I am becoming increasingly resistant to those who claim a monopoly of Christian virtue for their politics and causes. It used to be “How can you be a Christian and a Conservative?” Now it is “How can you be a Christian and a Brexiteer?” That, of course, is merely the more moderately-phrased variation on the theme. Most correspondents don’t ask the question: they just tell me I am not a Christian and/or destined for hell because I hold views to which they object.
In my view, it is healthy to have Christians everywhere on the political spectrum. Government changes hands, and therefore we need Christians in all mainstream political parties so that there is always some Christian influence being brought to bear on power.
Moreover, it is perfectly possible to share an aim but hold radically different opinions as to how you get there. Take, for instance, Christ’s injunction that we who have two coats should give one to him that hath none.
A Conservative looking at those words will interpret them as being primarily but not exclusively an injunction towards personal responsibility: that it is our job to relieve need where we find it, rather than to assume that because we have paid our taxes the State should do it all. A Socialist will interpret it as meaning we should confiscate the second coat through taxation, cut it up and redistribute it.
I exaggerate very slightly in order to make a point: if one very narrow text can produce varying views as to how to implement it, then it is scarcely surprising that the whole panoply of Christian doctrine should do the same but on an even greater scale.
Look at one of the great Christian partnerships of recent political history: David Sheppard and Archbishop Worlock, who agreed on social doctrines though not on religious ones. The reverse is equally possible, and much manifest in this country’s political institutions. Therefore we must expect Christians to differ politically and rejoice rather than despair when they do.
When asked what was the Christian basis for Conservatism, I used to point to the parable of the Good Samaritan, who was only able to help the man who had been assaulted and robbed because he was travelling with a beast on which to set him, oil and bandages with which to tend him and money with which to pay the innkeeper. He was almost certainly a successful small businessman. Indeed I have a sermon which I sometimes give called “God Bless the Moneymakers”!
It is not, however, the big philosophical questions which inspire most people to tell me I am violating Christian principles but my stand on individual policies. How can I be so “unchristian” as to deny carers benefit when they are drawing their old age pension? How can a Christian bully people into retiring later when they were expecting to draw their old age pension for decades? How can I not support the overseas aid target? How can I not welcome all asylum seekers with open arms? How can a Christian ever support a war? And so it goes on.
I have space for an answer to only one of those questions here, and that answer has a question of its own: how is it that after decades and an expenditure of trillions on the part of richer countries, so much of the Third World is without a pure water supply? Because we are working to expenditure targets rather than objectives, so we spend money on Ethiopian pop groups and pour aid into countries which can afford a space programme while children die from leprosy, infected water supplies and malnutrition.
Of course it works the other way round as well. People assume that certain positions I hold are the direct result of my Christian or more specifically Catholic beliefs. Yet I have always held, through Anglicanism and agnosticism, the views I now have on abortion, divorce, same-sex relationships and so on. None is a product of my middle-aged conversion to Rome.
Indeed, sometimes I think the flow of causation is in the opposite direction. I began to come into contact with Catholicism again for the first time since I was 18 when I joined David Alton’s fight to lower the age at which abortions could be carried out. That was the beginning of my path across the Tiber.
So the relationship between religion and politics is complex. Those who see it in simple terms are scoring centuries from the pavilion while the team are plying bat and ball. All politics involve some compromise (that is why the Alton Abortion Bill sought a limit of 18 rather than nil weeks) if anything is to be achieved. All politics involve conscientious disagreement, but to those who write to tell me I am not a Christian I give a pretty uncompromising answer: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and Brexit Party MEP
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