01 March 2011
How to: Be a Voice in Parliament
God is up to something in Westminster's corridors of power. That's according to Gary Streeter MP who says that more than ever believers have a duty to be salt and light in society, both within Parliament and in public life as a whole...
Gary, who is chairman of Christians in Parliament, swapped the legal profession for politics 25 years ago after hearing a clear call from God, six years after becoming a Christian. On returning home from a day of prayer in early December 1985, he told his wife Jan: "I think God is calling us into politics." This was not an obvious career path for Gary, who knew nothing about politics at the time.
"It was a complete journey into the unknown and quite scary for the family. Jan was fantastically supportive because it's not what either of us wanted or would have chosen."
He joined the Social Democratic Party and was elected to Plymouth City Council in 1986. Upon realising he was a "natural Tory", he joined the party and in 1992 was elected MP for Plymouth Sutton. Since then he has held a variety of prominent posts including Shadow Secretary of State for International Development and Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party.
Last year, he was re-elected MP for South West Devon with a majority of 15,874 and appointed chairman of All Party Parliamentary Group Christians in Parliament.
But should Christians be in Parliament? When former Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked about his faith during an interview with Vanity Fair in 2003, his spin doctor Alistair Campbell stopped the line of questioning, with the now famous words: "We don't do God."
Gary feels the view has changed in recent years and that God very much does do politics. "I won't pretend there aren't particular tensions and pressures," he says. "But I feel very strongly now that God wants us to be involved in every sector of society as salt and light, including politics."
Last year's intake of Conservatives turned up a significant number of Christians, but Gary stresses God is not a member of one particular party. He says: "My approach is completely cross-party.
I encourage young people who come to me wanting to get into politics to join the party that most suits their outlook on life.
"I think God is up to something. The Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) has been focussing more strategically on encouraging centre-right minded Christians into the public arena. We're beginning to see some of the fruits of that and there are also new and wonderful Christians in the Labour Party and the Lib Dems. We celebrate all of that and are working together very carefully and closely."
As excited as Gary is to see the Christian contingent in Westminster increasing, he believes it is up to all Christians to engage with politics to influence society.
"Jesus distilled the whole gospel as loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbour as ourselves," says Gary. "One of the ways to love our neighbour is to make sure we live in a country where people are looked after and valued and cared for both at local level and at national level.
"There are lots of ways we can do that. We can knock on our neighbour's door to make sure they're ok; or we can get ourselves elected to Parliament and make sure that the laws in relation to cold weather payments, safer roads, child protection or whatever it might be, are written in accordance with the principles we distil from the Bible."
Participation or protest?
Gary feels there are right and wrong methods of engaging in politics, however. For him, it's about surgery visits in local constituencies, not mass-mailings cluttering email inboxes. It's about building relationship, not carrying out unnecessary and unhelpful protests.
He says: "We respect protest but in terms of changing our minds and impacting policy-making, I'm afraid it's a relatively minor part of our democratic processes. A lot of protest is ill-informed. There are often demonstrations in Parliament Square, but - perhaps simply as an accident of architecture - we are not really even aware they are going on."
Gary adds: "Mass-mailings are also ineffective. Our lines are now being submerged by emails generated by a third party group. These just do not change our behaviour or our thoughts at all," he says. "Individually written letters or visits to the constituency surgery are so much more powerful."
He added: "I'm embarrassed by some of the attitudes expressed in emails, letters and phone calls I've received over the years from Christians which really portray hatred and bigotry. You have to look at the attitudes expressed sometimes and say these are ungodly attitudes. They are also often ignorant and sometimes very scathing. However, this has improved in recent years."
The time has never been better for Christians to influence policy. The focus on the Big Society agenda is rendering the coalition government more open to listening to faith communities.
"If organisations actually want to impact policy then they should follow the example of groups like the Evangelical Alliance or Care who are very skilful at developing relationships with MPs from all parties so we can work together and try to change laws.
"The old way is shouting from the sidelines. It doesn't work. The new way is about working together in relationship, influencing government behind the scenes through conversations with ministers and senior civil servants. That's already much more effective but will be even more effective looking ahead."