Debate Magazine

Do Liberal Democrats Do God?

Posted on the 22 August 2013 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

dogodI was intrigued by the launch of a new book ‘Liberal Democrats Do God’ authored by a collection of prominent MPs and peers.

I haven’t brought the book yet so will not prejudge it, but I read the introduction by pensions minister Steve Webb on Amazon and was somewhat perplexed by his logic.

Webb says in his introduction:

“The most fundamental reason why Christians should feel at home in the Liberal Democrats is that the character of God, as revealed in the Christian Gospel, would suggest that God must be a liberal! Those who recognize in the Gospel a deep reverence for human freedom and self-determination will find a natural home in the Liberal Democrats.”

Virtually every political tradition under the sun, or under God if you will, has at some time claimed the Almighty as their own. American Republicans have God metaphorically tattooed on their foreheads, and I guess one or two of their red-neck voters have literally.

History is littered with assorted dodgy Christian tribes hanging their noxious beliefs on particular Bible passages. Indeed slavery and forced conversion was justified on such grounds. In fairness, Webb notes “Jesus makes it clear that God does not seek slaves, but sons and daughters.” But that is just one of umpteen interpretations of the Word, while several nations who jail homosexuals prop up their policies by citing selected verses.

Webb’s interpretation is, of course, grounded on a wider reading of the Bible yet so too is a Conservative take on the Bible. Indeed it is the Bible’s adaptability to a variety of perspectives, traditions and cultures that has made it so successful globally. As Liberals it is inevitable that we will see God as a Liberal while other parts of the political spectrum will have an entirely different interpretation. Perhaps the lesson here is that Christianity is a personal faith that should be divorced from organised religion or any political philosophy.

The party is led by a man who has declared he doesn’t believe in God yet his belief in the Tories seems to be stronger. I don’t suppose God believes in suicide yet several disabled people have done just that after Atos tests imposed by the department of which Webb is a minister of state.

‘Liberal Democrats Do God’, published by the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (LDCF), has it’s fare share of big-hitters with chapters from party president Tim Farron, former minister Sir Andrew Stunell, ex-deputy leader Sir Alan Beith, rising star Duncan Hames along with MPs John Pugh, Mark Williams, Sarah Teather and Greg Mulholland.

One of the problems with the book is that if the authors are anything to go by it does not appear to embrace, or at least embody, the diversity of faith in Britain today. Aside from the risk of reinforcing the party’s image as being populated by the white middle-classes attending the kind of aged and mostly-empty churches that are dying out I would be very surprised if this book addresses the complexity of our multi-faith and multicultural society.

Most of the churches that are expanding are Black-majority yet for all the Christian Lib Dems in power we have hardly made any headway into attracting these church leaders or their congregation into the party. More than that, considering Britain’s multiplicity of faiths I can’t see much benefit for the party to project a mono-faith image, much less one that appears more representative of the good folk in town councils. And that’s even before we consider the growing proportion of non-believers in society or those who value spirituality but reject politics in prayer.

The question of whether Christian doctrine has a role to play in policy development, or to what extent it dovetails with Liberal values, is an interesting one. Liberals have traditionally been a staunchly secular party reflected in liberal attitudes towards same sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia and reappraising the failed ‘war on drugs.’

If the party has a streak of faith at all it is non-conformist, particularly non-conformity toward the rigidity of rules-based and hierarchical organised religion. Rejecting this has been, to an extent, an embrace of individual freedom and a strike against oppression of the under-classes as perpetrated by church-going elites.

Granted, the old Liberals were partly founded by Methodists, and 18th century Whigs supported John Wesley’s movement for more religious and civil liberty, but even then there were tensions between Whig radicalism and Wesleyan Methodists.

So what place does Christianity hold in the Liberal Democrats today? I am not able to attend the federal conference in Glasgow next month but I hope the LDCF fringe meeting addresses this question. If it is a question of compassion for those in need, social mobility and equality these should be the values of the party irrespective of faith.

Faith has, ironically, been responsible for getting the party into hot water as a handful of MPs pointed to their beliefs as they voted against equal marriage.

To an extent the rise of Liberal Christianity, the Green Agenda and a plethora of other demands for a change in direction is a reflection on the moral vacuum brought about by three difficult years in power and a cry for a return to real Liberal values as opposed to whatever values underpin daily Government announcements.

Tony Blair’s PR guru Alistair Campbell’s famous alleged quote that “we don’t do God” could be interpreted as a warning that politics must focus on winning the faith of voters rather than be distracted by faith in a Higher Power.

Lib Dems are certainly in need of renewed faith in the party but I remain to be convinced that our salvation lies in the Good Book. Nevertheless I look forward to reading ‘Liberal Democrats Do God’ and once I have done so will, unlike the unshakable nostrums of many Christians, will happily reappraise my views accordingly.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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