Ask most religious groups about the role of God in the general election and the answer will be long and complicated. But for some, it is more straightforward. God, it appears, is on the electoral register in Chippenham, where he plans to vote for the English Democrats.
At least this is the conclusion to be drawn from the comments of Jon Maguire, the English Democrats' candidate in Chippenham, who claims that to vote for his party is to “vote with God”.
This is one of the more absurd examples of religious engagement with the election, but it is far from the only one. In the last few weeks, headlines have suggested that "Muslim voters may hold the key to UK election” and that "Christians hold the key to Number 10”.
These claims are fairly similar to the headlines declaring “Students might hold key in marginals” and "Disabled voters hold the key to election win”. What this outbreak of key-holding really means is that a large group can have a major effect, especially with the outcome looking so close.
But the size of certain faith communities is not the only reason for their significance. At local level, religious groups can exercise considerable influence, although most choose to make little use of their ability to do so. Many are careful to avoid identification with any one party.
That doesn't mean that it's not possible to find allegations of inappropriate influence, although some have less substance than others. Muslim groups in east London have been accused of “infiltrating” political parties, but Respect’s Abjol Miah claims it’s more a case of politicians forcing themselves on mosques. A Christian church in Congleton was accused of flooding a Tory Party meeting to ensure that Fiona Bruce, an evangelical, was selected as candidate. Her supporters say the claims have more to do with opponents' bitterness.
In most cases, the influence of churches is more subtle. They are often responsible for organising hustings – and deciding who attends. The Church of England has advised against including far-right candidates, but this is far from universally accepted. The Green candidate for Windsor, Derek Wall, walked out of Holy Trinity Church in Sunningdale this week after they gave a platform to the BNP. He accused the church of “handing the Devil a megaphone”.
Some may be surprised to hear that the intricate interaction of religion and politics can at times have noticeably progressive effects. The strong Muslim support for Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham Hall Green has allowed her to speak at mosques after Friday prayers - extremely rare for a woman. Combined with her outspoken opposition to homophobic discrimination, Yaqoob has the potential to shake up attitudes within her own community.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with religious groups using the election to promote their concerns. Campaigning groups of both the left and right encourage supporters to lobby candidates. Most religious organisations go out their way to avoid bias – the Muslim Council of Britain and the Evangelical Alliance are amongst the groups that have produced relatively balanced online election guides.
Neutrality between parties has not stopped faith groups taking a strong stance on particular issues, most often from a left-leaning position. On the eve of the election, Jewish and Christian leaders received a brief flurry of media interest by condemning the detention of children in immigration centres. But this is not the religious engagement that receives the most coverage. In the religious world, the most media-savvy groups are often the least progressive ones.
The only real blunder I have seen Nick Clegg make so far was in a video he recorded for the “Christians and Candidates” hustings in London on Monday. Clegg assumed that this was a general Christian audience and focused on poverty, prisons and the environment. These subjects went virtually unmentioned in the ensuring two hours, as about 300 people cheered extremist statements about sexuality, Islam and the need for a “Christian country”. They included a sizeable number aged under thirty.
The groups behind this event, such as Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), are not only outside mainstream Christianity, they're outside mainstream evangelicalism. But they have worked hard to convince politicians and journalists that they represent Christian opinion. CCFON's ability to mobilise activists bore fruit when they successfully lobbied the House of Lords to water down the Equality Bill. Much of the media were unaware that there were also Christians lobbying in favour of the Bill.
CCFON have endorsed Christian Party leader George Hargreaves, who is standing in Barking. This was the first hustings I'd attended at which the organisers had already endorsed one of the candidates on the panel.
Hargreaves, confident and articulate, was a big hit with the audience. He wants to reduce immigration, end the “promotion” of homosexuality and ban abortion outright. One of the Christian Party's candidates has only recently left the BNP. Next to Hargreaves sat Alan Craig of the Christian People’s Alliance, a broader group that makes tackling poverty a priority. But Craig was considerably less self-controlled than Hargreaves as he ranted about civil partnerships (“another milestone along this triumphalist gay agenda”), Islamic finance (“part of a wider Islamist agenda”) and the Labour government (which has a “secularist agenda”).
Hargreaves and Craig are supporters of the Westminster Declaration, a statement of conservative Christian priorities in the run-up to the election. It is inspired by the Manhattan Declaration, drawn up by the US Christian Right, who most British Christians regard with some distaste.
Behind the Westminster Declaration lies a deep culture of fear. Britain has experienced centuries of Christendom, in which the church was united with political and cultural power. As a Christian, I welcome the end of this situation, as Post-Christendom allows us to break free from compromises brought about by association with wealth and hierarchy. But for some Christians, Post-Christendom is scary. They claim that Christians are being discriminated against, by which they mean that Christians no longer have so many privileges.
The best alternative to Christendom is not a hardline secularism that expects religious voters to abandon their principles when they enter a polling booth. Rather, it is genuine religious liberty. This is not about “tolerance” (I tolerate bad weather and late trains). It is much more positive, allowing both religions and other groups the freedom to campaign, to make competing truth claims, to engage in dialogue as equals and to co-operate on areas of agreement.
If religious organisations are to work on this basis, they need to give up claims of representing all (or most) members of a particular religion. Some, of course, will not do this. But here we need to look at the responsibilities not only of religious activists but of the media and of politicians themselves. They need to recognise that many of the most vocal and extreme groups do not represent a majority of Christians – or of Muslims, of Jews or of atheists.
We should not ignore the deep-seated fears of religious people terrified of a diverse society. But let's recognise that there are far more who share the fears of church leaders in Scotland, who chose the beginning of the election as the right time to condemn the evil of nuclear weapons.
© Symon Hill is co-director of Ekklesia. This article was originally published in The Samosa on 3 May 2010. See http://www.thesamosa.co.uk/index.php/comment-and-analysis/politics/339-e....