I have to confess I have spent rather longer than usual scanning my Facebook newsfeed over the past week, not least because it offered some thought-provoking insights into the way that a (relatively small, but not homogenous) group of individuals articulated their perceptions of the results of the UK General Election as they were made known. I’m a Christian myself, and amongst my Facebook friends are quite a number of Christians: they were by no means the only ones expressing their views on the election, but since churches’ social engagement is what we are interested in here, that is where I focus my attention in this post.
A number of themes emerged from my unscientific analysis of this ‘data’. Firstly, there was sadness, grief, anger even, that policies that have made life more difficult for some of the most vulnerable groups in society will likely continue and deepen over the coming years. Secondly, there was defensiveness: Conservative-supporting Christians protesting at being labelled as lacking in compassion, especially for those experiencing poverty. Thirdly, there was fear: for example from friends affected by increasingly punitive approaches to benefits related to disability or ill health. And fourthly there were injunctions to prayer, faith and action in local communities instead of moaning and despair about the outcome.
It was evident that Christians who agree that social justice, compassion and love for others are important can disagree profoundly about what these look like in practice and how they are to be brought into being. So why is this the case? This question of course merits far more exhaustive research and explication than a short post such as this can offer, but here are a few suggestions:
- Evidence: People’s attitude to quantitative and qualitative evidence about social and economic problems, the evidence they choose to pay attention to, the way this evidence is constructed, and the way in which it is presented in the media are likely to have a significant effect on the way in which people conceive of social issues, their causes and what might constitute an effective or desirable solution. One only needs to consider newspaper readerships to recognise that we generally prefer to read evidence that reinforces our existing views, so there is plenty of potential here for deepening polarisation instead of expanding our knowledge and understanding.
- Encounter and experience: Does it make a difference how immersed or far removed one is – socially, geographically, or financially – in or from socio-economic deprivation? This letter from URC Minister Mike Walsh reflects the view that those who live at a safe distance from poverty may have little awareness of the profound impact that changes to policies around welfare benefits have on people’s lives. Alasdair Rae’s blog has some fascinating maps showing the political colours of the most and least deprived constituencies in the UK (prior to the 2015 election): he rightly points out that these maps raise questions rather than provide answers, but perhaps one of those questions should be – what difference does experience and encounter make to voters’ choices?
- Scale: An important consideration for a Christian voter who is committed to social justice arguably concerns the scale over which they believe it is possible for justice to be worked out. A strong emphasis on localism and community-based social action has found considerable support amongst some Christians, with good reason. However, when one considers the unevenness of the pre-existing socio-economic landscape within which localised action is envisaged to emerge or grow to meet a greater range of needs, some serious questions arise about capacity and resourcing. An international perspective adds a still greater degree of complexity. Indeed, a further issue is how one gauges the scale of the social issues to be addressed: this in turn is likely to be strongly influenced by the two points raised above.
- Scope: This is perhaps the only point here that pertains specifically to Christian voters, and it concerns the extent to which one believes that Christian teachings about justice, poverty, work and compassion (amongst others) apply to different aspects of life and society. For instance, some seem to conceive of God’s involvement and concern as focussed on two levels: that of the individual and that of the whole created order over which God is recognised as sovereign, with little concern for layers or structures in between. Others emphasise the importance of establishing just structures in the state and markets whilst paying little attention to the personal responsibility and potential of individuals and neglecting the agency of God. Still others see all of these as levels or sectors in which faith is to have an influence and offers hope for a better future. This question of scope is crucial in determining the forms that Christian social engagement takes, be it practical social action, prayer, campaigning, lament, political involvement or a combination of these and other actions.
Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it free from the influence of my own beliefs and experience, both academic and personal, but hopefully it provides a bit of food for thought and further reflection as we continue to consider the consequences and implications of the UK’s new political geography.