A triumph of tradition over truth?

The front-bench MPs have been sworn into Parliament. Others will follow. All but one member of the Cabinet took the religious form of the oath:

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true alliegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg (a professed atheist) took the secular oath:

I do solemnly, sincerely and most and affirm I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.

Many Labour front-benchers followed Mr Clegg’s example. David Miliband, Alistair Darling, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Bob Ainsworth and John Denham all affirmed their allegiance to the Queen.

So are we to conclude the Government is Godly and Her Majesty’s Opposition is mainly Godless? I would be surprised, in this secular age, if every Cabinet member swearing the relgious oath really believed in the God by whom they swore.

It is, perhaps, a triumph of tradition over truth.

But many cabinet ministers certainly do profess a believe in God. David Cameron is a regular church-goer. William Hague has called himself a “committed Christian”. Caroline Spelman is a trustee of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith are Catholics. Baroness Warsi is a Muslim. No doubt there are others.

But are they any more right to swear the oath than the others?

Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
(Matthew 5v34-37)

Surely a conundrum for some believing MPs. I found it interesting to observe that Simon Hughes, a professed Christian, chose to take the secular oath. There may have been others.


A crucial opportunity

We’ve a very important job to do on Thursday.


Every Westminster constituency is up for grabs. 650 of them. For many of us it’s time to choose our local councillors too. Both elections are important, but the opinion poll story suggests our votes in the General Election are particularly crucial.

As I’ve argued, there are many parallels with the election of 1992.

But in some ways, the parallels with February 1974 are more important.

In that election, a surge in support for smaller parties produced a hung parliament (or ‘balanced’ as the Lib Dems like to call it) which left the Conservatives too weak to govern. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, leading a minority Labour government. In need of strength, he called a fresh election in October 1974, securing an overall majority of just three seats.

Apparently the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, believes whoever wins the election ahead “will be out of power for a whole generation.” Perhaps he was thinking of 1974. Our economy then was in deep trouble. The years ahead brought great strife and many strikes. It took Labour 18 years to return to government following its defeat in 1979.

We are immersed in a fiscal nightmare; last year the government spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. Dealing with the deficit will be very painful. We may be out of recession for now, but the years ahead will be harder, not easier. Pity the Prime Minister calling an election in 2015.

But it is not 2015. It is 2010 and we’ve a very important job to do. We must think of the five years ahead, not the years after that. We must put our country first as we cast our ballot.

In 2005, 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. In 1992, the last time we knew it would be close, the turnout was 77.7%. I suspect we’ll see a similarly high turnout this time.

I will be voting in Poplar & Limehouse. It’s a fascinating contest; a three-way marginal where Respect’s George Galloway has entered the fray to unsettle Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick. It presents the Conservatives’ Tim Archer with a golden opportunity to win a challenging seat; a diverse, deprived, inner-city constituency.

George Galloway

George Galloway campaigning for Respect outside my home.

The BBC’s take on my constituency is here. Few seats will be watched with such interest, but every seat is important. Even safe seats are decided by those who actually turn up. They are only ‘safe’ because the voters make them safe. In 1997, the ‘Portillo moment’ showed that no seat is truly safe.

Voting is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

As a Christian, it’s interesting to note how many of my brothers and sisters feel it’s not their place to vote. Some of them don’t want to compromise their beliefs, by voting for the lesser of two evils. Others note that voting is not sanctioned in the Bible and that Jesus did not engage in the government of his day.

However, God created us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to rule “over every living creature” (Genesis 1v28). Later St Paul writes that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13v1), “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v5) and “the authorities are God’s servants” (v6).

It reasonable inference that Christians might play a role in government or in electing it. It is even more important for us to pray. Each of us is but one man or woman and we have just one vote. But our prayers call upon a supreme authority for whom all things are possible.

While I have my doubts about the extent of the state, I do believe it has a role to play in regulating society and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is a good mission. But it can be undertaken well or badly and I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure our government acts well.

The debate about Christian engagement will go on. There is a similar argument in Islam, where some believe voting is “Shirk” (forbidden and unforgivable). But Muslim political engagement here in the UK is very strong, probably stronger than amongst Christians.

It is probably explained partly by a feeling of oppression as a minority in a secular christian country (small ‘c’ deliberate) and partly by an optimism that change is possible. Whereas the rest of us, Christian and secular alike, have come to feel that our votes count for very little.

Perhaps that’s true, but they still count for something. If they didn’t politicians wouldn’t be fighting so hard for them.

Christians may find it useful to check out the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement or the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Together they established Christians in Politics, a broader resource.

Vote for Policies is an independent website which merits 10 minutes’ investment. With so much focus on the personalities and the impression given by the parties, which party might we choose if it were entirely down to the policies? Vote for Policies might help.

If you want to examine the policy issues from first principles, check out the party manifestos (listed alphabetically, not by preference!)

Alliance Party (NI)

British National Party

Christian Peoples Alliance


Conservatives & Unionists

Democratic Unionist Party

English Democrats

Green Party

Jury Team


Liberal Democrats

Official Monster Raving Loony Party

Plaid Cymru


Scottish National Party

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sinn Fein

UK Independence Party

Extraordinary Influence

Ordinary people can exert extraordinary influence. I joined a Facebook campaign on Saturday, to oppose billboard advertising promoting marital infidelity. On Monday I blogged about it and updated this on Tuesday, outlining the campaign steps I had taken. I am just one of many campaigners.

The campaign leaders emailed their followers this afternoon to confirm their campaign was successful. They had seen their Facebook group swell to over 3,500 members in just four days. But more importantly, many of us took action and it yielded results.

Facebook campaign

A successful campaign

Did we know we would be successful? No. Was it risky to campaign in this way? Yes. We faced criticism from several different angles.

Some critics felt free speech was paramount. Yes it’s important, but it does not trump all else. In any case, if advertisers are entitled to free speech, so are campaigners.

I am not generally against free speech. I supported the BBC’s decision to host the BNP’s Nick Griffin on Question Time. In the end I felt an opportunity was missed to allow him to develop his ideas and face serious challenge, but I stand by my support for the decision. However, this campaign was different. The adverts appeared to breach the ASA code (although it didn’t initially accept this). Many of the BNP’s policies and utterances are offensive, but their political mandate was empirically recognised in a recent election.

Some critics argued it was a waste of time campaigning against something which was legal. If it wasn’t legal we’d just call the police! Marital infidelity is not a breach of criminal law, but it is a breach of civil law. It is a breach of contract between those who choose to forsake all others for as long as they both shall live. Or at least for as long as they remain married! The advert was not illegal, but we certainly believed it fell foul of advertising standards.

Some critics made the point that the website was not forcing individuals to break their marriage vows. They suggested visitors to the website were prepared to be unfaithful already and that advertising could not be blamed for the breakdown of their marriages. Yes, there is a truth within this, but it’s too simplistic to rest the argument there. Advertising works. It has a material effect on people’s decisions, which is why successful companies devote substantial resources to it. It’s also true that the website makes it easier for individuals to stray.

Marriage takes work. It ought to. Society doesn’t need organisations seeking to profit out of threatening the institution still further. Other organisations such as Relationship Central set a much better example.

If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.
(Manic Street Preachers, 1998)

Finally (among the main arguments I saw) some critics felt we were giving the oxygen of publicity to the website in question. See the Streisand effect for more on this phenomenon. It is true the campaign probably had this effect, but I believe it was better to take action than to walk on by. The website has received publicity, but challenging the advertising was important. The risk was that we may have failed while granting free publicity to our opponent’s cause. But we succeeded and the risk paid off. Such campaigns will not always succeed, but they are still worth fighting. We drew a fresh line in the sand for the ASA to consider before approving future advertising.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
(War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1869; or Edmund Burke)

In our campaign many good men and women did something. And they did a good thing. One of the organisers, Jon Yates, explained early on that we needed to be more than a Facebook group to get results. Daily actions were suggested.

I took a number of simple steps to help. I was amazed at the reach of one of my efforts. When I discovered one of the billboards was in my own constituency, I wrote to my MP, Jim Fitzpatrick. I also copied in my local councillors and one of them, Ahmed Hussain (Conservative), was tenacious in his response.

Cllr Ahmed immediately contacted his party colleagues and key officers in Tower Hamlets. He also raised the matter with City Hall and within a few hours the Deputy Mayor, Richard Barnes, was involved. Tim Archer, the local Conservative PPC, dipped his oar in, with a letter to the Chief Executive of the ASA asking why the complaints weren’t being investigated. The MP and his Labour colleagues on the council also took an interest. All this from one email.

Never underestimate what’s possible, especially in an election year! I am not the reason this campaign was successful, but I know I played my part. I was one of many.

Now there is a new campaign. This one is – in effect – to encourage White Label Dating (a B2B internet company) to break its link with the website in question. It will be tough but…

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
(Margaret Mead)


Uncomplicated adult fun…

I’ve just joined a Facebook campaign. It’s to oppose a billboard advertising campaign by an organisation called “MaritalAffair”. That’s a British company, so I’m sure you can work out the web address if you want to visit. I’ve deliberately not included the link so you won’t click through with your husband or wife watching.

The website describes itself as “delivering a dating arena for extra-marital affairs” for “uncomplicated adult fun.” Actually the site is worth a visit. Some of the literature on the website is thought-provoking. Did the Sun really provide such positive media coverage? Actually, no it didn’t…

wedding ring

The Facebook campaign is “Stop marital affair .co.uk advertising publicly in the UK.” When I joined, on Saturday, there were about fifty of us. Two days later, there are now about 1,300 members. Do join if you agree with the premise.

The campaign is led by Jon Kuhrt, a father of three, who – like many others – is offended by the marketing of infidelity as “uncomplicated fun”. He complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, only to be told it would only consider complaints about advertising which offend “against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards.” I believe the reasoning – to reject the complaint – is absurd on all three counts.

I don’t know what you think, but this advertising offends against my personal moral standards and it’s clear that support for marriage is widespread. I know that not all agree, but marital faithfulness is certainly a “widely accepted moral standard.”

Marriage is a social norm. It may have suffered a recent decline, but it remains something that many people aspire to. If those who choose to be unfaithful feel confident it’s ok, then perhaps they might consider telling their spouses (just to check…) Little surprise that few do. Husbands and wives are often devastated when they find their spouse has cheated on them. Many people consider the infidelity of their spouses a significant enough blot on their character to end the marriage. It often ruins the lives of both partners (and possibly children too). My brother has felt the pain of this and I pray his son is spared from greater pain.

Marriage is evidently a cultural norm. Lots of us do it, and even more of us have been to weddings to endorse our friends and family who take that step. It may not be a cultural norm everywhere, but in this country it is. The advert is here in the UK and it is the British Advertising Standards Authority considering the complaints.

So I will be contacting the ASA. I am puzzled it feels Mr Kuhrt’s compaint is outside its remit and I believe this must be tested further. There are many other ways to pursue the campaign, and the Facebook campaign is a great place to contribute. This blog is where I begin.


So far I have complained to the ASA and written to my local MP (Jim Fitzpatrick). There is a billboard in my constituency (Poplar & Canning Town).

I have also complained to the helpline for Global Personals. This organisation provides back office support to MaritalAffair and I wanted to encourage them to withdraw from this commercial relationship. I think it’s a reasonable suggestion; the Global Personals CEO, Ross Williams, says his core business is “love”. MaritalAffairs is the antithesis of this!

This campaign is clearly one they would prefer not to engage with (at this stage), but many people have complained and all the better if even more people do. Reach Global Personals at 01753 271286. And be polite!

In my complaint to Mr Fitzpatrick, I also copied in my local Tower Hamlets councillors. One of them (Ahmed Hussain) has pledged action already.

The ASA regulates the advertising, but not the product. It says the advertising does not – in itself – offend against “widely held moral, social or cultural standards.” I disagree and the campaign continues. There are now 2,500 members (as of 1pm on 26th January). Please engage if you feel motivated to do so.


Is Allah God?

Malaysia has confiscated 10,000 Bibles, because they refer to God as Allah. Apparently this may upset Muslims. No doubt there are aspects of all religions that many people, of all religions and none, might find offensive.

It is a key factor of belief that there is no universal philosophy held by all and known to be true. Religious beliefs are a matter of faith because doubt must have its place. Faith without doubt cannot be true faith.  One who does not doubt may claim to know; but not all knowledge is true! Read John Ortberg on “Faith and Doubt” for more on this.


What do we call God?

All the monotheistic Abrahamic religions have in common the belief in one God. A single Creator and Ruler of all.

The word used in Arabic for God is Allah. No surprise then that God should choose to be known as Allah in the Koran in His revelation to the Arabic-speaking Prophet Muhammad. But for Muslim believers, the Allah of the Koran is also the God of the Christian and Jewish Scripture. So why all the fuss?

Well Arabic is not the first tongue for Malays. So are the Christians seeking to win over Muslims by adopting the Arabic expression for God? Perhaps there might be an element of proselytising. I don’t know. But I do understand that Islam is the largest official religion of Malaysia, so the word “Allah” is widely understood to mean God. In the UK, we use the word “God” and even many Muslims will use this word interchangeably with “Allah”. Certainly “Allah” is the word Arabic-speaking Christians will have used before the dawn of Islam.

It’s a circular argument. Allah is God. God is Allah. It’s much more important to consider who is God/Allah than what we call Him. I imagine most Muslims in Malaysia feel the same. Just don’t say Jehovah!


Bible Top Ten

Let’s start with the bottom ten.

The Ship of Fools recently published “Chapter & Worse“, the ten worst verses of the Bible. Check it out for bemusement or to confirm any prejudices you already have about what a nasty piece of work the Bible is. For me it’s difficult to reconcile the enormous influence the Christian movement had on the abolition of slavery with St Peter’s exhortation to slaves to submit to their masters! See 1 Peter 2v18, the last of the listed ten worst verses.

The Bible is a library, of course; it contains a varied selection of books. Some books are more challenging than others, particularly in the consideration of some individual verses as outlined by the Ship of Fools.

All Scripture is God-breathed
(2 Timothy 3v16)

So what does that mean for us? There’s an interesting feature here about that particular verse. It explores a number of other sources that are drawn upon within the Biblical canon. It is a difficult area, but it is without doubt that there is a wealth of wisdom and knowledge contained within it. Even if you question some of it, it remains a remarkable historical document and much of the writing is legendary.




I wonder what books I would include if I needed to draw up a shorter canon? I can’t imagine how that need would arise, but it would be an interesting exercise to envisage what a top ten of the Bible might look like. I’m not talking here about a pure top ten; not ten standalone works of inspired God-breathed literary genius. I’m thinking ideally of a top ten that might best encapsulate what the Bible stands for and what it means. It’s not easy, but here’s my attempt:

Genesis – The story of creation and the beginning of all things. It’s difficult to justify the entirety of Genesis as literary truth, but theologically it’s crucial.

Exodus – The beginning of Judaism and the Law. Much of it boring and repetitive, but surely a necessary part of the wider story.

Samuel (both parts) – Another important part of the Jewish story, the lives of Saul, David and Solomon in particular. Early ideas of the authority of God invested in the state.

Isaiah – A prophecy which brings meaning to the Gospel truth.

Daniel – A wonderful story of trust and faith. More prophecy, much of it still to come.

Luke – The most comprehensive single work on the life of Jesus.

John – A different perspective of Jesus, concentrating more on who He was than what He did.

Acts – the birth of the church. Miracles abound. The Big Bang of Christianity.

Romans – Much to my frustration, the only part of St Paul’s work I have space to include, but surely his best(?) A great exposition of what it means to be Christian and what that walk is all about.

James – Very practical advice written by the brother of Jesus Himself. How to manage temptation and live out our faith in a way that truly helps others. The manual on Jesus’ call to love others as ourselves.

Well, these are my thoughts. Controversial, no doubt. They’re not the ten foremost Christian texts, but perhaps together they provide context for each other. They’re the ones I’d recommend to someone who’d read none of it or who knew none of it.

I stand ready to be corrected!



President Obama keeps a promise!

Well I’m not suggesting he wouldn’t keep a promise. Like every other politician, I expect he’ll keep all of them. But last night, in New York, he took his wife out for a night on the town, keeping a campaign promise to “take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished.”

They went for a meal at the Blue Hill restaurant and then watched the play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, before flying back to Washington for… a good night’s sleep.

I don’t know who paid for this trip. I should imagine the restaurant and theatre bills weren’t covered by American taxpayers, but no doubt the security detail was.

Apparently Republicans are unhappy.  Some say Mr Obama was insensitive for jetting off for a night out while another iconic American company (GM) prepares for bankruptcy.

Ok, I understand the sentiment, but it was a promise and not an unreasonable one to keep. Of course, Mr Obama needs to show sensitivity to his citizens, but he didn’t create this mess, and why shouldn’t he treat his wife from time to time? A President and the “first family” make great sacrifices in return for the honour.  So they should, but family life is important too and I admire the commitment he has shown to them. They are important to him and they need to know this.

My wife and I try to have a “date night” once a week. It’s not always a night out in New York, or even in West End, but it’s quality time we carve out for each other. It’s challenging; we’re both busy people. I work shifts and she often counsels clients in the evenings. But somehow we manage it. It’s an idea we picked up on a course and it’s great to hear the Obamas follow a similar tradition.

Being President must place a phenomenal demand on anyone. Such a person needs to remain grounded, or who knows what could end up happening in the Oval Office! All the more important then for Mr Obama to schedule time for his wife and family, including Bo, the First Dog (another campaign promise).