Contemporary political issues
The European Referendum: How should Christian students responding to contemporary political issues?
It is often said that one should never discuss money or politics at the dinner table. You may well recall social occasions where a political observation was raised only for the mood to very quickly go downhill. There is a very simple reason for this: politics exists because we don’t agree, whether that is on the desired outcome, or on how to achieve that outcome. By its very nature it is both deeply divisive and very personal, and it is therefore little wonder then that most choose to avoid political discussion as a result. This is certainly the case in Christian Unions, where issues of secondary importance are set to one side for the sake of unity in the Gospel – which also includes where one stands on political issues. This mindset of graciously bearing with one another’s difference is both essential for effective gospel witness, and also an excellent model to the world of how bear with one another where deep held convictions differ.
This does however leave the politically minded Christian student facing something of a challenge. With their God-given interest and enthusiasm for politics, they can see more readily than their peers how issues being debated in the corridors of power impact our society, often in a very substantial way. Their interests and expertise mean that they can bring a Christian perspective on contemporary political issues to their peers, helping Christian students to engage positively with the political process. Given the divisive nature of politics however, it is not immediately evident that Christians should initiate such conversations, much less how they should do so. While it is true that political discourage inevitably arouses strong responses, requiring tactful and sensitive handling, it is far from true that this means discussion of politics is a no go area for Christians with an interest in politics. Indeed the very reverse is true – politically minded Christian students should be catalysts and facilitators to help others to engage positively with political debate.
The first way this can be achieved, is by recognising that debate and disagreement is not itself a bad thing. While politics is by its very nature divisive, the political process is also supposed to serve a unifying function. Whether this process is the election of a deliberative body, a consultative referendum, or participation in community consultation, the intent is that differences of opinion are recognised, and whatever outcome is reached is then legitimated, enabling the body impacted to then take action. An interesting historical example involves the emergence of the Conclave to elect the Pope. The medieval church had seen many bitter, often violent schisms, as different wings of the church got behind rival candidates for the papacy. The conclave was the brainchild of those in the church who wished to preserve the unity of the church, but recognised that the divisions within it were very real. Whatever one’s views on the subsequent activity of the Roman Catholic Church, the conclave has done what it set out to achieve – it enables the church to unite behind the winner of the contest, regardless of how divided that contest was until that point. This heritage has been carried forward into subsequent democratic elections, and is perhaps best captured in the sentiment expressed by most British Members of Parliament upon being elected: “Regardless of whether you voted for me, I will do my best to represent everyone in my constituency.”
A Biblical example of this mindset is found in Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem. While it is reasonable to assume that the council was not ‘democratic’ in the sense that there was presumably no formal vote, the Council recognised two realities: firstly that there was division within the church, in this instance over whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to adopt Jewish customs such as circumcision. Secondly, they recognised that it was not desirable that the church should be divided and so they sought to arrive at a solution that would unify the church, and that decision was subsequently legitimated because the choice was made in an appropriate manner. We should take care here with what we learn – we are not saying that it is within the remit of a body of believers to determine a political course of action, nor that CUs ought to do so! What we can and should learn, is that we need not fear the divisiveness of democratic debate, for its ultimate purpose is to unify, and that both Scriptural and Church history indicate that Christians have modelled this in the past.
If we accept that debate is welcome, the obvious question to ask is what it looks like for believers to model good debate in public life? We know that governance is like many of God’s good gifts in creation, intended for our good but subjected to frustration through the fall and ongoing human sin. This helpful starting point reminds us that the process of taking decisions is meant to produce good outcomes, but is very easily steered off course by human vanity and ambition. It is for good reason therefore that Paul instructs Timothy that we should pray for those in authority.[i] It recognises three things – that authority is there for our good, and we thrive when they do[ii]; that it is only through God’s common grace that authorities govern well; and finally, recognising our own limitations and our utter dependence upon Christ. While we are not limited to prayer by any means, it is our most crucial means of impacting public debate, and society is poorer when we neglect to pray.
Prayer also aligns our hearts to God and the purposes of His Kingdom, which means that when we do then go on to participate in debate we are much more likely to guard against our own human frailty. Dependence upon his Spirit means that we enjoy the fruits of the Spirit, which include peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.[iii] Anyone who has ever participated in a fiercely contested discussion will appreciate just how much the presence or absence of these particular attributes dramatically transforms a conversation. For the Christian with a strong interest in politics, it means that they have a grace gift that enables them to be gracious towards those with different viewpoints. Political discussion on social media can in certain respects be an example of what it looks like when the fruit of the Spirit is not present – impatient, unkind, and ill tempered. Sadly, Christians can just as easily get drawn into such behaviour, and fortunately it is not only Christians who manage to display the grace gifts of the Spirit. Nevertheless, the capacity to speak one’s mind clearly but courteously both enriches the democratic process, and also models to the world what good governance looks like. Christians also enjoy the unique advantage that we are expected to be prepared to share the hope we have in Christ, but to do so gently and with respect.[iv] This same spirit of gentle confidence should enable us to engage in respectful debate.
Case Study: The EU Referendum
In less than 100 days the United Kingdom will vote upon whether to ‘Remain’ in, or ‘Leave’ the European Union, having first joined the organisation in 1973 and held a referendum on whether to remain or leave in 1975. Present opinion polls indicate that each position enjoy is supported by at least 40% of the electorate, demonstrating exactly the kind of division we have previously spoken of. The referendum shares certain parallels with the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The vote is taking place in recognition of a long term political conviction that will impact every area of national life and is espoused by a substantial percentage of the populace. It is also an issue where, ultimately, one can only support or oppose the proposition, leaving no scope for a middle ground or compromise option.[v] The referendum will theoretically present the settled will of the UK electorate, enabling the government to proceed on the basis of that outcome.
While students can obviously join others in praying for the outcome of the referendum, what else can and should students do in this particular instance? First of all, we can give encouragement to those students who either study or have a keen interest in politics. They are the most likely to be familiar with the issues and concepts involved in the referendum, and also have probably approached the referendum from the distinct vantage point of what it means to be a Christian participating in the referendum. Even if you are not naturally politically minded, you can be the catalyst for encouraging a politically minded friend to lead a discussion on the EU Referendum. Those of you who consider yourselves engaged in politics should also be encouraged that your friends want to hear your insights and opinions. When you immerse yourself in political culture, especially if you study politics, it is easy to forget that your peers do not enjoy the same familiarity with contemporary politics that you do, and your experience and insight is a blessing to those seeking to better understand the issue at hand. Such students are also more likely to be able to refer their peers to useful resources relating to the referendum, which again serves to enrich the democratic debate.
There are two final ways that the politically minded student can positively impact the referendum. The first is by acting as a conduit for others to become involved in the campaign itself. Some students may be keen to join in such an important campaign, but not know where to begin in getting involved, or be nervous of being pulled in more than their capacity to deliver. The support of a friend who is already politically engaged can help such students to engage with the debate on terms they are comfortable with.
The second positive impact the believer can bring is to model the spirit of unity that we spoke of at the very beginning of this article. Given the divisive nature of political life it is not uncommon for different political groups to speak ill of one another, as evidenced by many unkind public remarks on social media. The Christian in political life can model a spirit of generous respect for opposing remarks while the campaign is ongoing, but even more so when the vote is concluded, and it is necessary for the result to be accepted, whichever way it goes.
Conclusion: Christians modelling respectful debate
Students in Christian Unions need not fear engagement with the European Referendum, or indeed with any political circumstance that arises in the future which engenders debate. Disagreement is a natural consequence of public discourse, and the means by which competing viewpoints are brought to a resolution. As it is possible for believers to hold sincere competing viewpoints on political issues that do not stand in opposition to orthodox Biblical teaching, such debate does need to be conducted respectfully, and shouldn’t be done with the intent of forcing a group to come to a unified viewpoint. Nevertheless, a CU student with political interest can play a significant role both to open the debate to their peers, help others to become involved, and also to model respectful debate, and gracious acknowledgement of the final result.
[i] 1 Timothy 2:2
[ii] See Romans 13:4, 1 Peter 2:13-14 and Jeremiah 29:7
[iii] Galatians 5:22-23
[iv] 1 Peter 3:15
[v] Obviously within the two outcomes there are nuanced positions – several intending to vote ‘Remain’ attach an expectation that this would be accompanied by further reform of the EU institutions, while some ‘Leave’ voters are in favour of European co-operation, but specifically opposed to the current EU organisation.