Faith

Martin Turner is a former chair of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. He previously worked with Operation Mobilisation in Belgium, and is a member of Bidford Baptist Church (theBarn).

Why Nick Griffin keeps trying to associate himself with Christian issues, and why he should stop

Why Nick Griffin keeps trying to associate himself with Christian issues, and why he should stop

BARKING, ENGLAND - MAY 07:  Nick Griffin, lead...

Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (Getty Images via @daylife)

In a not-unexpected court ruling yesterday, a judge ruled that a Christian Bed and Breakfast owner was in breach of the law in refusing to give the same treatment to a homosexual couple that she would have given to a heterosexual couple. Her case was backed by the Christian Institute.

The case itself was an important continuation of the debate about to what extent the rights of one group should supersede the rights of another. As a matter of law — if all the training I’ve been on about discrimination is correct — the ruling was the only ruling possible. The Christian Institute’s underlying argument was that the law is wrong.

It is entirely appropriate that debates of this kind take place, and right that lobbying groups like the Christian Institute continue to make their case in the public arena.

However, the proceedings and the verdict have been overshadowed by the intervention of Nick Griffin MEP, of the British National Party, who tweeted the address of the couple and appeared to urge his supporters to organise a demonstration outside the couple’s house.

This is not the first time that Griffin and other BNP members have tried to insinuate themselves into debates and news issues which have a Christian tinge. In a separate issue the BBC reported yesterday on peaceful protests in Northern Ireland relating to a Mari Stopes clinic which were mainly led by Christians, but which the BNP had decided to attend, despite having no elected presence in the province. Earlier in the year their attempt to attend an Orange rally prompted a sharp rebuke from the organisers.

Griffin’s own comment is revealing. Mr Griffin told Sky News: “I was very angry in the way in which left-wing political activists and a minority of gay activists are working with left-wing judges to use the Human Rights Act to persecute ordinary people, especially Christians.

It’s the “especially Christians” bit which is revelatory. Why Christians? Griffin has no known link with an established church, does not attend church regularly, and has never made any pronouncements outside of a politics which have a Christian flavour. His comments were immediately denounced by the Christian Institute, and Christians — including myself — have frequently highlighted the disparity between what he believes and the teaching of the New Testament, including ‘love your enemies’, ‘do good to those who persecute you’ and ‘do not judge others’.

From his published oeuvre, Griffin’s only interest in Christianity is in trying to harness it for the promotion of his own political agenda. Of course, he would not be the only person doing this. At a General Election debate I was once baffled by one of the candidates who professed that all of his actions were motivated by love, because he was a Christian. I wouldn’t claim to be able to judge the thoughts and motivations of anyone else, but I have never met anyone else — including some very saintly people — who would go so far as to claim that everything they did was motivated by love. Interestingly, he only said that at that particular debate — which was the Churches Together debate. He never mentioned Christianity at the others. I don’t doubt that he sincerely meant it at the time.

The difference, though, between some other politician trying to pick up a few Christian votes at a Churches Together debate and the BNP is that Griffin actively tries to wade into areas of Christian concern, and does so in the most unChristian way possible. He was censured for the way he described Irish Republicans recently, using an expletive in his tweet.

What we must understand before going any further is that Nick Griffin’s view of ‘Christian’ has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Griffin has never shown any public interest in Christ’s teachings. The notion of forgiveness is something that never appears in his policies.

Rather, for Griffin, ‘Christian’ is short-hand for ‘Anglo-Saxon White traditional English intolerance’. Not that Griffin wants anyone to realise that when he uses the word. He wants the resonances of the word ‘Christian’ to galvanise those who feel warmly towards Christianity, but don’t actually practise it themselves. The 70% or so who say they are ‘Christian’ in surveys, but probably don’t go to church more than at Christmas, at weddings, and at funerals.

A few years ago we picked up a BNP leaflet in Yardley, Birmingham, which claimed that Muslims from Stechford were attempting to close down Yardley Old Church, a well known landmark which dates back to the Anglo-Saxons. Nobody who actually attended Yardley Old Church would have believed it for a moment. No church in Britain has ever been closed down by pressure from Muslims (though, sadly, historically churches have been closed down because of pressure from other churches). If there is a threat to Yardley Old Church, it is non-attendance by those who reckon to be Christians. The claim was laughable, but to those who did not attend but liked the idea, it may have had some resonance.

A couple of years later a friend of mine picked up a leaflet from the BNP. It talked about the importance of the family, abortion, traditional morality, and such things. Over tea she told us that was impressed with the leaflet and would even consider voting for them. Her husband — was was black — gently pointed out the incongruity of this. Put this down to political naivety, but there was nothing in the leaflet that hinted at racism or intolerance: it had been carefully constructed to appeal to people like her, and to conceal what the BNP is really about.

If you are a Christian reading this, then I would urge you on every occasion that Griffin attempts to link himself to Christians, or presents himself as defending the rights of Christians, to immediately repudiate it, and make clear to anyone listening what the difference between Christianity and the BNP really is.

If you are Nick Griffin reading this, then let me urge you: read the New Testament, join a church, attend an Alpha course, find out what Jesus Christ was really about. You may decide that it’s time you stopped trying to link yourself to Christians. Or, better, you may decide that it’s time to follow a radically different way, and renounce the BNP and everything it stands for,

Peace and Goodwill

Peace and Goodwill

At twilight, a frog rests on wet tarmac between the cliff and the Avon, Marlcliff

Believing is not in fashion. I have, during the last ten years, sat in countless meetings where people have tried to hammer home their point that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you don’t act on it. But, at the end of a decade of doubt, it turns out that we did want our politicians to act out of principle rather than greed, and that Americans, if no-one else, were prepared to vote for the hope of change, rather than more of the same cynicism.

You can read the Christmas story in different ways. I read it (and I will argue with anyone, any time, pretty much anywhere that this is the correct way) as a record of events which happened, at a particular point in time, and a particular place in space.

But if you’re not prepared to engage with it in that way, there is still a lot to be read, and understood. Shepherds on the hillside choose to believe, rather than to doubt. But their belief is exercised not in remaining on the hillside saying “that’s great, now we believe — there’s no point going to look”, but rather in going to the stable. Equally, the wise men, astrologers from the East, people whose own belief-system was almost certainly at odds with the nation they were visiting. They believed, and they went. Angels in the sky, announcing a new deal: “peace and good will”.

I expect the usual flurry of emails telling me that the effect of Christianity over the centuries has not always been peace and goodwill. Again, if you want to pick the time and the place, I’m happy to have the discussion with you. But it’s fair to say that, in all of our best endeavours, we only achieve a part of what we seek.

Nonetheless, the belief which puts itself into action, getting to grips with the peace and goodwill, in all of the messy, three steps forwards and two steps back, complicated, difficult and fractious world in which we live, is infinitely preferable to the cynicism which says: “I always knew they were all crooks — why bother anyway?” or “it probably won’t happen in my life time. Why change my ways now?”

Over the past ten years, and more likely the last forty, we have increasingly put our faith in doubt. We would prefer to not believe and not be disappointed, than to believe and act on that belief. I could add a list of all the social ills that stem from that, but you can probably make up your own list, and not have to put up with mine.

I want to wish everyone who reads these pages peace and goodwill this Christmas. But my wish for you — for everyone — is that we can begin to put aside our faith in doubt, and start on the active belief that leads us to change our world. Because it does need to change.

Peace and goodwill, then.

And a happy Christmas.

Reforms fall short

Sir Christopher Kelly’s report offers a bare minimum of reforms but fails to address the fundamental issues with parliamentary funding — that the rich are still advantaged when it comes to being an MP, and the tax-payer hands over cash with poor value for money when it comes to what MPs actually achieve.

Essentially — if you don’t have time to read the 139 page report — Christopher Kelly recommends reducing the allowances MPs can claim, preventing them from claiming for mortgages, and cutting down what MPs near London are allowed to get. But he does nothing to stop MPs earning lucrative amounts through second incomes, and he does absolutely nothing whatever to require MPs to work a certain number of hours in return for their annual salary or to deliver achievements or outcomes. In this way, parliament remains a ‘gentlemen’s club’, where those with substantial external earnings are little harmed by the new arrangements, and where there is no accountability, beyond the once in five years popularity contest of the General Election which has more to do with competing party promises than with the MP’s own track record.

Kelly entirely dodges the question of external earnings. In noting that he intends to recommend no change, he trots out the tired excuse: “It can bring valuable experience to the House of Commons and the income from it can help to preserve independence from the whips.” ((page 11))

But this flies in the face of a principle which Kelly references repeatedly — bringing MP’s remuneration closer to the expectations of their constituents. Normally, if a constituent works a responsible full-time job, their contract will stipulate what external employment they are allowed to hold, and how potential conflicts of interest with their main employment should be managed.

The problem with MPs having external interests is that MPs get to vote on absolutely everything. No aspect of British society is outside of parliament’s discussions. True, MPs are required to declare an interest when the debate explicitly touches on their directorships. But a debate may implicitly touch on many areas, and no interest declared.

Further, there are a number of professions and commercial interests which could be legitimately considered to be against the public interest. I have the greatest, deepest admiration for Tory MP Kenneth Clarke in much of what he does (and, really, has he not realised yet he is in the wrong party?), but a directorship of British American Tobacco surely flies in the face of widely accepted public priorities. Equally, we have MPs who benefit (or who have benefitted in the past) from the operation of fee-charging cash machines, which sap the resources of deprived communities where banks are unwilling to place the free ATMs common in affluent areas.

There are a large number of businesses which, while not illegal, are predatory in nature. What’s more, there are changes to society which benefit legitimate business, but whose benefit to society as a whole is altogether more questionable. Churches and many voluntary groups, as well as trades unions, opposed the Thatcher-sponsored Sunday trading bill. Sunday trading — if it did anything — fuelled the growth in consumer spending and thus consumer debt which is a key factor in the boom-bust cycle which has left our economy reeling. Many of the MPs (in fact, probably most) who voted for that bill gained substantially from it, through their external interests.

Kelly’s claim “the income from it can help to preserve independence from the whips”, is particularly disturbing. If the standard remuneration for MPs is not enough to preserve their independence from whips, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the framework Kelly is proposing. Worse, it means that new MPs, or MPs from backgrounds that do not privilege them with access to directorships, are ‘whip-fodder’.

The other enormous problem with Kelly’s prescription is that it changes the remuneration of MPs without making any assessment of what it is that MPs are actually supposed to do. How often should an MP attend parliament? How many parliamentary questions should they ask? How much constituency work? How many letters should they answer themselves, compared to the number which are answered by their researchers?

Should MPs have performance related pay? How would that performance thus be measured? It would certainly offset the time that MPs with outside interests put into earning their extra money.

David Cameron has expressed the view that there should be fewer MPs. Why? What benefit would that be? If we are really concerned about saving a few million pounds, then we should perhaps be looking at the £100,000 a year that relatively minor but senior civil servants get. There are very few MPs by comparison, and they earn far less. Cameron of course is making this suggestion because it sounds contrite, honest and cost-saving. But it is nonsense, as is any attempt to set the amount that MPs get paid (including their expenses) without setting out their duties and hours of work.

If we really want to sort out the complete mess which parliament is now in, and if we really want to make the work of an MP transparent — understandable to someone who does a regular job, for a regular wage — then we need to give MPs contracts like any job gives its employees. They should set out how many hours, what outcomes, how the work is to be measured. And if we really mean to modernise, then there should be a mechanism for throwing an MP out if they fail to live up to not only the basic ethical standards, but also the basic work, that we would expect from any other employee.

Because, ultimately, MPs are our employees.

So, should Christians vote for Christian parties? Here’s why not…

Former vicar in Hyndburn MP bid — Lancashire Evening Post
Two Christian parties stood on the same ticket at the recent Euro elections, and now a former Vicar is planning to stand on a Christian ticket in Hyndburn, Lancashire. In these times of national distrust of politicians (more so even than usual), doesn’t the existence of Christian parties offer hope and an alternative to traditional politics? And, as a protest vote, it is surely better than voting BNP? Here’s why I think not.

1 Christian parties do not stay Christian for long
We don’t have a history of Christian parties in Britain, but they have lots of them in mainland Europe. The problem is, that it’s fairly hard to identify what the ‘Christian’ component of the Christian Democrats is. This is a problem which has particularly taxed the Dutch, whose own struggles with ‘Christian’ parties that were no longer Christian enough, resulted in a baffling 23 distinct Christian parties during the last hundred or so years. A fascinating timeline of their mergers, splits and acquisitions is presented in this Wikipedia article. Christianity grew up as a counter-culture within the Roman state, and flourished despite intense persecution for around 300 years. It was Constantine, the only emperor to be proclaimed in Britain, who proclaimed toleration for Christians in 313 AD, followed later by the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire. We can argue backwards and forwards about the real impact of this, but, certainly, by the fall of the Roman empire, a great many practices, symbols and philosophies from the pagan world had been adopted into Christianity, and the track record of supposedly Christian emperors was, to say the least, patchy, when it came to implementing the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Clearly, in the modern world, no Christian party is going to advocate persecution of non-Christian minorities, or crusades to recover lost ‘Christian’ lands, but the history of a too-close union between Christianity and political power is that the, quite soon, Christian regimes and Christian parties lose the Christian distinctive, and become just like other regimes and other parties. For Christians — such as myself — this creates huge problems. Get into any argument with atheists about the existence of God, and they are certain to bring up the Crusades and the Inquisition as examples of the malign impact of religion on the world. The solution to this problem is to challenge them to identify exactly how the philosophy and practices of the Crusades and the Inquisition were derived from the teachings of Jesus. In fact, they derived almost exclusively from the philosophy and practices of the Roman empire. But, at this point, we, as Christians, need to step away, and accept that applying the label ‘Christian’ to really any brand of politics creates enormous risks for the faith itself.

Over the last years, we have seen the spectacle of American presidential candidates scrabbling to present how ‘Christian’ they are. But, with the exception of Jimmy Carter (and, we hope, Obama), their actions once inside the White House have shown no particular Christian influence. If the only purpose of having ‘Christian’ parties is to bring out a captive vote, which can then be treated in a cavalier fashion, just as Tony Blair was able to treat the left-wing vote, then we would be better off without such parties.

2 Christians are called to be involved in mainstream society
Jesus called his followers to be salt and light in society. Through the pages of the New Testament, we see the early Christians engaged in all manner of ordinary, secular jobs. One of them was a city administrator. At no point do any of the New Testament writers suggest that Christians should distance themselves from secular politics. Going a little further back, the book of Daniel presents a clear picture of godly action by a civil servant and later prime minister in a thoroughly pagan regime.
The moment that we create Christian parties, we put a dilemma before Christian voters: should we vote for the best candidate, or should we vote for the Christian party. In some cases we may even be faced with the challenge of voting for the best candidate who is a Christian in a mainstream party, or the Christian party candidate.
Great Christian politicians such as Gladstone and Wilberforce were Christians active in ordinary mainstream parties. Their influence was much greater because they were involved in regular politics.
At the European elections, which traditionally favour minor parties, less than a quarter of a million people voted for the Christian parties, and their average vote was just 1.64%. But even if all regular church-goers had voted for them, they would not have attracted more than 10% of the vote. Of course, with a low turn-out, as we saw for the last election, 10% of the total electorate, if every church-goer voted, would be 20% of the actual vote — enough to put a Christian MEP into every region, but nowhere near enough to make those MEPs any more than an irritation, in the way of UKIP or the BNP.
For Christian politicians to have an impact on the society in which they live, they need to work with non-Christians. Which, of course, is exactly the way of things in business, the public sector, and most of the voluntary sector. And that means being in parties made up of many kinds of people.

3 Protest votes of any kind do not work
And that brings me to my third point. Everyone likes to make a protest, and the protest vote has a long tradition in British democracy. But not a very healthy tradition. Labour voters protested in their droves at the Euro election by simply not bothering to vote. The result? Two BNP MEPs were elected. And, rather worse for Christians, these BNP MEPs actually claim to speak for Christians. As I have pointed out in a previous article, they have no credentials for doing so, and they have no track record which would support it. However, the result of all the protest voting that took place is that the BNP got seats, whereas the Christian parties got none. I struggle to believe that all the people who voted for non-mainstream parties were happy to see the BNP elected. Nonetheless, the English Democrats, the Christian parties, and Socialist Labour were each worth an average of around one and a half percent, with the others all together probably worth another couple of percent between them. Even if these votes had been evenly distributed across the three mainstream parties, it would have been enough to keep the BNP out.

I am, personally, a committed Christian, and I joined a mainstream political party because I believe that faith does matter in politics. I certainly wouldn’t agree with anyone who suggests that you should keep religion out of politics. This is a frankly baffling and illogical perspective: why should we arbitrarily reject one part of our society from having a role in our common life. We might as well suggest that scientists should keep out of politics, or musicians, or dog-owners, or people who drive particular kinds of motor-cars, or people who do not drive at all. But, just as I would advise against a ‘Science party’, or a ‘Musicians’ party’, or any other kind of single-issue or special-interest party, I would advise Christians who want to have an impact through the democratic process against Christian parties. No party can possibly have a monopoly on Christians, nor can any party guarantee its future to the extent that it can be sure it will always behave in a scrupulously Christian way. History — and mainland European politics — is littered with too many examples of people who believed passionately in what they were doing, but were also entirely wrong.

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