The tragedy and possibility of joining a political party

Since the election we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people joining political parties. The Lib Dems alone have witnessed over 16,000 people join their ranks, with the hashtag #LibDemFightBack occupying social media news feeds and at one point a new person signing up to be a card carrying member of the party every 30 seconds.

Perhaps even more interesting to us at Christians in Politics, is that around a third of those that have joined the Lib Dems identify themselves as a ‘Christian’. Added to this, one of the two candidates for the new leadership of the party is an outspoken Christian who recently shared at one of our events in Parliament.

Despite all this, something we still hear from the Christian community in the UK is that they can’t see themselves joining a mainstream political party. The reasons they give tend to boil down to one thing: compromise. How can you join a political party if you don’t agree with all the policies? Isn’t it too great a compromise to pledge allegiance to a party banner when there’s whole areas of their manifesto you fundamentally disagree with? If you join a political party, won’t that mean waving goodbye to your integrity and becoming a cog in the party machinery?

This issue was touched upon in our article 5 Reasons Christians Don’t Get Involved in Politics and there’s even a chapter on it in our recent book Those Who Show Up.  

The truth is that it should come as no surprise that you don’t agree with everything any political party stands for. Parties are a complex web of relationships and ideas that over time have evolved into an almost undefinable, shapeshifting blob of human endeavour. Political parties aren't always coherent or consistent as within themselves there are multiple - sometimes opposing - factions such as Blairites, Eurosceptics, One-Nation Conservatives, Orange Bookers and so on.

So are political parties a lost cause? One of the things we ask Christians to do when we’re running workshops or seminars is to spend some time coming up with a set of policies on various topics such as health, education and immigration. What inevitably follows is a showcase of disagreement worthy of any parliamentary debating chamber. The fact is Christians don’t agree with everything everyone in their church thinks, so what hope is there that a political party will represent a set of beliefs that Joe Public can wholly get behind.

That’s the tragedy. Political parties - like everything else in creation - are imperfect, fallen and riddled with compromise. Is that the end of the story then? Should we all admit defeat and live isolated political lives in the knowledge that you and I will never agree? Hopefully, the obvious answer to that is no. When Paul commands Christians in Ephesians 6:10 to ‘put on the whole armour of God’, that hardly seems advice for an isolated existence. Rather, it’s a declaration that the world is a messy place, but - while remaining firmly grounded in God - we should engage with it, love it and seek to impact it.

In the same way we work together, despite differences, with those in our church, family or business, political parties are another area where we work with others for the common good, all the while navigating the tricky road of my beliefs versus your beliefs and what we can achieve together.

Then there’s perhaps a more obvious point: political parties are more likely to be changed and be shaped from the inside rather than the outside. History is testament to this fact. It was a tradition of Christian socialism within the Labour Party that formed the foundation of many of the significant changes to British society the party implemented such as the welfare state and the NHS. Additionally, it was with the words of John Newton ringing in his ear that Wilberforce decided to remain in the world of politics, engaging with the system to help bring an end to the slave trade. And more recently it has been the persistent work of Christians within - such as Fiona Bruce MP - that huge advances have been made in combatting modern slavery. Like Obadiah, who stayed right at the heart of where it was all happening, we can have an impact on the direction and policies of a political party through building relationships, making the case and showing up where decisions are made. 

When contemplating joining a political party, the last thing you should be asking is do I agree with everything this party stands for. Instead try asking yourself three questions: Do I want to serve my community? Can I work with people I may not wholly agree with for the common good? Do I feel God can use me to impact politics from within the system rather than just from the outside?