Christianity in Public Life

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:09 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 3:09 pm, 11th March 2009

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew Selous for securing this debate and for his tremendous contribution to the life of the Christian community in the Palace of Westminster day in, day out. He is an example to many of us.

What is the purpose—the point—of Christian involvement in the public square? What do we seek to achieve? The first thing to say is that we do not seek to achieve a theocracy through such engagement. We tried that in the 1650s, and it was a bit of a disaster. We do not want that. Someone once said that the Church is at its worst when it has power, but at its best when it has influence, and I agree. The object is not to take over, but to influence decisions made in the public square according to the principles from scripture that John Mason read out so effectively earlier.

At least one hon. Member sitting at these tables will agree that Christians do not have a monopoly on compassion or integrity—Dr. Harris did not expect me to say that. Many secular people demonstrate such qualities in abundance; in fact, when I reflect on my 16 years in the House as a fairly overt Christian, I am reminded that some of the most difficult and judgmental people we have to deal with in our constituencies can be Christians, although that is beginning to change. It is important that we, as believers, demonstrate our faith in the way in which we act and speak, because we sometimes let ourselves down.

I believe passionately in believers engaging in public life through the political system, if that is their calling, but the Christian faith is so much bigger than any one party or ideology and cannot be hijacked by any one side and used to poke others in the eye. We need believers in every party, and the Bible is supportive of all the ideologies reflected in this room.

Perhaps my most important point is that the unique thing about Christianity—the reason why it equips us to engage in public life—is that it is not about a book or a doctrine, but about a living person; it is about a journey or a walk with Jesus Christ, not about a set of rules. It cannot become old-fashioned or stuck in the past, because the person we seek to follow is alive and just as involved in and aware of current events as he was 2,000 years ago. Again, I have to say that the Church has not always reflected the fact that we come to a person, not a book or a set of dusty rules, but we are getting a little better at that, too.

I come now to my main point, although I will be brief because others want to speak, and I am particularly keen to hear Mr. Reed, who speaks eloquently on this subject—no pressure there then, Andy. As has been said, one reason why we should engage in politics is that our faith is the faith of "Love your neighbour", the faith of the good Samaritan and the faith of understanding that every individual is unique and created by God, and therefore special and not to be put on one side or brushed under the carpet as a statistic.

We have heard that many charities throughout the past 200 or 300 years were founded by strong believers and we know that many charities operating in this country are Christian charities. I want to say something to the Minister. The Government and local government are getting better at engaging with faith communities and Christian charities; they are getting better at understanding that the faith motivation that makes such groups successful—that takes them the extra mile and means that they engage with hard-to-reach people and do the work that many other groups do not want to do—must not be squeezed out by Government or council contracts. Authorities want the results, but they do not like the way in which people achieve them.

I totally accept that it is crucial that public money is not used for evangelism, but we must be grown up about that. If Christian organisations get results because of the personal commitment, passion, power and faith of those involved, it is stupid to engage them to help the most vulnerable while denying them the means to do so by saying, "Ah, but you can't do things that way any longer." I hope that the Minister will reassure us that the Government are aware of that. Of course there are dangers, but I think that the Government are moving on the issue.