Faith and Reason: Voting for God at the US ballot-box: In the lead-up to Tuesday's US presidential elections, Clive Calver, of the Evangelical Alliance UK, looks at the role of evangelicals in politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

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The Independent Online
JUST when we were clear in our minds that the Church of England could no longer be called the Tory Party at prayer, we learn that God is a Republican.

The first major sign that the Almighty had thrown in his lot with George Bush and Dan Quayle came at the Republican Convention, which at times resembled a Southern Baptist revival meeting. Now the Christian right wing is engaged in frenzied 11th-hour attempts to rally the faithful as George Bush still faces the prospect of defeat.

'To Vote for Clinton is to Sin against God' is the declaration of one pamphlet doing the rounds of evangelical parishes across the United States.

All of which causes distress to many theologically conservative Christians in the UK who know - as sure as God is not American - that in the months to come their efforts to shake off the caricature of American fundamentalism will have suffered a setback.

Though Neil Kinnock described himself as an atheist, religious groups here would never have described a vote for Labour as sin. Nor would the representative body for British evangelicals, the Evangelical Alliance UK, ever dream of endorsing a particular candidate as has its American equivalent body, the National Association of Evangelicals.

Amid the publicity given to the activities of the 'religious right' in the US during the campaign, it has often been overlooked that many 'born-again' Christians will be voting for Bill Clinton on Tuesday - one survey suggests as many as one in three will vote Democrat.

Not surprisingly, British evangelicals, like British politicians, sportsmen and comedians, are worlds apart from their American equivalents. Our own general election in April saw conservative Christians posing the same questions as Catholics to candidates, about homelessness, poverty and overseas development, alongside the more traditional concerns of abortion and pornography.

Fresh from a decade of growth - and now making up nearly half of England's Protestants in church on Sundays - evangelicals are flexing their muscles in an attempt not just to keep rumours of God alive in secular society, but to recapture the vision of social and spiritual transformation which motivated John Wesley to support antislavery campaigns, William Booth of the Salvation Army to set up Britain's first employment exchanges and the likes of Spurgeon, Muller and Barnardo to open orphanages.

Explosive growth among evangelical churches in the past decade has less to do with the emergence of 'happy clappy' church services, replete with guitars and jigging vicars, than fallout from what historians call the 'Great Reversal'. In the Sixties and Seventies churches of all denominations reclaimed from Lost Property their mislaid Christian social conscience, once such a driving force within Victorian society.

At events like the Spring Harvest church weeks, attended by 80,000 people annually, churchgoers are called out of alienation from social concern and a privatised pietism, into a recognition of the socio-political implications of Gospel.

Abortion and family values are of great concern. But the sea change has come in the shape of thousands of small, often unheralded church initiatives, indicating that social ministry is being restored alongside evangelistic outreach. Help for prostitutes in Soho, from the Green Light Project; dozens of church social programmes assisting homeless people; and the growth of specialist care for people with physical and learning disabilities by groups such as the Shaftesbury Society, are typical of the quiet revolution of the past 30 years.

For evangelicals the supreme authority in the Church is Scripture, which must take precedence over Church traditions and the opinions of individuals. When church leaders and their flocks reexamine the scriptural basis for social action, many experience Pauline conversions. As a result that today there is an emerging generation of theologically conservative social activists.

Middle-class church-goers in Britain are now less prone than Americans to identify biblical values with their own well-being and thereby fail to challenge social injustices. Consequently, the drawbridge which British churches pulled up behind them in the wake of the First World War when faced with widespread despondency, theological liberalism, rationalism and secular values, is being rapidly lowered. This is happening more quickly than would be possible across the Atlantic.

John Stott, so influential in recalling churches to social action, writes: 'The Son of God did not stay in the safe immunity of heaven. He emptied himself of his glory and humbled himself to serve.

'He not only proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God, but demonstrated its arrival by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving the sinful, befriending the drop-out and raising the dead. He had not come to be served, he said, but to serve and give his life as a ransom . . . for the release of others.'

Activism distinguished the Good Samaritan from those who passed by on the other side and activism is what distinguishes evangelicals from their Bible- centred predecessors such as the Puritans.

Electoral allegiances among the one million people represented by the Evangelical Alliance UK are spread across the party spectrum. Christian Tories can look for inspiration to the likes of Lord Shaftesbury and the reforming Factory Acts of the last century. But they may feel uneasy over the current preoccupation with the marketplace in Tory hearts.

Liberals hark back to Gladstone, who brought his faith into the heart of his politics. Some, perhaps, raised eyebrows at Paddy Ashdown's tacit endorsement of New Age thinking in an interview with the Independent earlier this year. And some Christian socialists whose forebears include Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party, undoubtedly regret the pro- choice consensus within the party over abortion.

Christians of all political parties support the work of evangelical agencies such as ACET, Britain's largest provider of home care for people with HIV and Aids; the Mildmay Mission Hospital, Europe's first Aids hospice; and Tear Fund, one of Britain's six largest relief and development agencies.

The scriptural key for Christian social activism is love. Saving faith and serving love are the twin engines driving their work. Ideals and hope of rewards in the life to come are not enough. 'If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need and has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him,' writes St John (I John iii, 17).

At a Republican rally during the present campaign, the singer Pat Boone is reported as declaring: 'We are here to re-elect the living God.' British evangelicals, while wishing to see faith play a greater part in society, are mindful that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, not a bulldozer.

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