The Marriage Referendum in May 2015 was a seminal moment in the political and faith life of this island. It was a moment when Irish people chose to celebrate the difference and the diversity of our sons and daughters and, in doing so, defy one of our most enduring stereotypes – as a country of conservative Christians.
One of the most heartening characteristics of the campaign for marriage equality was that it did not divide the country between those of faith and those without. Nor has it advanced a tide of cold secularism after the fact. Indeed, some of the most persuasive voices during the referendum were those quiet but powerful individuals of faith who chose to embrace the values of love, friendship, respect and equality – all Christian values.
It is a sad reflection on the state of faith in this country, and in Britain, that the term ‘Christian’ has come to be synonymous with ‘conservatism’. As a practising Christian, I know others of faith who would consider themselves, liberal, some conservatives and many who fall somewhere in between. An individual’s belief in the enduring love of God does not define their politics.
The slow descent of politics, particularly across Ireland and Britain, into a form of social antagonism rather than a forum of ideas has facilitated the lazy stereotyping of individuals of faith.
Nowhere is that antagonism more apparent than in areas of sexuality, gender and reproductive health.
The sizeable majority of political parties, and elected officials, in Northern Ireland claim to be ‘pro-life’. An even larger majority of those who consider themselves Christian, myself included, would describe their views similarly.
I don’t doubt the candour of my Christian friends whose political views differ from my own. But when they tell me they feel no choice but to vote for hard-right parties because their commitment to the ‘pro-life’ cause seems more absolute, it’s hard not to feel despair. When people of faith offer their support to individuals who would back a return to the death penalty, or who openly describe our gay brothers and sisters as ‘perverts’ or ‘abominations’ (and do so in the name of our faith) then there is something drastically wrong.
This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to Ireland either. The US senate race in Alabama which saw Judge Roy Moore come within a whisker of taking the seat, despite allegations of child abuse, was brutally damaging for the credibility of Christians. It has been widely reported that up to 80% of white Christians backed Moore in spite of the accusations. There is clearly a sizeable section of Christian voters who have decided that elections are one ticket issues (even when the result will have no effect on this policy). Like others, I increasingly find it difficult to reconcile my faith with this behaviour carried out in its name.
But how can those at home who claim to be ‘pro-life’ for political purposes justify one in four children in Northern Ireland living in poverty? How can they justify 57% of children in jobless families living in poverty? Will those LGBT children who face routine bullying at school thank the ‘pro-life’ parties for a second class life in the eyes of a state which continues to sponsor discrimination in marriage and adoption law?
We live in a society which saw food bank use increase by 8% last year, according to the Trussell Trust. And those communities which began the new Universal Credit increased food bank dependency by 30%. How is that compatible with a pro-life outlook? What have we done to address this?
Christ had little to say about abortion, sexuality or gender identity. Yet it occupies much of the thought space of those in the public arena who draw their support from Christ’s followers. Jesus did, however, have quite a bit to say about poverty, injustice and standing up for the oppressed.
I live in the ceaseless hope that my conservative friends and neighbours will prioritise homelessness, poverty and the pain of the vulnerable. And that they will have conservative leaders who share those priorities.
Perhaps if all of us who share our Christian faith reflected on the issues that Christ peaks directly to, that would be a good start.