Q&A with Jeremy Balfour MSP

Prof Tom McLeish 15 Aug 18

At Edinburgh Politics Network, for our November event, we hosted a Q&A with Jeremy Balfour, a Christian MSP. In light of the debates that resurfaced this year around the apparent difficulty of reconciling Christian faith with involvement in politics, we felt it would be helpful to get the perspective of someone with first-hand experience of holding political office as a Christian and discuss what our calling is in this changing political environment.

There were a range of points discussed – from Jeremy’s personal experience and backstory to his views on more abstract questions such as the role of the state and how we should interact with it as Christians. One persistent theme, however, was our move towards a more pluralistic society, where Christianity can no longer be guaranteed precedence in the public sphere and we, as individual Christians, must increasingly start thinking and acting like a minority:

What was encouraging – and refreshing – about Jeremy’s perspective on this point was that he didn’t merely lament this trend as a bad thing like we often hear about the ‘decline’ of Christianity in Britain. He argued that the monopoly the Church had in recent years ended up doing more harm than good, since it followed a model that isn’t present in the New Testament: In fact, the picture we see in the Bible is one of a persecuted Church that still grows under such conditions because of the grace and protection of God. Though believers may disagree on whether, for example, we should have an ‘established Church’, it was encouraging to be reminded by a Christian politician that regardless of the institutional status of Christianity in this country, we remain under God’s protection and power. Perhaps we fear persecution too much in the political world, or at least don’t see the opportunities in it.

Indeed, this approach even involves acknowledging the rights for other views to be spoken in the public sphere as well, rather than just longing for the ‘glory days’ where Christianity dominated. The passage Jeremy cited was Acts 17, where Paul sees the pluralistic religious system in Athens as an opportunity for proclaiming the gospel, and stands up in the Areopagus – a public, political venue – to make the case for Christ whilst surroundedby idols. We don’t need institutional priority to proclaim Christ!

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking whether ‘pluralism’ can exist for long; perhaps this is a question of which belief system is imposed on society, rather than whether one is imposed. The hounding of Bible-believing Christian politicians may well exemplify this, although when we asked Jeremy about his experience, he was confident that it’s still possible to be part of any major political party in Britain and not be forced to compromise one’s faith. He did raise the question, however, of how long this would be the case – perhaps when the ‘free vote’ parties give their MPs on ‘conscience issues’ is taken away, Christians will have to seek other ways of participating. Because we remain free to get involved, however, he emphasized the need to have people of God acting within the political system (like Daniel, Joseph and Esther) as well those speaking in from the outside.

It’s exciting and encouraging to gather with fellow Christians who are interested in politics, and even though we are free to disagree on such issues, it’s always helpful to listen to interesting perspectives like these to figure out our approach to politics – and, indeed, our calling within politics –  as individual followers of Christ.