Faith and politics: squaring a circle?

Today, the alternative listings and news website indymedia (a great model – all the news is crowd-sourced and anyone can upload events to their calendar) has posted a leaked email from a prominent Christian leader in the Bristol area encouraging their network to support Marvin Rees, the Labour candidate for Bristol Mayor.

The website redacted the email (unfortunately the link is now dead), and it reads like so:

From: xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: MARVIN REES FOR BRISTOL – Bristol-wide Big Campaign Days
Date: 17 October 2012 21:08:34 BST
To: xxxxxxxx 

Hi everyone
I am sending this in my personal capacity, not on behalf of any of the Bristol organisations I work with.
Marvin Rees for Mayor of Bristol:
I am definitely not promoting a political party, but I know Marvin.
He is a committed Christian and I believe God may well be raising him up for such a time as this.
Please see http://www.marvin4bristol.com/about

So, I am happy to do as Marvin asks in the email below,
If you feel it is appropriate, please could you pass this around your networks.
Many thanks

While I do not endorse the conclusion that the indymedia reporter comes to, I do have some critical (and some positive!) words to offer about the implications of the leaked email.

What strikes me first about this email is not its content, but that the sender has expressed that he can divide his own personal identification with Christian and other voluntary organisations (I have no clue which they are) from his “personal capacity”. That he has to explicitly state this suggests that he is sending this email to his work email list.

On Twitter, many people put in their bio “all views my own” or “tweeting in a personal capacity”, as if that needed saying. But, somehow, most of us manage to convince ourselves that we can divorce our private and public conduct, or our professional and personal conduct – as if what we say while wearing one hat is not really us when we’re wearing a different hat. I would like to question that.

I’m an ex-evangelical Christian, so I feel like I have been through the mill with this God stuff. I went to university as a born-again Christian, and left it as a liberal seeker who had met too many evangelical Christians NOT to question the dogma, the cultural conservatism, the unquestioned truth of Christianity.

At present, I would say I’m culturally Christian (e.g. I put it on forms), religiously disinclined, theologically philosophical, and spiritually agnostic. I value the idealistic, hopeful, social justice-focused, seeking and loving aspect of the Christian faith. Like everyone who is involved in it (even in part), I pick and choose which bits sit comfortably and which bits are too much to bear, which bits to practise, and which bits not to. (If you want to know more about my beliefs, I’ve written blogs: here here and here)

I have spells of going to a regular meditative service designed for post-evangelicals, liberals and open Christians, and spells of thinking that they’re all bonkers for turning up. That isn’t intended to offend. It’s just part and parcel of anyone’s journey through life – if it is one that is questioned.

And that, for me, is the nub of this leaked email.

First off, it’s important to say that whatever the emailer said, they are completely entitled to say it. In a way, it’s better that it’s out in the open and people are able to comment. Religious freedom is imperative in any free society, and these are obviously genuinely held religious beliefs.

Secondly – these are genuinely held religious beliefs. Someone really does think that “God may well be raising him [Marvin Rees] up for such a time as this”.

Thirdly, the genuinely held religious beliefs are not troubling because Person A believes that Person B is inspired by God (perhaps we all are, in a way, by being human?), but because they are using that religious/theological/cultural status as a platform to ask people to support this particular mayoral candidate. I take great exception to that, not least because there may be other Christians in the race who may be equally “raised up”, but because it comes with my own personal knowledge that there are many Christians just accept what their leaders say.

Now, I’ve not done an acid test on the candidates’ spiritual or religious beliefs (and, let’s be honest, why should we?), but I’m fairly certain that Marvin is the only one who is publicly known to be a practicing Christian.

And this is the crux of this debate. Should you support someone because you identify with them culturally, or with their professed values? Does appealing to a particular “vote” (sometimes called “playing the [insert cultural group/position here] card”) chime as a positive and well-intentioned action that has the public good in mind?

Or should you support them because you think they would listen to people, because you think they have just, sustainable and fair policies that will improve Bristol democratically and materially, and because they walk the walk, not just talk it?

If you think Marvin fits the bill on all counts, I suggest you go ahead and vote for him – just like the emailer does.

But if you consider your own values, your own questioning, your own understanding of Bristol’s problems (and what would solve them), and your own broad understanding of the world around us and find him wanting…then I suggest you look elsewhere.

Beliefs, formed from whatever source, are there to be questioned.

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2 thoughts on “Faith and politics: squaring a circle?”

  1. What you are identifying is the problem of the growth of communitarian politics in this country.

    There’s high profile examples such as Tower Hamlets and Bradford West where Muslims are openly targeted by politicians and treated as a distinct religious and cultural group whose bloc vote can be extremely powerful if engaged.

    You can already see it on a smaller scale in Bristol in areas such as Easton and, possibly, Lawrence Hill next time around.

    It’s hardly surprising Christians are now jumping on the bandwagon.

    Like

  2. Yes, I think you’re right.

    It’s a worrying trend, but I think the instances are relatively rare in the UK compared to the prevalence of this type of thing in the US…

    Like

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