I spent much of my early political life running the Conservative Christian Fellowship. It was not always the most rewarding of tasks, but perhaps I spent too much time with church leaders and not enough time with people in the pews. Although it’s sometimes hard to find a bishop with a good word to say about free enterprise or conservatism, the opinion polls suggest that Anglicans, at least, are more likely to vote Tory than the population as a whole. Catholics tend to be more sceptical, but Evangelicals can be as enthusiastic as their American cousins – as I discovered in 2000.
In that year I took William Hague, then Tory leader, to address thousands of Charismatic Christians attending the Spring Harvest festival in Minehead. His messages on religious freedom, recognition of marriage in the tax system and international aid brought repeated applause. After the event he told me that the Spring Harvesters were more enthusiastic than most of his shadow Cabinet. Given the Tory disunity of those years, he wasn’t wrong.
But that was 15 years ago and today’s Conservative Party has new weaknesses, as well as new strengths, in its appeal to Christian voters. On the plus side, there is the ever deeper Tory commitment to faith schools and to the 0.7 per cent aid target. Many also welcome the fact that
Mr Hague’s promise to recognise marriage in the tax system is very belatedly about to be delivered. Britain will finally move closer to European practice, where marriage is incentivised, like saving, learning and other socially useful undertakings. But there are downsides to the modern Tory appeal to Christians, too.
Mr Hague’s period as foreign secretary was not characterised by much interest in the question of religious liberty. Only when the Yazidi sect was threatened with extinction in Iraq did either Barack Obama or David Cameron stir themselves into action. There was no meaningful response after Christians had been driven from Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. Many believers, of course, never even escaped Mosul but were butchered by ISIS if they did not convert to Islam at knifepoint. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, has sensed a political opportunity and promised to introduce an envoy for religious freedom if he becomes foreign secretary.
The biggest new weakness for the Conservative Party among the churches is, of course, Mr Cameron’s decision to enact same-sex marriage. At any time it would have been a controversial enough reform, but it became incendiary after it wasn’t properly signalled in the Tory manifesto or Coalition Agreement. I supported the reform because I want gay people to be part of an institution that doesn’t just connect two people to each other but draws people towards extended family networks, too. I certainly recognise, however, that it has scuppered Tory hopes of reaching out to many traditional Christians and to black majority churches, which had been central to Tory hopes of increasing the party’s support among ethnic Britons.
It’s a confusing time for many Christians, therefore, as they consider where to put their cross on the ballot paper on May 7. As they seek to decide how to vote we do know they won’t be listening particularly attentively to bishops or church leaders. An astonishing survey conducted by YouGov for the University of Lancaster in 2013 found that almost no one looked to religious leaders for guidance. In fact, if you take God or a “higher power”, the tradition and teachings of religions, a holy book like the Bible, the religious group to which you may belong, and local or national religious leaders, only nine per cent of Anglicans and 19 per cent of Catholics cite any of these influences as key to their voting decisions. Reason, intuition and even feelings all count as bigger influences. Quite depressing.
Part of the reason why the Christian influence in Britain is unlikely to be noticeable at the looming election is that churchgoers are interested in so many social issues as well as personal morality issues. A bit like the population as a whole. Unlike Britain’s growing Muslim population, which campaigns heavily on foreign policy concerns, no single issue is defining Christian participation in politics. Unless minor storms erupt, as when Labour’s education spokesman Tristram Hunt made disparaging noises about nuns, the media isn’t much interested in Christian voters either.
For me, the unifying, energising cause should be religious liberty. We need a nationwide movement to ensure faith-based charities and schools continue to enjoy threatened freedoms at home. More importantly, we need to do much more to encourage our Government to fight religious persecution abroad. Is it too late to put freedom of religion at the heart of the 2015 election campaign? I fear so. I hope not.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (13/2/15)