The British public has perhaps been never more politically engaged, and yet never more politically disillusioned.
As the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2018 and 2019 show, opinions of the governing systems are are their lowest point in 15 years, even as the appetite for political change and engagement has grown.
On the one hand, the number of elections post-2014, including of the most significance of these, the Referendum on EU Membership, has generated an unprecedented level of active political activism among the British population. The Hansard Society refers to the increase in electoral events as an “‘electric shock therapy’ for political engagement”.
On the other hand, there is a general weariness and dissatisfaction just now with political parties and candidates. In particular, there’s a suspicion that the options on offer appear to propagate the interests of the financial and cultural establishment. In the US, this is largely made up of different types of big business, as American academic and commentator Bret Weinstein explains. Disillusioned with the candidates on the ticket, various individuals have formed the Unity 2020 campaign, a movement for a third party candidate, and alternative form of politics. Closer to home, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has sought to transcend the traditional divides between capital and labour, nation and world and even private and public sector (see their New Declaration from 2018, one of the more powerful pieces of political writing in recent years).
This general disillusionment has also taken the form of attempts to withdraw from the political machine altogether. A friend recently introduced me to the term “clear pill”, which, as I understand it, can refer to a posture of neutrality to the political world. More broadly, and more theologically, this kind of position can be seen in certain Anabaptist traditions that seek critical distance from the powers that be. The problem, when viewed from such perspectives, is that the various political philosophies on offer essentially perpetuate the status quo or system or establishment, or whatever one wants to call it. The options on the table operate from within the same cathedral of opinions. The preferred modus operandi of those seeking neutrality, is to refrain from commenting, praising or repudiating either side, since to do any of these things is to perpetuate the existing system. The goal is to remove oneself from the cathedral altogether.
In many ways, I’m fairly sympathetic to these kinds of attempts at neutrality, indifference and critical distance. The accusation that our mainstream parties uphold a corrupt “establishment” does ring true in many ways. These critiques also get at the vicious circle currently perpetuated by voices on the cultural right and left. In essence, we seem to have, on the one hand, progressive proponents who propose utopian ideas that are often extremely destructive to the social fabric, all the while containing a good instinct that seeks to address certain injustices. We then have, on the other hand, forms of right wing activism which also contain a good instinct to conserve hard-won liberties and traditions, but which also stoke the flames of division and often resort to mocking their progressive counterparts. The problem, of course, is that these views operate within the cathedral of established ideas. Few are willing to think outside the box.
But I’m still left with a number of questions. For instance, what do they offer in return that is for the collective good? While removal and withdrawal might be good for the individual or individual tribe, such a stance hardly leads to the extension of these benefits to wider society. So, yes, there is good constructive critique on offer. But when one leaves the political arena altogether, then there is naturally little that can be offered in terms of constructive solutions for the common good.
More significantly, I also have serious questions about whether such a position of neutrality is possible? Can we ever feasibly remove ourselves from “the cathedral”?
This is where, I think, Christianity can make all the difference.
To speak personally, I am also weary of the options on display, all of which seem to sit within the existing system or paradigm of thinking.
To continue with the metaphor of the cathedral, as a Christian, I am called to anchor my heart in a alternative cathedral. Of course, I cannot escape my inclinations, temperament, and the decisions I come to on the philosophy and worldview which I think best makes sense of it all (or most of it, anyway). After all, the Christian faith is always rooted and embedded in particular cultures and places, as well as in the personality of individuals, even as it challenges each of these realities.
But what Christianity does is that it allows some kind of transcendence to the cathedral of viewpoints, through an allegiance to God, the Pantokrator, the almighty and all-powerful. A whole-hearted commitment to Christ allows some critical distance towards the inclinations with which each of us is endowed. I’ll acknowledge that Caesar has his dues, but I’ll be damned if I neglect my ultimate allegiance to God.
To get specific, I’m personally wary of certain forms of conservatism that pretty much amount to nostalgia for the past without much of a thrust for reform. I am reading Scruton’s Conservatism at the moment. Now, I have great admiration for Scruton as a thinker and, as readers of this blog will know, I am generally inclined towards small c-conservatism. But I find this hankering for a past world a constant frustration as I turn the pages of this book. I understand the sense of loss that is felt, often on account of the trappings of modernity. I am sympathetic to it, even. But I suppose I’m left asking…is this nostalgia all there is?
My own inclination to conservatism, then, is tempered by my Christian faith. “Tempered” is probably not strong enough. To put this more starkly, any allegiance I might have to a political philosophy must be re-oriented, subordinated and sublimated to my ultimate allegiance to Christ.
From this perspective, Christianity both affirms and challenges my natural political inclinations. It offers those like me who are concerned with tradition an anchor in a past heritage (“the communion of saints”, the history of the church, etc.). But it also pushes me to consider the place of justice in society and the need for change and reform. The Christian faith, and the scriptures, remind me that God is concerned with justice and that Christ preached the good news that the kingdom of God is open to the poor and the outcast (as well as the rich and the greedy…).
My politics needs Christianity. More to the point, it needs Christ. I imagine that I am not alone in thinking this.
A large part of the problem lies in the way that we think about politics and religion. Too often the relationship between Christianity and Politics gives the latter the upper hand. The relation is thought of in terms of the questions Politics asks of the Christian. What does the Christian think of issue X, or political party Y?
In reality, for the Christian, the tables are turned. The real question is, what does the Christian faith ask of politics? What would it look like to put politics under the microscope of the Christian tradition? Or, to coin a phrase, Ask not what does politics demand of the Christian. Rather, ask, what does Christianity demand of politics?
Ultimately, allegiance to Christ has to make all the difference in the world to how I approach my political commitments. And yet, truth be told, it often doesn’t.
Let’s make this personal, then. My politics needs Christianity.