by Rob Flello MP
On March 28th Rob Flello MP for Stoke South addressed 200 local dignitaries, councillors, Christians, church leaders, community and business leaders at the annual Civic Prayer Breakfast, organised by Saltbox and held at the Kings Hall in the town of Stoke. Also present were: Ian Dudson - Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, Shelia Pitt - Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Tristram Hunt - MP Stoke Central, Charlie Stewart - Deputy Chief Executive S-o-T City Council, Peter Dartford - Chief Fire Officer, Inspector Ian Hancock - Staffs Police, Richard Bowyer - Editor, Sentinel and Lamont Howie - BBC Radio Stoke. In his speech he was asked to answer the question: Can you be a Christian and work in politics? Here is his fascinating and honest address:
"I was a little daunted to be asked to speak on the subject of, 'Can you be a Christian and work in politics?' having been an MP for coming up to nine years and a Christian for only about six years. I can only assume that you are all here listening to me this morning as part of your Lenten penance.
Over the next 10 to 15 minutes I hope to answer the subject question with a determined 'yes', indeed a profound, 'if you're a Christian you must work in politics'. I hope to do this by considering what responsibilities are on Christians, what working in politics entails and how you might balance the two. Of course being a Christian politician brings with it a whole new set of concerns. As I'll expand on later a politician's always open to attack, but a Christian one - well, that's a whole new set of people that you can offend and upset and that can want to have a go at you.
I think it's helpful to set out at the start what I mean by a Christian in the context of this speech. When I talk about a Christian who works in politics - I mean the one who stumbles, frequently falls; the one who forgets God in the heat of some crisis or other, or just plain forgets when it's too difficult, but the Christian for whom every day is about being a Christian, every good thing, every trial is a gift from God; the Christian for whom Christ is who they are, who is just as much a part of their entire being as their gender or their hair colour.
As I began to explore this part of the question further I was struck that I'm probably not a very good example of a Christian myself. Let me give you an example of that. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to visit the Spanish parliament and I was on a flight to Madrid. I've flown thousands of miles. I've been 18 hours to the Falkland Islands, I've been into two war zones, but I hate flying. So when we encountered some turbulence I couldn't help but be reminded of when the disciples were in that boat crossing the lake and Jesus is fast asleep on the cushion at the back. You'll recall the storm blew up and they were terrified. Of course, Jesus woke, calmed the storm and spoke to them and said, "You men of little faith". Well, I was at 35,000 feet, I was in that boat and I was a man of little faith. So I'm probably not the best Christian to be stood here.
When I say politician what do I mean? Well, I don't just mean members of the House of Commons, I also mean peers, MEPs, councillors, but also community leaders and even chairs of residence groups and there are also of course many staff who work in politics, who work for politicians or for lobby groups or for charities in their campaigning roles and then of course as we've heard this morning there are thousands upon thousands of Christians who work in Food Banks, who give debt advice, who care for the homeless: all these people, they might not think it but actually that's a form of politics, so the opportunity to work in politics is extremely wide-ranging.
So, can you be a Christian and work in politics? There are many who say a very strong, "no". I recall a couple of years ago being told by a prominent MEP that religion has no place in politics and that I should choose between being a Christian and being a politician. I did wonder afterwards if the MEP would have said that to Martin Luther King - I'm sure the MEP would have tried to distance the two situations and sadly I'm no Dr King - but it's still frequently said that faith has no place in public life. There continue to be secular politicians who regularly condemn Christians for bringing what they call "a dinosaur-era attitude" to civil life. I take the view that resorting to cheap insults shows that there's either little intellectual rigour to challenge the Christians' view or they're just plain lazy at debating. But is religion simply a private matter? Even as Christians we could take the view that we render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's. But of course as Christians we know that everything, even the coin of Caesar, belongs to God, so that doesn't get us off the hook from engaging in politics. But we must also obey the governing authorities - St Paul tells us in Romans 13 that we must do so - which of course puts a duty on us to ensure that those authorities represent our voice too and that we're robust in holding the governing authorities to account. One of many good examples of Christians holding governing authorities to account must surely be Archbishop Óscar Romero. On Monday of this week, it was 34 years since Romero was martyred whilst saying Mass. He was killed for speaking out about the violence and oppression by the government of El Salvador. He knew his life was at risk for many years but knew he had to hold those in power to account.
So is religion a private matter for a politician? As I've said there are those who think so, but their view is based on either an inadvertent or a deliberate misunderstanding of faith or is based upon blissful ignorance. For me Christianity is who I am - I could no more leave my faith at the door of the House of Commons than I could my name or my gender or my arms and legs. It's also who I am when standing for election: I make no secret of it: people know I'm a Christian when they cast their vote. Now of course many people do vote for the political party rather than the candidate, but it's the candidate's name on the ballot paper: he or she is the elected representative - and the same is true for all others who hold elected office. Similarly for peers: it's who they are that gets them into the House of Lords - if they're Christians then that's again who they are and it's precisely because of who they are that they're appointed.
But what about the nature of politics? It's fair to say politicians don't always have the highest standing in society; indeed the noble art of governance has discovered whole new depths that we can plumb. But whatever your personal view of the men and women who work in the field of political life there are certain well-accepted realities. Firstly, that politicians have enemies - I nearly said "make enemies", but actually most political enemies are not of our making and indeed not just from other political parties. People might not get the result they wanted from a person working in politics despite the hard work and best endeavours of all concerned and so grudges are born. It also used to be the case that for every MP there were tens if not hundreds of party members who would gladly hear the words "Et tu, Brute" as they plunged that dagger and took the MP's job. In some ways, happily, that number is perhaps in single digits now but only because many no longer wish to endure the less publicised downsides of being an MP. So as a Christian politician how harder must it be to forgive those enemies and not succumb to the dark art of Machiavellian skulduggery and take their legs? Well, I'm reminded of the example of Abraham Lincoln. When he ran for US President he had an archenemy, Edwin Stanton. No opportunity was missed by Stanton to vilify or humiliate Lincoln and yet when Lincoln won the election, to everyone's amazement he gave Stanton a key government job, Secretary of War. Lincoln defended his decision by saying Stanton was the best man for the job, which indeed he proved to be, giving loyal service. When Lincoln was asked how he could treat his enemies so generously he replied, "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" It would be nice to think all politicians could be as great as Lincoln, but it shows it can be done.
Then of course there's the big stick that the media - I know we're blessed with wonderful media here today - but there's a big stick that they do like to use about telling the truth. Now, what is truth? There's a saying in politics that perception is truth, or perhaps that's just another shifty politician speaking. Over years there have been many great politicians who have had a reputation for speaking the truth or, perhaps more accurately, for telling it as they see it. These politicians are considered by most people across the political spectrum to be great figures - but quite often it's only a very narrow group that actually agreed with everything they said, so were they speakers of truth? But as Christians working in politics I have to say we're not immune from the temptation to be economical with the truth, to tell people the bits that they will like and forget to tell them the bits they won't.
So what about political ideology and the Bible? Can a politician read the Bible as a manifesto? The simple answer is "no", but I was reminded when reading the book God And Government that there's an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer is flicking through the Bible during an emergency in church wailing, as Homer does, "This book has no answers!" Now I'm not comparing myself to Homer Simpson - some may - but if you're reading the Bible looking for political ideology you'll be disappointed, but as a politician it does guide you to ask the right questions to inform your conscience and to test the ideological answers you arrive at against it. There are frequently times when Christian MPs from across the political divide come to opposing views on issues before Parliament - you wouldn't be surprised at that - but you can also get opposing views within parties based on informed good conscience. Sometimes the issues before Parliament are day-to-day matters but often - well, occasionally - they are more headline-grabbing. But what is common to all is that the Bible doesn't give specific answers, but instead leads the Christian working in politics to inform their conscience and to ask the right questions.
That then leads me to the well-known maxim that politics is the art of compromise. Well, that's certainly true and is one of the difficulties many people experience when they begin to work in politics. Indeed for many politicians the constant question they have to ask themselves is: "Will the compromise I must make improve the common good or not? Am I simply trading off a greater good but gaining a lesser evil?" I know from conversations with MPs from the current Government benches that some policies they're required to support don't fit them well, but do enable them to gain concessions on important points of principle to them. It's also true to say that MPs who serially rebel against their party lose the ability to influence policy and their opportunities to win concessions are greatly diminished. So can you compromise and be a Christian? Well, I know from personal experience that the answer is "yes", of necessity - but there are and have to be red lines. In the words of St Thomas More, "I remain the king's good servant - but God is first." That was also true of William Wilberforce: it took him 26 years to gain enough support for the abolition of slavery and it probably cost him his life through the ill health it brought him, but it was a point in which his Christian conscience, in a world that then thought itself to be thoroughly Christian, would not allow him to compromise.
We hear constantly and indeed experience every day that our country is becoming more and more secular. Is that true? It certainly feels it on some days, but then I'm reminded of two things, again going back to Wilberforce. He wrote more than 200 years ago in his book A Practical View Of Christianity that for most people their idea of Christianity was half-remembered Sunday-school lessons and what they thought Christianity was about. He also interestingly lived in a time when to be enthusiastic about Christianity was shunned in polite society as not the done thing. Secondly I was recently watching the old black-and-white film Murder Most Foul, an interesting view for a politician perhaps, but Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple wants to look for clues at the home of a murdered woman, so she goes to the house pretending to collect jumble for the church bazaar. The murdered woman's sister at the door is reluctant to help Miss Marple so she asks, "You're a Christian, surely?" "I should hope so", comes the answer, but as the scene plays out you don't doubt that even more recently, Christianity was more of a title than a way of life, so perhaps we're just experiencing a different flavour of secularism.
To conclude, you'll be delighted to know that in answer to the question, 'can you be a Christian and work in politics?' Pope Francis certainly thinks so. In his homily at morning Mass on 16th September last year he said categorically it's our duty to participate in politics according to a person's ability. Indeed he went so far as to say politics is one of the highest forms of charity because it serves the common good. However, if you'd asked me that question seven years ago when I was a committed atheist I would have said "no" - but that was for all the reasons I'd have mentioned this morning already. The blissful ignorance combined with a lazy dismissal of people's views that I couldn't understand; it was easier to attack than debate - but when grace is given to you you really do see with different eyes. I understand now that being a Christian in politics certainly isn't the easy option - it's a hard option. It isn't blind acceptance of rules and instructions - because they're not there for one thing - but it's a deeper questioning of absolutely everything. It isn't some simplistic set of guidance notes: it's a whole new way of approaching every aspect of your life.
Given the examples of people like Wilberforce, Lincoln, Romero and so many more, I'd suggest that the question that I was asked to speak on should actually be turned into a statement: "In whatever way, to the best of your ability, a Christian must work in politics."
Thank you very much."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.