The Shocking Election Result (And The Implications For Christian Witness)
In my town of Eastbourne, the streets were flooded with orange signs for the local Liberal Democrat candidate, with only the occasional rumour of blue, but the Conservative candidate won anyway (which, since she happens to be a member of my church, I am delighted about). Personally, I find that quite comprehensible. Saying you’re voting Labour, or LibDem, or Green, for a good number of people, elicits either interest, sympathy or immediate connection; saying you’re voting Conservative can suddenly elicit rage, even from a complete stranger. So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that LibDems would be much more confident about their political alignment than Conservatives, to the extent that they would put signs on their driveways and stickers in their windows. (As an aside, I don’t think this massive public show of support for the LibDems actually helped the candidate; I know of a number of LibDem-leaning people who assumed the result was a foregone conclusion, and consequently didn’t prioritise voting.) In the local subculture of my town - and the election results seem to indicate this is true well beyond Eastbourne - voting for the Tories is something to be embarrassed about, even though they are obviously, given the result, the most popular party.
What is striking, however, is just how far this phenomenon extends. What confounded the pollsters was not the people who voted Tory but wouldn’t admit it to their neighbours by sticking signs on their lawns, but the people who voted Tory and wouldn’t admit it to a political pollster whom they have never met and will never hear from again. So great is the cultural pressure not to admit that you are going to vote Conservative, that a statistically significant number of people would not disclose their true intentions, even to an anonymous caller. What people actually believe, and what they say they believe, are different enough to confound every polling organisation, the entire political commentariat and most citizens of the UK, and prompt an official inquiry into the inaccuracy of the polls (not to mention the aforementioned resignations and inevitable soul-searching).
I think that has some interesting implications. Many people believe things that they wouldn’t own up to in polite society, because of the power of cultural pressure, public shame, and so on. They know the answer they are supposed to give when asked about the issue, and they give it, even if it is not what they really think. But when given a context in which they can state or act on those beliefs without fear of recrimination, like a secret ballot, they do so. Not only that, but the “true” view is decidedly more conservative (with a small “c”) than the “stated” view, because, no matter what people say about the Murdoch papers, fashionable opinion in the UK is still broadly leftish. So here’s a thought. Following that logic, it may be that a fair number of the things Christians say which attract predictable outrage, like “sex is only for a man and a woman in marriage”, or “unborn children should not be killed”, or “men and women are different”, are actually agreed with by a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t dare admit it. Perhaps they would disown those statements when asked about them, and bluster about them in suitably offended tones, but deep down, actually agree. You never know: it might extend to more theological statements, like “one day we will all face judgment”, or “not every religion can be true”, or even “I have sinned, and I need saving.”
Proof of this, in the nature of things, is extremely hard to come by. My only evidence, other than the difference between the polls and the election results, is anecdotal (but then it would be, wouldn’t it?) But it has the ring of truth to it, not just when I consider conversations with friends who are not believers, but when I consider my own heart as well: there are some things on which I am far more likely to express my convictions than others, not because of the strength of those convictions, but because of the force (or not) with which they will be shouted down by people I want to like me. And I say that as someone who probably expresses unpopular opinions in public, and gets shouted down, more than most British citizens. If it’s true for me, it may well also be true for my neighbours.
Boiled down, my point is simply this: we are used to thinking about a distinction between what people know deep down (“God has set eternity in the hearts of men”, “what may be known about God is plain to them, so they are without excuse”, and so on), and what they believe on the surface (“they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images”, and so on throughout Romans 1). But we may need to consider the possibility that there is another distinction in play here, since what they actually believe is often not what they say they believe. For all that they object, using language and tropes formed directly by the fashionable intellectual culture of their day, they may actually agree with some of the central tenets of Christian belief, and/or Christian praxis. They may resonate with much of it despite themselves. They may, in contrast to received wisdom, find clarity and conviction on some of these things to be surprisingly attractive.
And if they’re really shy, they might even have voted Conservative.