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Christians in public life

This week has been an interesting one for Christians in politics. On Thursday Christian MP Jim Shannon asked a Parliamentary Question about support of Christians in the UK who face difficulties in following their faith in the workplace and public life. Dame Caroline Spelman, who answers Questions on behalf of the established Church of England, responded “Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief.

The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works.” She reminded the House of the immense contributions that people of faith are making to the well-being of the nation – schools, food banks, social support, child care and many others - and concluded that there is a need for greater religious literacy.

Also this week Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader, delivered the Theos Lecture in which he stated his belief in God  and in Jesus as the only way to God. He also admitted he had been in error in how he had responded to media questions about gay sex.

There is no doubt that Christians are regularly marginalised in Britain today. The law has been changed to allow same-sex marriage and the Courts have found for the gay couple who wanted a double bedded room and against the bakery that refused to decorate a cake with a gay slogan. A Local Council was banned from praying before its meetings until the law was changed. A nurse was sacked for offering to pray with a patient and there is a long list of similar incidents. 40% of the population think Jesus is a mythological character like King Arthur and more than half say they have no religion.

So how should Christians respond? Jesus’ answer is “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44). The heart of his teaching is love for God and love for your neighbour” (Luke 10:27) and the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:30-37) defines ‘neighbour’ very inclusively. Now loving those who dismiss Christians as homophobic bigots is profoundly challenging but Jesus’ audience thought of Samaritans with similar hostility. It takes grace to respond lovingly to those who threaten our freedom to express our Christian beliefs but that grace is freely available if we ask for it in prayer. The Christian contributions to the well-being of the nation that Caroline Spelman identified are evidence of grace at work. They are infinitely more persuasive than the nasty responses some Christians make to anything with which they disagree. Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18: 9-14) should challenge them to rethink how they express their holier than thou attitudes.

A bigger issue is how much we should expect Christian MPs to work together to seek legislation that reflects Christian values. It is understandable that we might hope for that but it is currently unrealistic. Christian MPs don’t necessarily agree on what is appropriate. Some voted for the same-sex marriage Bill and others voted against it. Both thought they were doing the right thing. As Iain Duncan Smith MP has said, “You’ve got to legislate for the world that we are in, not the world as we would like it to be.” A former MP, Sir Steve Webb has questioned whether getting people to do what we want, changes their hearts. He also suggested that if the Christian minority could get the legislation it wants, why shouldn’t the growing Muslim community do the same?

If Christians want greater political influence we have first to live distinctively Christ like lives and then actively engage in politics and make politicians and political issues matters for prayer. Disengaged critics change nothing and probably do more harm than good.

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