For the first time in a British general election, significant numbers of voters will today have the opportunity to support candidates from parties described specifically as “Christian”. I hope that very few of them will choose to do so.
I write as a Christian who firmly rejects the policies promoted by the Christian Party, who are standing in 71 constituencies. This is in addition to the candidates of the more moderate Christian People's Alliance (CPA).
I passionately believe that Christians should seek to follow the spirit and teachings of Christ when deciding how to vote. Different Christians will reach different conclusions and my own interpretations may be mistaken. Yet it seems very clear to me that the policies promoted by the Christian Party are utterly incompatible with the teachings of Jesus.
The Christian Party would end the “promotion” of homosexuality, ban abortion outright, reduce immigration, scrap inheritance tax, oppose the European Union, retain the nuclear 'deterrent' and (bizarrely) raise the motorway speed limit to 90 mph.
Jesus directed most of his criticism at powerful people and religious hypocrites. He constantly attacked those who used religion to justify their power over others. The Christian Party leader George Hargreaves did not mention this when I heard him speak in London last week. Instead, he seemed to be opposed to democracy, implying that MPs must promote Christianity because of the monarchy.
“We have a sovereign queen,” he said, “Anointed as a Christian queen, and Parliament is appointed by their sovereign, Christian queen. Therefore, it is the Parliament of a Christian sovereign queen.”
Jesus did not encourage his followers to demand privileges for themselves which are denied to others. Indeed, his teachings are fundamentally at odds with such an approach.
The Christian Party are also very keen on what they call a “biblical” understanding of marriage and family. By this they mean a family headed by a mixed-sex couple who have gone through a wedding ceremony. They overlook the vast diversity of relationships that exist in the Bible. They ignore Jesus' redefinition of family. Jesus asked, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and answered “Anyone who does the will of God is my mother, and sister, and brother”.
The Christian Party's economic policies seemed designed with the interests of the rich in mind, whereas in the Kingdom of God, it is the last who come first and the first who come last. Hargreaves' claim to be “pro-life” is utterly undermined by his support for nuclear weapons. To insist that a child must be born, but that it is OK for that child to grow up and work on creating weapons, is not a pro-life position. It's only a pro-birth position.
When Hargreaves spoke at the “Christians and Candidates 2010” event in central London, many of his most chilling comments were about abortion. He failed to demonstrate any compassion towards pregnant women or even to acknowledge the complexity of the issue. It is dangerous as well as naïve to pretend that it is possible to eliminate something simply by passing a law making it illegal. Anyone who is serious about reducing abortion needs to be tackling the causes of unwanted pregnancy. We need to fight poverty, sexism and abuse. We need to investigate and challenge the appalling social and economic problems that give rise to unwanted babies. We do not need to pretend that middle class men can sit in Parliament and solve the problem in the division lobbies.
The Christian People's Alliance (CPA) is rather different to the Christian Party in that it is far less right-wing economically. The CPA seem to consider poverty to be a priority and I have in the past campaigned alongside its members against the arms trade. I was therefore saddened as well as angry to see CPA leader Alan Craig repeatedly attack sexual and religious minorities as he sat alongside Hargreaves last week.
Craig said that school teaching on homosexuality could threaten “the safety of children”. He described civil partnerships as “another milestone along this triumphalist gay agenda”. Without being asked about the subject, he launched into a vicious attack on the reduction of the age of consent for same-sex relations to sixteen. With an obscene level of ageist prejudice, he ranted that “sixteen-year-old boys don't know whether they're on their backside or their earhole most of the time, so to lower the age of consent to sixteen is absolute nonsense”. I'm guessing he won't be signing up to the Votes at 16 campaign.
Even Islamic finance – which allows people to use banking systems without interest – was too much for Craig. He called it “part of a wider Islamist agenda”.
But when the question of “Christian freedom” came up, Hargreaves and Craig could barely contain their desire to speak up for “tolerance”. They said Christians were not being “tolerated” in Britain. They mentioned a few cases in which authorities have over-reacted and banned Christian symbols. I strongly support the right of Christians (and everyone else) to freedom of dress. But the sort of people who campaign for this would carry much more weight if they were prepared to unite with other civil liberties campaigners instead of condemning them.
However, many of the cases quoted by Hargreaves and his supporters involve people who have attempted to justify discrimination on grounds of sexuality, citing their Christian faith as a reason for doing so. In their Orwellian language, “religious liberty” does not mean the freedom of all people to practise their religion and be equal before the law. Rather, it means the freedom to deny equality to others.
It was both ironic and outrageous that the same people who minutes before had been making sweeping generalisations about Muslims and gay people should suddenly appeal for “tolerance”.
And therein lies the fundamental contradiction behind the agenda of the Christian Party. On the one hand they insist that “Britain is a Christian country”. On the other, they claim only to be speaking up for religious liberty, which implies equality with other religions. They can't have it both ways.
Their confusion lies in their deep-seated fear at the decline of Christendom. For centuries, Christendom in Britain has ensured that the church is allied with political and cultural power. It is understandable that some Christians are disoriented by the change to a Post-Christendom situation in which Christians have lost many (but not all) of their privileges. Their over-reaction leads to absurd claims about Christians facing “discrimination” in Britain. They seem to forget that over 99 per cent of faith schools are Christian and that the UK is the only country in the world in which Christian leaders (in the form of Anglican bishops) are entitled to sit in Parliament and vote on legislation.
Post-Christendom is scary. But it is also exciting. It is allowing us to avoid a close association with the powerful as we seek to follow the way of compassion, nonviolence and radical inclusivity that Jesus embodied in his teachings, actions, life, death and resurrection
Those Christians who take a Post-Christendom approach to politics have lobbied politicians and candidates on issues that concern them without demanding privileges. They include the Scottish Christians who launched a campaign against Trident at the beginning of the election campaign and the church leaders who signed a statement opposing the detention of children in immigration centres.
Just as Christendom domesticated Christianity and discouraged Christians from opposing injustice, so the Christian Party can talk of “Christian values” while upholding tax breaks for the rich, weapons of mass destruction and condemnation of marginalised groups. Hargreaves and his gang provide us with a small reminder of all that was so destructive about Christendom.
The Christian Party could well be called the Christendom Party. To vote for the Christian Party (or even the CPA) is to vote for a return to Christendom, a system in which the Gospel is compromised by wealth and privilege. As a Christian, a return to that system is the last thing I want.
That's why I won't be voting for the Christian Party today.
(c) Symon Hill is co-director of Ekklesia.