Faith in the Liberal Democrats?

This is an article I wrote that was published earlier this year in the Liberal Democrat's AdLib Magazine.

When Liberal Democrats Do God was launched at the Glasgow Conference, it attracted a wide range of responses. The book consists of articles by twelve MPs and Peers, each talking about how their Christian faith positively impacts their politics. The newspapers went to town with Steve Webb MP’s argument that God must be a liberal. Greg Mulholland MP’s article caused the most controversy, asserting that the party is drifting away from freedom of conscience and pushing out people of faith.

We published the book for two reasons: firstly, we wanted to show Christians that there is a place for them in our party; there are many synergies between being a Christian and being a Liberal Democrat, as well as lots of MPs of faith. There is a misperception that our party is ultra-secular, and Christians are surprised when I tell them that a recent party survey showed over 30% of members go to church regularly.

Secondly, we wanted to challenge the party that faith is not merely a private matter, but makes a positive contribution to politics. A vocal minority would like to eradicate any mention of religion in public life, but this would be a great loss to our nation.

Sadly, when it comes to talking about Christian engagement in politics, it is too often about what people are against not what they are for. But this book shows that Christianity inspires and motivates people to seek justice in many areas of life: supporting those in poverty, protecting the environment, pursuing restorative justice and upholding human rights.

Other faiths have a similar positive effect on political engagement. Lord Palmer, a practicing Jew, says his faith influences his politics a great deal. “My deep commitment to casework as a local Councillor comes from my belief that I have a duty to do good to other human beings. I must not pass by on the other side of the road”. Hindu peer, Lord Dholakia, takes a similar view: “It is helpful to have a faith when you engage with politics. It shapes your way of life.” There are also prominent party figures of other faiths – Lord Avebury is a Buddhist, and Baroness Hussein-Ece, a Muslim. 

According to Baroness Jolly, a practicing member of the Church of England, there is a reason why many people with faith choose to support the Liberal Democrats. “Liberal democracy maps well onto many faiths, because of the central values of freedom and fairness, and support for people in the margins.”

Indeed, research shows that Christians are more likely to be progressive, and that the proportion who vote Lib Dem exceed the national average. While Anglicans lean towards the Conservatives, and Catholics lean towards Labour, across the other denominations it’s a fairly even split: 26% Lib Dem, 30% Labour and 32% Conservative. In addition to this, Christians have a very high 90% turnout rate.

Yet the party could do a lot better at reaching out to Christians and other religious groups. Many Christians don’t get past the secular image of the party to discover what it actually has to offer. Adopting the language of pluralism rather than secularism would make a significant difference, as it has far more positive connotations for those with faith – and more accurately describes our society. Also, the party needs to listen more to those with religious faith. Many are community activists and have valuable insights from working on the ground in our constituencies.

Lord Palmer agrees that language is important. “Some people offend Jews because they fail to make the distinction between Israel and the Jewish people. There is a fine line between being critical of the state of Israel and being anti-Semitic.”

Lord Dholakia affirms the importance of listening to people of faith. “In a democracy, it is the majority view that wins the argument, but you should never shut down the voices of minorities. It is often minority views that help guide and shape the direction of the majority.” While making it clear that he supported the same-sex marriage legislation, he thinks it was right that the party gave MPs a free vote, allowing space for those with conflicting religious beliefs to express them.

Understanding people’s faith as a motivational factor in politics is important in our interactions with the rest of the world too, according to John Pugh MP. “We can’t have a conversation with the Muslim world which is completely blind to what their religious beliefs and concepts are. We can’t put religion on one side and talk to them about democracy as if their religion has nothing to do with it. We need to understand their faith in order to communicate.”

Many people will know that the Lord’s Prayer includes asking that God’s will is done, “On earth, as it is in heaven”. That’s a big vision for the world – one where compassion and justice reign. Having people in the party who are motivated by this sort of vision can be no bad thing.

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