Evangelicals, poverty and politics

Recently, we reviewed and broadly welcomed The Myth of the Undeserving Poor by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams. We’re now delighted to present a guest post by Greg Smith, Research Manager at the Evangelical Alliance, to explore in more detail some of the wider issues we raised in our review.

This is perhaps the first time that evangelical Christians have published a Biblically grounded book dealing theologically and politically with the current issues of rising poverty and inequality in the UK, and have spoken out against the media-driven stereotyping of poor people as feckless and work-shy. Like Liam, I welcome this new commitment to a generous and gracious response to all in need, at least as a first step on the journey to understanding and acting on poverty. But I too question whether evangelicals go far enough in seeking to understand and address the causes of poverty, to engage politically with the issue and to hear and help articulate the voices of those who themselves experience the daily reality of surviving on a low income in Britain today.

In this piece I want to concentrate on the political response of Evangelical Christians to poverty, significant as it is in the context of the forthcoming general election. The report of our September 2014 survey of over 2,000 evangelicals on the theme of politics has just been published. It shows that in terms of voting intentions they are perplexed and divided as they seek to balance Biblical imperatives for social justice with traditional Christian standards of personal morality.

The first key finding is that Evangelicals are far more interested than the general population in politics, and intend to show this by voting. 94% say they are certain or likely to vote in the coming General Election, and even among those who have not yet decided which way to vote, the figure is 71%. With national turnout figures in recent general elections in the order of 60-70%, and all the talk of disillusion with politics, such involvement in the democratic process is remarkable. However, while the vast majority (96%) value the principle of democracy, there is a considerable lack of trust in politicians and their promises, as well as a widespread negative view of spin and manipulation, the quality of political leadership and the confrontational style of political debate.

Some 59% feel that no party supports Christian values, and only 27% say the system is fair to Christian believers. And only 6% think politicians can be trusted to keep the promises they make in manifestos.

Secondly, the key issues for evangelicals are very different from those of the general public. Polls of the national population in August 2014 found that immigration was seen as the most important issue facing the UK, mentioned by a fifth (21%). This compared to just 6% of our panel of Evangelical Christians. For them, poverty and inequality was ranked the most important single issue facing the UK today (selected by 31% compared to 4% of the national population). From a long list of issues that are often raised in political debate or in Christian circles, the most popular choices seen as “Important to me and WILL affect my vote” were:

  • 71% policies aimed at ensuring religious liberty
  • 61% policies likely to make a positive difference to the poorest people in the UK
  • 59% policies to eliminate human trafficking
  • 46% opposition to same-sex marriage legislation
  • 45% a pro-life stance on euthanasia
  • 42% policies to reduce the need for food banks
  • 41% a pro-life stance on abortion
  • 41% policies to introduce the Living Wage

In the same question 25% said that policies to reduce the welfare budget, and 15% that a policy to reduce immigration, “would lessen my support for that party”.

In another question 39% said they would vote for the party best helping others in need, compared to only 5% for the party that will most help them personally.

66% said that the issue of poverty in the UK had been discussed publicly in their church in the last year or so.

It is encouraging to Church Action on Poverty that so many evangelicals are aware of and committed politically to the cause of reducing poverty and inequality in our country. At the same time, the traditional evangelical issues around sexual morality and the sanctity of human life remain important to them. There is some evidence that certain types of evangelical hold a cluster of opinions and values that could be labeled firmly “conservative” or “progressive”. For example, at one end of the spectrum are Evangelicals who are likely to read the Daily Mail, to be older, white men, living in the South of England, and to be firmly opposed to same-sex marriage, uneasy about immigration and minded to vote UKIP. At the other end are Evangelicals who read the Guardian, might be younger, more likely to be female and living further north, who are passionate about poverty and social injustice and minded to vote Labour or Green. In between are many Evangelicals who feel that no party represents a distinctively Christian value system, and are therefore perplexed over the best use of their vote in a rapidly changing political landscape.

So how will they vote?

Nearly a quarter of the respondents (24%) say they are not decided, while the rest are spread broadly in line with the national opinion polls, and vary in similar ways according to demographic factors. This means that Labour has a slender lead over the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats have fallen to below 10%, and there are signs of growing support for UKIP, the Greens and other minor parties. There are significant changes in Evangelicals’ preferences since the 2010 General Election, when the Coalition parties together took some 70% of the Evangelical vote in our survey of 12,500 Evangelical Christians. We also found in our 2014 survey that respondents who were committed Christians but unwilling to call themselves Evangelical were considerably further to the left (with 14% opting for the Greens and 31% for Labour) – more than double the support for Conservatives (13%) and UKIP (6%) combined.

Evangelical voting intentions chart

In the forthcoming election campaign, whatever controlling narratives are promoted by the various party machines, Christian voices and votes are important, and in many ways ‘not of this world’. In hustings, on the doorstep and in social media networks we have a chance to confront candidates with important but often forgotten issues around poverty and social justice, both in the UK and globally. We need to keep raising the fundamental question “What is a Good Society?” and to bring an alternative gospel-based narrative into the public sphere.

Greg Smith is a long-standing member of Church Action on Poverty, and Research Manager at the Evangelical Alliance. You can read more of his work on his blog, The Primitive Ranter.

Use our hustings guide to get your church involved in debates around the Election and share visions of the Good Society.

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