Christians in Politics: Reflections on the Woodlands Day-Conference

Attended most (not all) of a day-conference yesterday in my home city of Bristol on the theme of Christians in Politics, hosted by Woodlands Church.

Described as being "for followers of Jesus passionate about the kingdom of God & longing for justice", the day consisted of workshops, presentations and question-and-answer sessions, followed by a worship celebration in the evening which I did not attend.

For my American Christian readers used to a more conservative paradigm for thinking about politics and Christianity, yesterday's event may have been something of a surprise, with presentations from Andy Flannagan of the Christian Socialist Movement, a representative from the Green Party (only caught his first name, Rob) and the former Parliamentary candidate for Bristol West from the Liberal Democrats, Paul Harrod.  There were also representatives from NGOs, including lobbying and campaign groups. If there was a representative from the Conservative Party taking part, I wasn't aware of their presence, though there was literature from the Conservative Christian Fellowship available.

Of the smaller workshops, I opted for "Westminster or Bust?", subtitled "finding your political vocation". Chaired by Gareth Davis of CARE, who struck me as bearing a striking similarity visually and stylistically to New Frontiers leader David Stroud, the workshop was a whistle-stop tour of practical ways to get involved in politics. Preceded by a helpful and succinct "why get involved" presentation, Gareth's ten ways of engaging ranged from meeting your MP/local councilor, to joining a political party, from becoming a school governor to working for a think tank or as a civil servant. 

As an aside, Gareth Davis's presentation was based on the Prezi software, the ability to move in and out of images on-screen proving a welcome change to PowerPoint.

In the main presentation that proceeded the breakout sessions, we were introduced to a range of political activists. One of them, Les I think his name was, took the opportunity to critique the Woodlands Church motto, "Reproducing the Life of Jesus" as meaningless, arguing that Jesus' life was unique and unreproducible. Les further informed us that he "didn't know what he believed" about faith and politics. Perhaps predictably, Les was to chair the workshop on "Throw Over the Tables and Whip Them", the Christian case for direct action. All very post-church/Greenbelt, I smugly thought to myself. 

A couple of final thoughts that left me something to reflect on as a result of the day. 

1) There appeared to be a genuine respect across the party divides for  believers who were seeking to engage politically, despite their differences of approach and a recognition that such differences are usually of strategy rather than objective. 

2) Affecting meaningful political change is a very long-term project. Those most involved in the nitty-gritty of campaigning and lobbying spoke several times about how it  takes decades in order to have an effect on public policy. Today's mainstream policies (third world debt reduction, for instance) arose from campaigns launched in the 1980s. 

2) Another aspect to this long term approach is to not despise idealism in politics. Andy Flanagan commented: "Today's idealism is what everyone agrees with in ten years time."
Of the organisations, and other individuals represented at the day (attended by about 80-100 adults)  I noted SUSA, whose website seems to contain a lot of non-partisan useful resources, including a "What kind of political animal are you?" questionnaire.

Overall, an interesting day. More practical than theoretical, but none the worse for that approach, in my opinion.

My own introduction to the topic of Christians in politics is found here.

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Protoprotestant said...

It's really frustrating...the Christian Right in America often though not always takes a strong stance regarding the Authority of Scripture....

But they misunderstand the Bible.

The Christian Left often has a weak view of Scripture. In fact sometimes so low a view that they lose the gospel.....

But they often have a better grasp of Christian ethics etc...

My head spins. Where does that leave me? Do I hold hands with people who treat the Bible fast and loose but care about people? Or do I hold hands with people that believe the Bible is the Word of God, but are more interested in Empire?

Neither option is very appealing. I've come to the point that I pretty much reject all Constantinianism whether right or left.

As a citizen I want to support people who are seeking pracitcal solutions to make our Babylon run smoothly and be at peace.

I don't expect you to agree, but I'm just not sure where we go? I used to be a Christian-Right type and nowadays most in those circles would consider me a hard-leftist. Yes I care about 3rd world debt, the tyranny of the IMF and WorldBank, I'm antiwar, I'm for social justice...but I'm uncomfortable with the liberal theology of the Christian who would agree with me.

Very frustrated. I appreciate your thoughtfullness as you work through these issues. I don't know you, but you seem like a good and sincere man.

God Bless.

Al Shaw said...

Thanks for commenting.

We are clearly grappling with very similar issues.

I came to Christ from a socialist background and was initially surprised to discover that many of my fellow believers, if they thought about politics at all, were instinctively conservative on economic issues. I later found this tendency even more prominent among white American evangelicals.

After years of putting political engagement on hold, I have returned to the area in an attempt to achieve a more integrated approach.

I don't have all the answers to the questions you are raising, but several lines of enquiry that have proved helpful to me have been:

1. Reading church history and seeing that among those we might look to as inspirational figures, there have existed a wide range of opinions on issues such as politics and economics. These have ranged from non-participation (including many that you write about in your blog) through to those who have advocated a theology of revolution! This historical breadth has at least given me "permission" to explore a wider range of options, as an evangelical, than is often presented in current dominant discourse (which is often presented as a binary choice between being "liberal" or "conservative").

2. I have had to try and think through a "theology of society". I think that I have had a reasonable understanding (?) of a doctrine of the Kingdom of God and a doctrine of the Church, but I have had to supplement this with asking whether the Bible presents me with a means of discerning God's purpose for societies/states/nations (as religiously mixed societies).

3. A rejection of Constantinianism (which I understand to be the official linking of the church with the secular power of the state) is not identical, I have concluded, with the role of the church and individual believers as salt and light within the society.

From these starting points, I have then tried to work outwards and apply my understanding of what it means to be a Christian citizen. Like you, this has lead me to a critique of developed global capitalism, militarism and a positive embracing of social justice issues. I am also pro-life as far as reproductive ethics are concerned. In the UK at least, the issues surrounding these areas are not centered in any particular political party, but pro-life positions are held by various politicians across the party political spectrum.

Returning to the historical aspect of this, it is worth noting that there was a religious development in the late 19th and early 20th century in Britain and America which historians often describe as "The Great Reversal". It consisted of theologically conservative evangelical Protestants abandoning their historic positions on progressive social and political action (from abolition to women's rights to land and factory reform) and withdrawing from the political arena. They did this in response to the rise of theological liberalism which was increasingly identifying itself with politics of the left, broadly defined. The phrase throwing the baby out with the bath water comes to mind.

The Great Reversal was both understandable and disastrous. In recent decades, in Britain at least, evangelicals have been starting to slowly recover their lost heritage as justice-orientated citizens.

In the end, I've concluded that it's better if I just say what I think, remain willing to be challenged and try and be consistent in applying the conclusions I have reached. I also have to accept that not everyone who loves the same Lord and honors the same Bible will necessarily agree with me on every point of applied political policy. will agree with me - remarkably!

Thanks for your helpful and thoughtful comments. I'll be addressing some of these questions further in my next essay on the You Publish site.