Faith should not dictate political affiliation

When Rowan Williams and AC Grayling made headlines recently, one aspect of the God Debate was turned

Ask most people what it is from Jesus's teachings that they remember and they'll probably say something about loving your neighbour and looking after the poor. It's a little disconcerting, then, that the Christian movements both here and in the USA clearly feel most at home on the right of the political spectrum.

A handful of opinion polls paints the picture of what is going on in America: in 2004, 70 per cent of traditional evangelicals were Republican as opposed to only 20 per cent who were Democrats (Pew Forum poll); the majority of members of the Tea Party support the social agenda of the religious conservatives with heavy opposition to same-sex marriages and abortion (2011, Pew); non-believers are one and a half times more likely to believe that the earth is subject to global warming than are Christians (2010, Pew).

For the religious right, the Land of the Free will never become the Land of the Free Hand-outs. The Christian movement is a powerful constituency represented by various lobby groups which push for a low-tax agenda. And in parts of the country the movement is dominated by the mega-churches which preach the "Prosperity Gospel", that God wants us to be rich.

In Britain the position is less extreme, but still pronounced. The Church of England's label as the Conservative Party at prayer is admittedly tongue-in-cheek. Even so, the agendas of the Christian church and the political right-wing make comfortable bed-fellows. You know the kind of thing: anti-abortion, anti-unions, opposed to same-sex marriage and tough on crime. If, at this very moment, there is a church minister recruited straight from Central Casting pouring tea in a quaint village vicarage somewhere in the south west of England, his china cup and saucer are more likely to be delicately balanced on a copy of the Spectator than the New Statesman.

As for the New Atheists, when they warn of the social ills of religion, it is clear that their own humanist heaven on earth would be headed up by the kind of socially-progressive Guardian-reader to whom your typical tabloid editor would hardly give the time of day. (Even Christopher Hitchens with his famed views on foreign interventions claims to remain a Marxist at heart.) And it should be no surprise that the Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream party whose leader is openly an atheist. It was presumably for these reasons that before last year's general election Richard Dawkins took the surprising step of publicly endorsing the party.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. After all, when a country has an official religion (such as the UK) or an unofficial one (as in the case of the USA), one cannot be surprised that those who adopt it are more likely to be the small-C conservatives who are willing to toe the line drawn by the state. But last year controversial evolutionary psychologist Satosha Kanazawa offered another explanation. In a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, Kanazawa reported a link between atheism and social liberalism. Contentiously he suggested that they are the traits spawned by higher intelligence. His explanation was that to look after our own kin and to believe in God carried evolutionary survival benefits which today's more intelligent people are willing to reject.

No doubt Kanazawa would be among the first to admit that the list of the Christian intelligentsia is both long and impressive. Even so, there is much to be said for his theory. Religion is grounded in faith. According to Luke 18:17, Jesus urged us to receive the Kingdom of God, not by persuading ourselves with clever arguments, but rather as a little child would do. To be religious can be either passive (such as by continuing the religion handed down by one's parents or unthinkingly adopting the one foisted on us by society) or it can involve taking an active step such as that associated with born-again fundamentalism. Either way, it is more likely to be based on faith as opposed to argument. Some atheists reject God for the flimsiest of reasons, but their decision is nevertheless generally dictated by reason rather than faith. At a minimum, they can be expected to be more questioning than their religious counterparts. After all it is the atheist movement which has deep-rooted connections with free-thinking and critical thinking philosophies.

And so the events of the last fortnight must come as a surprise. Take AC Grayling. The human rights philosopher and atheist is now on the receiving end of criticism unimaginable a few weeks ago. He is to be the Master of the privately-funded educational institution New College of the Humanities, London. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it's a move which hardly smacks of the leftist leanings of those who share his theology. What's more, the most celebrated member to his professoriate is Richard Dawkins.

And to complete the volte face of the God Debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned on these very pages that the coalition government is committing the country to "radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted". This led to one of the Telegraph's most bizarre headlines a couple of days later: "David Cameron: I profoundly disagree with the Archbishop of Canterbury." I bet he does.

Maybe AC Grayling and the Archbishop are unintentionally teaching their supporters a lesson. It can hardly be in the interests of anyone involved in the God Debate if those who have yet to place a cross on the giant voting slip in the sky assume that a belief in various metaphysical matters carries with it a mandatory political affiliation.

If it did, perhaps most of us would choose agnosticism.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Independent and the Humanist and is a contributor to Skeptic Magazine. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.