Politics, politicians, and Christianity

By Bernadette Meaden
November 29, 2016

The actions of our government and the rhetoric of many politicians seem to become harsher by the day. EU citizens are seen as bargaining chips, people too ill to work are told to work their way out of poverty, and rising child poverty is accepted as if it were a natural phenomenon. There is a danger that such harshness and lack of compassion becomes so normalised that people can be persuaded that it is compatible with Christianity. It isn’t. For Christians, the test of every policy or every utterance is how it will affect the weakest, most powerless people in our society. If it’s not right for them, then it simply isn’t right.

The Autumn Statement failed to reverse decisions that will make many poor people significantly poorer.  Afterwards, the Prime Minister said in an interview, “I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

Whilst trying to reconcile knowingly making the poor poorer with any rational understanding of the Christian message, I was further taken aback to see Paul Nuttall described in the Tablet as, "The new leader who believes the UK Independence Party's policies make it a natural fit for Catholics".

The article was based on an exclusive interview which Mr Nuttall had given last year, in which he said, “On moral issues, we, more than any other political party, are more in line with Catholic thought.” Perhaps it depends what one considers a moral issue? Or perhaps Mr Nuttall is not up to date with Church thinking?

During his leadership campaign Mr Nuttall said he favoured the return of capital punishment, and would back a referendum on the issue. But last year Pope Francis said the death penalty was "unacceptable’ and ‘an affront to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of the human person".  So on that moral issue, Mr. Nuttall is out of tune with current Catholic thinking.

Similarly on development aid, Mr. Nuttall favours cutting the UK’s contribution from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.2 per cent, a huge cut which surely goes against every Catholic or Christian value?

Arguably the biggest moral issue facing humanity, climate change and the integrity of Creation, is dismissed by Mr. Nuttall as "a dinner-party issue" of interest to only the middle classes. In that spirit, his party supports fracking, aims to revive the coal industry, and would end subsidies for renewable energy.

On the NHS, the UKIP manifesto, like the right wing press, makes much of ‘health tourism’ (in reality a very minor issue) and promises to deny free care to migrants who have been paying tax in the UK for less than five years. But Mr Nuttall has deleted from his website a page which contained a letter  he wrote, congratulating the Coalition government on bringing "a whiff of privatisation" to the NHS, saying that “the very existence of the NHS stifles competition” and bemoaning the fact that the NHS is a "sacred cow" of British politics.

On taxation, as in most areas, UKIP has some policies which may appear superficially attractive, but will ultimately do most for the wealthiest in society, and no doubt meet with the approval of rich backers like ex-Conservative donor Arron Banks

But ultimately, it is not specific policies which should deter Catholics, or indeed Christians, from supporting UKIP. It is a general culture and approach which relies on the fear of and scapegoating of ‘outsiders’,which runs completely counter to the Christian or Catholic message. In September 2015 Pope Francis said, "Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing we open our doors to God, and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ himself". Yet UKIP has constantly focused attention on migrants, fuelling resentment as a distraction from the systemic injustices and inequalities which face us.

This has all been done in an insidious and dangerous way. The nudges and winks, the subtle, or outrageous but quickly-moderated remarks which sow the seeds, and gradually make bigotry and prejudice seem acceptable, which appeal to our worst impulses and embolden our prejudices. Remember UKIP’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster from the Referendum campaign? It is hardly surprising that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump get on so well – they have so much in common, and operate in much the same way.

We are about to celebrate a Christian festival in which we focus on the weakest, most powerless individual we can imagine – a baby born in the most basic temporary accommodation, to parents living under the rule of a brutal occupying army. To this powerless child, wise men bring gifts and pay homage, illustrating that in Christianity, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The way we treat the weakest amongst us is the true test of our Christianity, and should be the test of every politician who wishes to associate themselves with Christianity.

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 © Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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