Observing an Election

Do you feel like this girl:

If not, read on! I am deliberately posting this just after the polls close here in Virginia (although they are still open further west) as I don’t want to seen as trying to influence the result. But I don’t yet know any results, or even any reliable predictions.

It is an interesting experience to observe an election here in the USA, and in one of the key swing states. Actually this is not for the first time – I was in North Carolina for my Bible translation work during the 2000 election. I don’t have a vote, as I am not a US citizen. But I do have an interest in the result, as a taxpayer and husband of a business owner in the USA.

If I had had a vote and had decided on the basis of self-interest, that might not have been what some would expect, as for better or for worse the economy of this region is highly dependent on federal government money. In fact I would have decided more on principle, but I don’t want to turn this post into a partisan one by explaining that further.

In this area the streets and country roads are, or until very recently were, lined with election posters. Not surprisingly, as this is a relatively conservative rural area, the majority  of the signs have been for Romney. But there are also a good number of Obama supporters in this small city.

Meanwhile our home telephone, which we hardly use (but have to have to get home internet), has been ringing regularly with election calls. Most seem to have been from the Republicans. Indeed yesterday I put the phone down on Mitt Romney. This was partly because he called me “Jennifer”. Well, I guess it wasn’t really him, but a recording. I would have done the same if Barack Obama had called, but perhaps not quite so quickly!

I haven’t watched much TV, but the little I have seen has been punctuated with very regular political commercials. Also the TV channels are said to be highly politically polarized.

Today, election day, I have been shocked by the allegations of fraud and attempted manipulation of the polls. I suspect that these allegations, on both sides, have been exaggerated. I am also shocked by the threats of some that there will be violence if their favored candidate loses, but I would think these are also exaggerated – but we may see quite soon.

So all in all watching this election has been an interesting experience, but not really very different from a British one. I guess the real difference has been the sheer amount of money spent, largely on TV ads. I’m glad political ads are not allowed in the UK, and that the broadcast news media at least try to be politically neutral.

Finally, I would like to quote something I wrote in a comment here on the day President Obama was elected:

I consider an issue to be a real issue in an election when one or other of the candidates has made it a real issue and proposed specific action on it. As far as I can tell neither Obama nor McCain proposed any action which would have any definite effect on the number or wrongness of abortions in the USA. This was only an issue for those who chose to make it an issue, and were perhaps dreaming that VP Palin or supreme court judges whom McCain might have appointed might do something about abortion, which is in practice highly unlikely to have happened. Perhaps slightly more likely is that Obama’s social policies will have a side effect of reducing abortion, but for that we can only hope and pray. But I do consider it irresponsible that many Christians were deciding their vote largely on the abortion issue when in fact there was so little to distinguish the candidates on this issue.

It seems to me that exactly the same is true of this election, if you replace “McCain” with “Romney” and “Palin” with “Ryan”. So, I repeat, I consider it irresponsible that many Christians are deciding their vote largely on the abortion issue when in fact there is so little to distinguish the main candidates on this issue. Well, it is too late now – but a recent tweet suggesting that evangelicals in Virginia are staying at home may suggest that this factor is less important than it might have been.

“No” to Christian Political Parties and to Theocracy

Today is polling day for local elections here in the UK, in London and in many other areas, but not here in Chelmsford. So the discussion I am having here is primarily about the UK political scene. But the same principles apply in other democratic countries, and so I recommend this post, and the ones I link to here, to all my readers.

Houses of Parliament and CrossA few days ago Gillan Scott caused some controversy by posting an Interview with Malcolm Martin, Christian Peoples Alliance candidate for the London Assembly. In response to this debate, including to some of my own tweets, he asked the question Are Christian political parties really a good idea? Meanwhile Danny Webster responded to the same controversy with Why I don’t think Christian political parties are the best option. Both Gillan and Danny have been posting other good material on faith and politics over the last few days.

I can basically agree with what both Danny and Gillan have written about Christian political parties. I don’t want to condemn those who choose to join or support them, especially in the UK context where votes for them are more likely to be wasted ones than to usher in a theocracy. There is nevertheless a real chance that the CPA candidate will be elected for one of the proportional top-up seats in the London Assembly – and if so that is likely to be because of the party’s stance against gay marriage, an issue which is divisive even in London’s churches.

Gillan makes a good distinction between parties like CPA which “puts faith at the heart of its politics” and those which promote “a whole raft of biblical principles such as the basic human rights of every individual, social justice and the importance of marriage”, but not a specific faith. Neither Gillan nor I object to the latter – but are they really Christian? However, he has some serious reservations about the former:

If a party stands up and says that it represents the Christian faith, then the implication is that all Christians should agree with its policies.  As we all know though, Christians don’t agree on a lot of things and party politics is one of them.  The added danger is that such a party will be perceived as working towards a theocracy where the government subjects its people to what they believe is God’s will and of course because it’s God’s will it can’t be questioned.  Where this is taking place in the world in countries such as Iran, theocracy inevitably leads to oppression.

I’m not saying that theocracy is the CPA’s aim.  But they do want to promote faith in God and put him at the heart of politics. …

There’s nothing I can find in the Bible about Christianity gaining political power.  Israel in the Old Testament was a theocracy, but it was never intended to spread beyond the Jews who lived under the Mosaic law.  Instead in Romans Paul talks about us submitting to the authorities, not usurping them.

Indeed. It is parties like this which, if they become more than fringe groups like CPA, are seen as promoting theocracy, and are rightly condemned as teaching some kind of “dominionism”.

Gillan concludes as follows:

I would suggest that there are two ways God’s values will become prevalent in our society. One is through revival, which I long to see, but will only come through prayer and not politics.  The other is by Christians working their way into positions of power and influence where they can live out kingdom values.  That includes politics.  There are some fantastic Christian MPs and political activists who are doing just that.  They are working through the existing frameworks to influence what happens in government and in our nation.  They haven’t chosen to go up against the existing structures, but work in them and through them and I admire them for that.  Realistically, they will have more effect and do far more good than by looking to do something exclusively Christian and will gain the support of many more people, Christian or otherwise, in the process.

I completely agree. This approach is not “dominionism” and will not lead to a theocracy. But it will help to bring our society to work more according to the principles of the kingdom of God.

Cardboard Cathedrals and VAT on Church Improvements

The proposed cardboard Christchurch CathedralIn Christchurch, New Zealand, it seems that it will be too expensive to repair the cathedral which was badly damaged in last year’s earthquake. Instead, as David Keen and the press report, it is to be replaced by a cardboard cathedral. Yes, cardboard will be the main material for the proposed new 700 seat structure, and its cost will be a fraction of what it would take to rebuild the historic stone building.

Here in the UK, could we see our historic cathedrals and other church buildings being abandoned and replaced with cardboard structures? That is the worrying prospect which is being opened up by the government proposal to charge VAT on repairs and improvement to listed buildings.

The effect of this proposed “Heritage Tax” would be to add 20% to the cost of work on church buildings – at least on those listed as of historic interest. The likely result of this price rise is that many schemes for vital repairs, already hit by the drop in charitable giving during the continuing “double-dip” recession, will simply become unaffordable. This means that more and more congregations will be forced to leave their historic buildings and find temporary alternatives. Also in danger of being abandoned are schemes for adapting outdated buildings to provide important community facilities.

Up to now work on listed buildings has been zero rated for VAT, in recognition of their historical significance and of the extra cost of using appropriate designs and materials. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to remove this concession, partly to close a loophole by which rich people living in listed homes can have swimming pools installed free of VAT. But he has been widely criticised for a measure which will also hurt churches wanting to use their resources in ways which the government claims to be promoting as part of its “Big Society” initiative. However, there are now reports that the Chancellor is preparing to make a U-turn on this issue, partly in response to an e-petition Bring back zero-rate VAT on alterations to listed churches which the Church Mouse has been strongly promoting.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. Indeed in response to one of the Church Mouse’s first plugs for this petition, I wrote the following on Facebook on 9th April:

I won’t sign, probably like many other people, because I don’t believe that churches, i.e. congregations and denominations, should be in the business of preserving architectural heritage. If a church can’t afford its building, including paying the normal rate of tax on repairs, it should move into an affordable alternative. If the government then has to pay for the upkeep of the historic building, that’s its problem.

So, yes, if a congregation can’t afford to repair or improve its cathedral, then it should leave it and build a new one, perhaps from cardboard, which would probably meet its needs more economically. Or if the cathedral is really of sufficient historic interest, its administrators should be able to raise the funds for its upkeep from other sources, such as charging tourists for admission. If, however, the historic interest is largely in the mind of the Victorian Society, then they should be responsible for the cost of preserving the all too abundant heritage of their favoured period.

But I am aware that for many congregations there is no feasible alternative to a historic church building. This is most often true in villages, where a mediaeval church may be the only remaining community building. This church is clearly the most suitable focus for continuing Christian witness. It may also be appropriate to alter it to provide other facilities needed by the local people.

Because of this last factor, I have changed my mind and signed the e-petition. I would encourage my readers to think through the issues and decide for themselves whether to join me.

Liberal Democrats President on Healing and the ASA

People are sometimes surprised that I can be an evangelical and charismatic Christian and also a member of the Liberal Democrats. After all, they say, the Lib Dems support all kinds of anti-Christian policies like abortion and gay marriage. Well, that is true, but they have a greater number of policies that I can and do support – and there were even more of them until they were abandoned by a leadership that seems over-anxious to get cosy with the Conservatives. But I digress here from my main theme.

So it is good to know that, although the party leader Nick Clegg MP is an atheist, the party president Tim Farron MP is a Christian, as is the party’s deputy leader Simon Hughes MP.

Tim Farron MP Tim Farron is also Vice Chair of Christians in Parliament, and in this capacity one of the three signatories of an interesting letter to the Advertising Standards Authority concerning the HOTS Bath controversy, as reported by Gillan Scott.

It is hardly a surprise that Tim Farron has come in for some criticism such as this, within his own party and elsewhere, for signing the letter. So I thank the Church Mouse on Twitter for a link to an article which Tim Farron has written for Liberal Democrat Voice, entitled The ASA and me – a response. In this response he distances himself from the letter he signed:

It’s not a well-worded letter – the reference to the ASA providing indisputable evidence is silly, and the implication that people should seek faith healing at the expense of medical intervention is something that I just don’t believe in. For what it’s worth, I also think that the Fabrice Muamba reference is crass. So on all those fronts, I should just say sorry and not bother defending myself. I shouldn’t have signed that letter as it was written …

Where does the letter imply that “people should seek faith healing at the expense of medical intervention”? As far as I can tell everyone in this controversy has rejected that suggestion.

But Tim Farron continues by reaffirming his opposition to the ASA ruling, not permitting any claims that God can heal physically. He gives these reasons:

a) The ASA genuinely do a brilliant job, but they really aren’t appointed to be the arbiter of theological matters, I think they’ve overstepped their remit
b) As a Christian I believe that prayer helps – although my belief is that God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity.
c) Freedom of speech – an organisation that makes a faith based claim that is clearly subjective (in the same way that a political party makes subjective claims) should be able to make those claims within reason.

I completely agree, except that I would go further than saying “prayer helps”: I believe that God can and does heal today, sometimes apart from medical or other intervention, but medical help should also be sought where available.

So well done, Tim Farron, for sticking to your position and witnessing to your faith, even in the den of liberal and democratic lions.

American Baptism, Democratic and Republican

Archdruid Eileen as drawn by Dave WalkerArchdruid Eileen offers a perceptive comment:

In America, it seems to me, you can tell politicians apart by the age at which baptism takes place. Broadly, I reckon, Democrats baptise children and Republicans baptise adults.

This is really an aside in her post A Guide to English Christianity, which led her creator to tweet “*leaves country*”. But America will be no safe haven for the writer after that comment.

But is this correlation true? It certainly seems to tie in with my experience. Among my limited number of American friends, those from mainstream denominations, who generally baptise children, tend to be on the political left, whereas the Baptists and Pentecostals who only baptise adults tend to be on the right. I would suppose that the latter tend to be more individualistic, in both politics and religion, and to be Republican, whereas a stronger sense of society and corporate identity could be linked to both baptism of children and Democratic politics.

However, the rule doesn’t seem to work for recent Presidents and presidential candidates. Bill Clinton is a Democrat and a Baptist; George W. Bush is a Republican and a Methodist (former Episcopalian). Barack Obama fits the bill as a Democrat from the paedo-baptist United Church of Christ, but he was personally baptised as an adult in that denomination (which incidentally implies that he is not a Muslim). Of Obama’s four current Republican challengers, two are paedo-baptist Roman Catholics, although Newt Gingrich has been baptised as an adult, not once but twice; one, Ron Paul, is a Baptist who baptises children – at least his own five; and one, Mitt Romney, accepts only adult baptism, in its distorted Mormon form. So, it seems, Eileen’s rule is followed better by the ordinary people than by their leaders.

New blog: God and Politics in the UK

Gillan ScottI would like to recommend Gillan Scott’s new blog God and Politics in the UK, subtitled “Seeking God’s agenda for society in the United Kingdom”. He has made a good start over the last few weeks with his comments and analysis of recent political events from a non-partisan Christian perspective. He writes:

Jesus … didn’t shy away from the issues of the day and he definitely wasn’t afraid to speak his mind highlighting hypocrisy, abuse of power and oppression.

Can the same be said of the church today? … At this time in our history it is crucial that the Church stands up and delivers God’s message even when it is counter cultural and likely to cause offence.

And this seems to be what Gillan is aiming to do. I wish him well.

I have not met Gillan, but he lives only about 50 miles from me in Suffolk, and moves in the same charismatic Church of England circles as I do.

David Cameron writes like the KJV

David CameronPrime Minister David Cameron in effect writes “Like the KJV”, but he also writes like the KJV. Not that he uses old-fashioned language, thee’s and thou’s etc (see what David Ker wrote about how these are misunderstood today), but that like KJV (in most editions), the written record of his words, from his speech in Oxford yesterday about that Bible version, is chopped up into short lines, often only part sentences, typeset as separate paragraphs.

I thank Eddie Arthur and Archdruid Eileen for pointing me to the full text of Cameron’s speech, which meant that they were able to comment more fully and intelligently than I did last night. As I already wrote in a comment on that post, I agree with Eddie’s conclusion, in line with my earlier post, that the PM has missed the main point of the Bible. Perhaps, as leader of a multi-cultural and multi-religious nation, he was politically obliged to skirt around it. But his self-description as a “vaguely practising” Christian suggests that there is more to this than political expediency.

Nevertheless, there are some parts of Cameron’s speech which I greatly appreciate, such as this:

I have never really understood the argument some people make about the church not getting involved in politics.

To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church and the Bible are all inherently involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions.
So I don’t think we should be shy or frightened of this.

I certainly don’t object to the Archbishop of Canterbury expressing his views on politics.
Religion has a moral basis and if he doesn’t agree with something he’s right to say so.

But just as it is legitimate for religious leaders to make political comments, he shouldn’t be surprised when I respond.
Also it’s legitimate for political leaders to say something about religious institutions as they see them affecting our society, not least in the vital areas of equality and tolerance.

I have copied this extract from the official website without reformatting (unlike the extracts I quoted yesterday from the BBC report) to show something of how it is divided into very short paragraphs. Indeed in some places they are even shorter, as here:

I think these arguments are profoundly wrong.

And being clear on this is absolutely fundamental to who we are as a people…

…what we stand for…

…and the kind of society we want to build.
First, those who say being a Christian country is doing down other faiths…

…simply don’t understand that it is easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity.

Why is the text divided up like this? Is it so that each phrase can fit on to a teleprompter screen? Is it to help Cameron with phrasing and intonation as he speaks? In any case, it is a reminder to us that Cameron’s text, like the KJV in his own words, was “intended to be read aloud”. He makes a good point in criticising other versions (he mentions NIV and the Good News Bible):

They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.

As Eddie points out, understanding of the Bible text has to be primary, and so it should not be presented in mysterious or obscure language, as over the centuries much of KJV has become to many English speakers. A translation should be as clear to its readers as the original text was to its intended audience. But just as the Bible was written primarily to be read aloud, and to sound good as such, it is right for translators to produce versions which when read aloud sound good, warm and meaningful.

David Cameron does God

Some years ago I noted that Tony Blair does God, but only after he had left office, and that the next Prime Minister Gordon Brown was also reluctant to talk about God while in office.

David CameronBut their successor seems to have set aside this reluctance, perhaps a reflection of him being leader of the party traditionally associated with the Church of England. Indeed a BBC headline proclaims that David Cameron says the UK is a Christian country. This initially unlikely sounding assertion is explained in some of Cameron’s words:

We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so …

Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong. I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger. But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.

Referring to Alistair Campbell’s comment that politicians shouldn’t “do God”, Cameron continued:

If by that they mean we shouldn’t try to claim a direct line to God for one particular political party, they could not be more right. But we shouldn’t let our caution about that stand in the way of recognising both what our faith communities bring to our country, and also just how incredibly important faith is to so many people in Britain.

So is this statement an unacceptable intervention by the state, in the person of a Prime Minister, into matters of religion? Or is it, from the other side of the coin, unacceptable for Cameron to bring his personal Christian faith into the political arena?

I would say it is neither. It is good and proper that a professing Christian is leading our country (that is by no means an endorsement of his policies!) and is prepared to speak out about his faith, in an appropriate context. It is right that he doesn’t “claim a direct line to God”. I’m not sure I would quite agree with his assertion that “We are a Christian country”, even in the way that he explains it, when there are so many here with other faiths or none at all. And it might have been politically wiser to avoid saying this, and possibly offending those who are not Christians. But it is his right as Prime Minister to do so.

It is also excellent that Cameron has been prepared to play a prominent part in marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, not only in his speech in Oxford today but also in contributing to the People’s Bible project (whatever I might have thought about his choice of verses for the latter). I hope that this publicity will prompt more people to read the Bible, either in the KJV or better still in a more modern version that they will understand more clearly. And I hope and pray that they will not just read it but will take its message to heart and come to know the God revealed in its pages.

No, Mr C, that's not the central message of the Bible

As the Guardian reports, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has contributed to the People’s Bible project, a copy of the King James Version handwritten by celebrities and ordinary people. Thanks for the link to David Keen on Twitter.

David Cameron at his home in OxfordshireApparently the PM ignored his office’s suggestions and chose his own verses to write. And this was his choice:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. 9Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9 (KJV)

Now these are good sentiments for a top politician, who should hopefully not just “think on these things” but also put them into practice. But I am concerned by the following words, a spokesman’s explanation of Cameron’s choices:

The reason he chose those verses is because he’s always liked them.

They contain the central message of the Bible about leading good lives and helping each other as best we can. There is no hidden meaning and I wouldn’t read between the lines.

No, Mr Cameron, that is not the central message of the Bible. So if this is really the whole reason why you chose these verses, then you clearly don’t have much understanding of the Scriptures.

This morning I read this on Google+:

To most Christians, the bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree.”

It seems as if, apart from a few favourite verses, that is what the Bible is to David Cameron. Without a firm scriptural foundation it is no wonder that his Christian faith, in his own words, “sort of comes and goes”.

But if Bible believing Christians keep out of politics, from fear of “dominionism” or compromise, then of course we can’t expect any better of those do who find their way into high office.