guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 7 April 2010 15.00 BST
Even before Gordon Brown fired his starting pistol for a 6 May election, emails from religious groups were trickling into my inbox. I fully expect it to become a torrent as voting day looms closer. What are they saying, what do they want and will it make a difference?
A coalition of churches and denominations, calling themselvesWestminster 2010, threw its hat into the ring by urging people to support candidates who promote and protect human life and marriage (I’m paraphrasing here). Andrew Brown has written about it and the Daily Telegraph, which broke the story, has more detail, including an explanation of the origins of the initiative, the Manhattan Declaration, which allows for civil disobedience when the expression of religious beliefs is under threat. I don’t know if we will be treated to the sight of revolting bishops, but one can only pray. Westminster 2010 is doing exactly what one would expect – using issues such as abortion, sexual equality, embryonic stem cell research and assisted suicide to steer people towards certain candidates and parties rather than focussing on practical areas such as the economy, education and the NHS. At a guess, I would say that most people living in the UK will be affected by the latter three rather than the former, but there are those, like Jonathan Chaplin, prepared to mount a spirited defence of the initiative.
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales, in their pamphlet Choosing the Common Good, also prioritise family life while at the same time saying Catholics should cast their vote for the party that will serve the good of all people, not the one that will benefit them individually. Again, no great surprises. Religious leaders, regardless of their overheated pronouncements on fiscal failures, know little about the economy so it is predictable that they dwell on the moral issues of the day.
What of other religious groups? Neither the Hindu Forum of Britain nor the Hindu Council mention the election although the latter takes aim at the government for lavishing millions of pounds on Muslims as a form of appeasement. The Hindu Council accuses the government of usingreligion as a way of polarising communities. I think it has a point.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews has done little since February, when it appeared at the Church of England General Synod to talk about the need for a bulwark against far right gains at the polls. Jewish communities have just finished observing Passover, so there may be more initiatives to come. The Quilliam Foundation doesn’t have much to say about the race to Number 10. The same goes for BMSD, not to be confused with BDSM (I daren’t include a link), and the Islamic Society of Britain. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee has at least got that May 6 must-have – an election countdown clock – but it also has alarming headlines about women being “mentally raped” in Oldham and “Zionist MPs”. A quick trawl of the Muslim Council of Britain website throws up the top 10 constituencies with the biggest Muslim voting potential. The numbers might be interesting for people who want to know if a religious community can make a difference to the outcome of a general election.
Personally, I don’t think there is a Muslim vote any more than there is a Christian vote – religious groups host a spectrum of opinion, even on moral issues – but some politicians think the opposite and have been actively courting religious communities. If you look at the 2001 census – and heaven knows religious leaders love to at every opportunity – there are more than 37m people who identify themselves as Christian, and more than 1.6m who identify themselves as Muslim.