ideas. We should expect other religions to be there and to be strong. We should expect militant secularism to always be there as well but we have got to make our case both by how we live and what we say.
Do you agree that public opinion is shaped ahead of politics and legislation so politics doesn't actually lead, it follows?
I partly do. I think political leaders both follow and create public opinion. There are so many influences that create public opinion, not least the box in the corner; your television or computer. Think of the social change in the Queen's reign for example. That hasn't all been led by politicians, of course, but it also hasn't all been driven by people. So sometimes we lead, sometimes we follow and we have to play catch up.
Would you say that Christians should be involved in all areas shaping public opinion, not just politics?
Yes, this is the whole point. My life has been largely spent in the political sphere. But there are seven major spheres in our society; there is commerce, education and all the others in the ShowUp video [media, arts, religion, family, politics].
I have been focusing on Christians impacting in the political sphere and helping the next generation to rise and shine but actually we need that in every sector of society. I am totally convinced this whole thing of being salt and light is about God's people being involved in every sector of society and making a difference. There isn't a blueprint as to what the outcome might be, it's not about creating a theocracy or some kind of kingdom of heaven here on earth. It's about individually following our calling, being obedient and seeing what God will do with our lives according to our faith and calling. That is what I believe. And then seeing it happen. I have seen it happen in the last 25 years – we have made a difference here.
My perception is that there are two ways Christians in Parliament go about their business. There is the backbench MP such as Fiona Bruce [MP for Congleton] who fights on loads of ethical issues and hasn't been afraid to be independent and perhaps sacrificed promotion in the process, and then there is another approach, maybe someone like Nicky Morgan [MP for Loughborough and Secretary of State for Education], who have toed the party line a bit more. Do you think both work?
I think you know I am going to say yes to that. This is what I mean when I say it is important that everyone follows their own calling. In terms of becoming an MP, there is a role for that backbench campaigning MP, by gum we need them. Fiona Bruce and David Burrowes [MP for Enfield Southgate] are fantastic examples of that. But also we need people to be involved around the cabinet table, without compromise. And the people you mentioned in my opinion certainly have not compromised. That is great because that is them following their calling. What we need to realise is that we all have a different role to play and we need to support and encourage one another in it. As human beings we are very bad at that and tend to think, you've got to do it a certain way.
That is probably a real encouragement for those considering political involvement – that you can sit around the cabinet table without compromising your faith.
Absolutely you can. And of course let's not forget, our faith is not static. I am turning 60 soon and I feel closer to God now than I have ever felt before. But it's been a heck of a journey and there have been some very dry patches and some real conflicts along the way.
Our faith evolves and develops and deepens along the journey. There are twists and turns. We have to be a little more supportive of each other through our little twists and turns.
You are speaking at the Christians in Politics' Show Up weekend in early November, can you tell me what the vision of the weekend is?
This weekend is to inspire and engage another generation of Christians to engage in the public square. This is on the basis that many of us here believe that Christians should be engaged. That has been the experience of many of us here as MPs, across parties - that is hugely important. It's an opportunity to listen to those who have been there before; to share their experiences, their successes and their failures and also mainly to get to know one another a bit more as well, cross party.
For people who think "I am interested in politics but it looks messy, it looks slightly corrupt and I don't like the idea of party politics." What would you say to that?
Politics is difficult. But I would ask them to step back and think, "what is politics all about?" It is about making decisions about how we live our lives in this country. It is about how we live our lives, how we govern, how much tax do we raise, what do we spend it on, what kind of health system we have, how do we look after our elderly and vulnerable people, when do we go to war and when don't we. It's about how our country and communities are run.
If people feel encouraged or called to be involved in that decision making process, they may need to accept the tough baggage that comes with it. I personally can't bear party politics. When I felt God call me into politics in 1986 it came as a complete shock. I didn't know anything about politics. It came as an even bigger shock to my wife. I was never looking to be, but I felt called. So I would encourage people that if they feel passionate about some of these big decisions that communities and our country have to make; seek God and they might be surprised and find that he taps them on the shoulder and says "yes this is for you." And if He calls you, He will equip you.