Churches, politics and the good life

Titus Alexander

Foreword

Titus Alexander lives in Kings Langley and was an active participant in TiK during its early days, with a major role in founding Grand Union Community Energy.  Titus is committed to making democracy the cornerstone of healthy and sustainable communities.  He founded Democracy Matters, the alliance for practical politics education.  His book, Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy (2017), is published by the UCL Institute of Education Press. You can download free extracts from www.practicalpolitics.global.

Churches have always been involved in questions about what makes a good life and therefore politics.  Aristotle described the aim of politics as ‘the highest of all goods achievable by action’ and called it the ‘master science’, because politics is about deciding priorities between everything else.  The general election was a vivid battle between competing priorities and visions of the good life.  But politics are not just about elections.

Churches grapple with their own internal politics, over issues such as the ordination of women, gay marriage, the practicalities of running a parish, the business of church investments, maintaining buildings and vicars’ pensions.  Churches have also played an active role in big social issues, such as abolition of slavery, Jubilee 2000 debt campaign, relief of poverty and living-wage campaigns.  Some political parties even have confessional origins, notably the Democratic Unionist Party, now in discussions with the Government.  It was founded in 1971 as the Protestant Unionist Party by the Reverend Ian Paisley.

Politics affects all areas of our lives, from the state of our roads and price of goods to our climate, health and security.  Politics is not just an occasional referendum and election, but a ceaseless process at every level of government, from school governing bodies and parish council to meetings of the World Trade Organisation, NATO and agencies of global governance.  Most decisions which affect our daily lives are not taken in Parliament, but in government agencies, local councils or international bodies to which power is delegated.

Modern politics is complicated and difficult, like a multi-level game of chess, involving numerous players, not just political parties.  Pressure groups, businesses, trades unions, foreign governments, charities and churches all seek to influence decisions that concern them.  The competition for influence is intense and the outcomes unpredictable, but the impact on our lives can be huge.

Pluralistic political education

The impact of political choices and complexity of politics makes it essential to learn how the political system works, understand the issues and develop skills to do politics better.

As a society, we encourage people to learn how to play sport and do business, which are highly competitive activities that create winners and losers.  But we are remarkably reluctant to encourage people to learn how to take part in politics, even although its impact on our lives is greater than sport or business.

In this context, faith communities can promote democratic understanding and engagement by:

  1. Creating safe spaces where people can reflect on issues that concern them and affect their neighbourhood as well as the wider world. Churches should not be afraid to promote discussion of big issues that affect people’s lives, such as Brexit, climate change, the plight of refugees and poverty.  Churches often host hustings at election times, a vital part of the democratic process, and can create opportunities to discuss issues between elections as well.
  2. Encouraging people to understand how the political system works: Parliament Week every November is an invitation to run events about Parliament at a local level, and the Parliamentary Education and Outreach teams can support educational events throughout the year (search the Parliament website for more information).
  3. Campaigning on issues about which church members feel strongly, following discussion and study of all sides of the argument.

Churches should not take sides between political parties, but there are times when church members need to speak out about issues that reflect their core values.  The world has changed for the better because people have acted on things that matter.  At one time people were burnt at the stake for heresy, witchcraft or even translating the Bible into English. . Today we see freedom of speech, pluralism and democracy as fundamental values.  People can debate differences and campaign for what they believe is best without fear of persecution, because we recognise that democratic politics is essential to improve society at all levels.  But for democracy to be effective, everyone needs to know how the system works and have an effective voice.  Churches can play a vital role in this.

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