In the last issue of The Common Good Andy Flanagan said "This issue...is an attempt to grab the bull by the horns and lay open for debate the relationship between the Labour Party and Christianity...". Well it was a pretty good start, especially the opening article by Andy Reed MP. How we need to hear more of this.
In the States Barack Obama did a great job in getting Christians to vote Democrat, you only have to read his book “The Audacity of Hope” to understand the reason why. For me, brought up in the industrial north, Labour Party members and Christians, especially non-conformists, went together. As a teenager I even heard one Methodist Local Preacher say in the pulpit that you couldn’t be a Christian and a Tory. It was the theory that Labour got more from Methodism than it ever did from Marxism that underpinned this naivety. After all Keir Hardy wrote in 1910 “The impetus which first of all drove me into the Labour movement and the inspiration which carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined.” And there are many other examples as Graham Dale illustrates in “God’s Politicians”. Wasn’t this indeed the driving force of the Labour Party?
It was only when I first went to the European Parliament in 1989 that I realized my analysis was flawed. In the Socialist Group, where we Labour members sat, it suddenly became clear that Socialists from countries such as France, Spain, Portugal and Italy were very much opposed to the church; in fact their parties had often been created to counter the power of the church in their countries. One December, as a children’s choir was singing carols in one part of the Parliament, a French comrade stood up in the chamber to demand that such expressions of religion should not be allowed in the place.
Over the years I’ve had the impression that many in the Labour Party would have supported my French colleague were it happening in UK Town Halls or Westminster.
Many attacks on faith come from “Socialists”, many of them are valid when we see and hear what so-called spokesmen (it’s invariably men) of some denominations have to say. (It was good to hear Joel Edwards, former DG of The Evangelical Alliance, in the promotional video for HOPE 2008, say that too often the church is seen as a million condemnatory, wagging fingers; instead we have a chance to show two million open arms being there for people.) But the worrying aspect is that there seems to be a resurgence of militant atheism that has no room for anybody with faith having an opinion, in the mode of Richard Dawkings. And we often hear that we live in a post Christian society.
At the beginning of December 2008 the annual European Prayer Breakfast took place in the European Parliament. Several hundred people from the EU Institutions, Embassies, Member State Parliaments, NATO and overseas come together around the person of Jesus. Over the past decade there have been some prominent keynote speakers. In 2007 the Dutch PM was the chief guest. As he was introduced with an impressive CV he took the podium and said “that should also include that I am a Christian”. How many European politicians, apart from Ian Paisley, would say that?
A year later the closing prayers were said by the Dutch Deputy PM; before he led the prayers he said that he came from a small religious party in The Netherlands who having gone into coalition had been given the DPM post. He said “Who would have thought 10 years ago that in The Netherlands a Christian Party would be part of government.” His most interesting comment was “When we hear of a post-Christian age or that we live in a secular society and with the current economic crisis, I believe that we are moving into a post-secular age.”
He made the point that people are looking for far better things than material possessions , that there is a need for a spiritual dimension to our lives. It was the very point that Barack Obama makes in the chapter on Faith in his book.
Andy Reed wrote “The next generation of exciting young Christian leaders are responding to the challenge of the 21st century outside of our traditional political boundaries.” Last July I was asked to be a mentor, to lecture and lead workshops for a gathering of several score young Christian graduates and post-graduates from all over Europe. Here were future leaders of business, commerce, finance and politics; they were a great bunch of people. How many would be in the Labour Party? Not many I guess.
If we want a real input into Labour politics, first of all we have to start being upfront about what motivates us; we do “do God” but we do it without ramming it down the throats of others. Our party colleagues and the electorate need to know what our driving force is. All CSM members will have various opinions on issues like abortion, same sex marriages or stem cell research. As Obama says “Assume we only had Christians within our borders. Whose Christianity would we teach in the school?” He goes on “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.”
If we want to help to bring about a post-secular age then CSM members must never stop proclaiming those values that inspired Keir Hardie. In fact we should proclaim them to the extent that young people want to know more and more about them. As Andy Reed said “There is a golden opportunity to shape the future if only we are positive enough to seize it.”