By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News
Politicians, including Nick Clegg, often attend meetings in church halls
Tony Blair's spokesman Alastair Campbell famously once said the prime minister didn't "do God" when talking to the media.
Religious pronouncements were kept to a minimum, for fear of risking the broad political support for the New Labour project.
Mr Campbell's simple words illustrate how Christianity is generally treated at Westminster.
Explicit mention of religion is seen as "un-British", a bit "American" and a "turn-off" to the electorate.
But, with a closely fought election in the offing and a desperate fight taking place for marginal seats, might candidates become more open about their beliefs if it means a few more votes?
The preacher Canon J John, a prominent figure within the evangelical community who wants Christians to become more politically involved, urges his fellow believers to "do our best to find out about our local candidates".
He adds: "We might want to ask whether they are genuinely committed to moral values or do they simply adopt whatever is the current fashionable view? Does the candidate place their party's ideology above everything else? Would they be prepared to vote against the party line on moral grounds?
"Are they grappling with the bigger issues or are they simply interested in small-scale, day-to-day matters? Perhaps, above all, we should ask whether potential candidates seek to be elected in order to serve their self-interest or the interest of others."
The implication of Canon John's words is that, to satisfy a Christian voter, they should put morality above party.
What electoral value is in this for would-be MPs?
James Panton, a politics lecturer at Oxford University, said: "We live in a society which allows the free exchange of views and it's obviously the case that church leaders want to be involved in shaping the views of members."
He added: "Across society as a whole my view is that it's not a statistically relevant phenomenon at elections. There aren't enough people like that, whose Christian views are going to be vital to how they choose their MP.
"But it's possible that it may be more important in a marginal seat which has a big support base for a highly politicised Christian organisation."
Lord Carey has urged politicians to respect Christians' beliefs
In the US religion plays a large part in the funding and organisation of politics. In the UK it is less influential.
Canon John, though, is not a voice in the wilderness.
The Westminster 2010 Declaration, signed by former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey and Cardinal O'Brien, the leader of Catholics in Scotland, has some strong advice for the one in 10 or so people thought to attend church every week.
Christians should work to ensure "religious liberty and freedom of conscience are unequivocally protected against interference by the state and other threats", while they "will not be intimidated by any cultural or political power into silence or acquiescence".
The declaration goes on: "We call upon all those in UK positions of leadership, responsibility and influence to pledge to respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold these beliefs and to act according to Christian conscience."
Its website encourages voters to e-mail parliamentary candidates to find out their views.
More than 30,000 people have backed the declaration.
Paul Woolley, director of the Christian think-tank Theos, said: "The fact that the election looks very close will give a certain relevance to the question of whether Christians can influence voting."
He added that, despite a commonly held view that British public life is becoming ever-more secular, parties had been "working hard to make inroads into faith-based communities and organisations".
Conservative leader David Cameron's call for a "Big Society", including government working with voluntary and faith groups, is one example.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown makes frequent references to the "moral compass" he inherited from his clergyman father.
Mr Woolley said: "We did some research last year looking at the rhetoric of Gordon Brown and others in their key speeches and the extent to which they used Christian or theological or biblical language.
"With Gordon Brown it clearly colours his narrative. He draws on it to speak.
"Similarly David Cameron conference speech last year - there were parts that were strikingly biblical in their rhythm. Sections seemed like the Sermon on the Mount."
Mr Woolley added: "I would say politicians are more religious in their rhetoric than they were. Harold Wilson used to remove words from speeches which came naturally to him. He didn't want people to see him as using religion.
"These days people are talking about it more. We definitely have politicians far more inclined to visit churches or Christian festivals than we would in the past."
Indeed, the main parties are trying to mobilise the "God vote".
Might Alastair Campbell's advice be modified today?
Zoe Dixon, chairman of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, said: "If you have a candidate who is a strong Christian you are going to go to churches to try to get people to vote for you."
She added: "The difference it could make would be in a marginal seat. Everyone should elect the person they think would make the best MP for their area, almost regardless of party.
"We shouldn't get side-tracked by the national agenda. Certainly we try to mobilise the Christian vote in our favour in constituencies."
And, of course, election hustings are often held in church halls.
Stephen Beers, of the Christian Socialist Movement, said: "Anyone at all could be there, but it's quite likely to have a fair number of Christians among the audience."
He added: "Groups like ours are trying to influence policies; we are not forcing our views... Voters should consider parties as a whole, look at the whole political platform."
Elizabeth Berridge, chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, thinks low turnout at elections means Christians play an important role, as they are more likely to vote than most people - with about 80% doing so.
She said: "It could have a big impact. In some seats the church meeting is the only one candidates are asked to attend.
"At this juncture, following the expenses scandal, Christians are going to be concerned with how someone comes across, whether they are genuine, what their character is like.
"They might disagree with the candidate's views, but if his or her character seems good, they might hold sway."
If leading politicians do not mention God very often, the A-words - "atheism" and "agnosticism" - are something of a taboo at Westminster.
So it was surprising that, shortly after becoming Lib Dem leader in 2007, Nick Clegg replied "No" when asked whether he believed.
He later modified his remark, saying he was not an "active believer" but had "enormous respect" for those who were, adding that his wife was Catholic and that his children were being brought up under this faith.
Mr Woolley, of Theos, said: "I think the original effect of Mr Clegg's words was that people could appreciate he was being straightforward with us. People don't like people pretending to be what they are not.
"But Mr Clegg felt he needed to qualify what he was saying. I mean, why would you do that unless there was a political imperative? He was trying to assure people."
Parties, by their nature, are broad coalitions, with members holding sometimes widely different views.
Westminster wisdom has it that maintaining discipline, and alienating as few potential supporters as possible, will aid success.
Over the last few years, explicitly faith-based political parties, tired of compromise, have featured more prominently at elections.
A spokesman for the Christian Peoples Alliance, which is putting up 17 general election candidates, said: "The big parties are trying to pursue big-tent politics, looking to reach out to the largest possible spectrum. That's the politics of the last century. We are building for the politics of tomorrow."
He added: "There is a compromised moral relativism which is endemic in British politics. The moral compass has to be pointed north if we are to get away from big-tent politics."
The alliance harbours long-term ambitions of emulating Christian Democrats in much of northern Europe, where they are effectively the main conservative parties.
The spokesman said that policies like cutting inner-city poverty, restricting bankers' bonuses and giving financial help to mothers and fathers who want to care for their children, rather than return to work, would prove popular in the long term.
Many voters, beyond just Christians, would see these issues in moral terms, he added.
Even if they take a few hundred votes from one of the major parties in a marginal constituency, the alliance or its rival Christian Party, which is hoping to field more than 100 candidates, could swing things.
The two parties, which were in a pact at the time, gained almost a quarter of a million votes at last year's European election.
Christian Party leader George Hargreaves said: "Most of our general election candidates are in marginal seats. We can have a king-maker effect, depending on what message we want to send out.
"We could say to our rivals 'A plague on both your houses'. We could say 'A plague on one house or another'. Or we could say nothing about our rivals and just put our own message across.
"We will look at other parties' candidates in full to see what they stand for. That's democracy in action."
They are encouraging Christians to look at politics through the prism of their own beliefs. If the electoral sums on 6 May add up, "doing God" might not be a rarity in British politics for much longer.
BBC News readers have been sending us their comments on this story. Below is a selection and you can join the debate on
Have Your Say
A very interesting article. I think we are very lucky in this country that we don't have a "religious right" in politics like in the States, as I believe that church and state should be kept separate. I also think it's refreshing that someone like Nick Clegg can admit that he doesn't believe in God and still have support from both Christians and non-Christians, something which wouldn't happen in the US also. Although I think there are some Christians who might vote for a candidate who had the most "morals", I think most Christians, myself included, vote issues such as who is going to do the best job for their constituents, or who is going to make a fairer society, not whether they have explicitly Christian "morality". Therefore I agree with the lecturer from Oxford that we wont have a particularly "Christian vote" in this country.
What about Atheists - we have a stance on moral issues too. You can be very good without God.
At first sight, this looks a very well thought out piece - thank you! And, let's face it, we need some hope and morality post expenses and bankers! BUT ..... Please, folks, look into your "Christian" candidate's history and achievements fully before you vote for them
Whilst the 'Westminster Declaration...' is being circulated amongst the Christian Community, and is well meant, it is important to note that a growing section of that community-most notably Faithworks-find its detail untenable; cannot in all good conscience sign it and indeed are campaigning for ALL Christians to look at its implications closely before signing. The Christian church is a very 'broad' church in the UK-not everyone will agree about the way to elicit support from MP's and will wish to find another way to 'live comfortably' alongside other faiths.
On my way out of hustings at my local church yesterday evening I picked up a glossy leaflet from the Labour Party entitled Churches Update. It was clearly a national rather than local leaflet with contributions for the Prime Minister and others. The reality is that Christians are active in their local community and at their churches meet with people from different parts of the community. It is hardly surprising that the parties seek to court the Christian vote. What concerns me is that the laws that they then pass seem in a number of instances to be marginalising Christianity under the over-arching imperative of "equality", which turns out to be anything but.
PJK, Streatham constituency
I'm Jewish, and I practise my religion. I think that 'religions' don't tend to vote one way or the other, rather you may find, like research has seen in the USA that more religious people tend to vote for Conservative ideas, regardless of their faith, whereas those who don't practice their religion tend to be more Liberal in their voting patterns. In the USA its clearer because politicians are more open on issues such as abortion.
Religion has no place in politics. If religion (of any kind) influences your vote, you should have your right to vote revoked.
Barnaby, Aylesbury, UK
My grandmother always said that the only question you need to ask a politician was "Church or Chapel?"
It's not simply a case of winning more votes by appealing to the religious minority. Any candidate who plays the religion card will LOSE my vote, even if he belongs to the party I intend to vote for.
This is a Christian country with tolerance but our political parties are scared to align for exactly the reasons in the article. Any pandering to attract votes doesn't wash. If the correct party for me showed more Christian alignment I would vote for them.
Whilst I have nothing against MPs belonging to one religion or another, their beliefs should should come in to the political arena. MPs are elected to represent everyone within their community, not just members of their chosen faith. Let's keep politics about everyone and not about those who follow the same "moral" path as the elected powers. God, Allah, Buddha and all of the other religious powers should be kept out of the running of our government.
Barry, Newcastle, UK
Very simply, allow me to suggest that Christian believers should attend political meetings in the next weeks and ask the candidate - 'Are you a believer in Jesus - a Christian? And then let the press publicly declare the candidate's response. We need our politicians to tell us what they believe - not just to say what they think we want to hear. They should help us decided on their suitability as a candidate by declaring their position to us as the voters. It would be EASY for each church to have someone attend each political meeting in the next weeks and be allowed to ask a question from the floor. Just a challenge to us believers to work the political roadshows .
Don, South Africa
The thought of following America down the road to theocracy frankly terrifies me. Do we really want to become another narrow-minded fundamentalist enclave?
We had an "Any Questions?" session with all five candidates here in Somerton and Frome last week, organised by Christians Together in Martock, and almost 200 people came for an evening of debate and questions held at All Saints' Martock. It was a really lively evening with a real mix of questions, greatly appreciated by those present.
David, Martock, Somerset, UK
I doubt that Christian vote is concentrated enough to cause a major shift. I know that there are devout Christians among all parties here (as well as devout members of other religions and atheists), and Christians here in the UK are not as monolithic a voting bloc as in the US.
Alisdair , Nottingham
Politicians would do well to remember that there is a rapidly growing section of the community who are as concerned with freedom from religion as they are with freedom of religion, and who bitterly resent politicians pandering to the religious vote.
David, Tenby, Wales
The appeal for moral values goes very much wider than just the active Chriatian community. There are many Muslims, for example, who have expressed support for Christian candidates because of their stand on moral issues.
Robert, Rustington, UK
I edit a Baptist Magazine. Some of my readers are telling me that they don't trust any of the leaders of the three main political parties. They often mention the expenses scandal. They feel that laws are being approved that are against their beliefs, against morality and decency. It seems to us that is almost against the law to be a Bible-believing evangelical Christian.
Stan, Sandy, Beds
Religion and politics just shouldn't be mixed...haven't we learned from the likes of the conflicts in Ireland or the Middle East? They don't work well together, keep them separate!
So six million people attend church regularly - that's what this article and the BBC website suggest. Any of the political parties would give the earth to have anywhere near six million members. The problem is we are not organised as the USA is organised so comparisons are useless
Rod, Luton, England
Politics and religion should be kept away from each other. Would they vote for a rubbish party just because they are religious and ignore a good MP with atheist views?
John, Romsey, Hampshire
Unfortunately for the 'Christian' candidates, they cannot accurately predict the effect that their candidature will have in these marginal seats. If they take votes from the main parties and let a third candidate in, perhaps one who is less godly, then they will have shot themselves in the foot. In any case, I will be very surprised if any of them manage to retain their deposits.
Robert, Epsom, Surrey
It's about time that the religious groups in this country had it made clear to them that they have no special rights and that they must abide by the laws of the country in the same way as everyone else, and I would be delighted if MPs would make it clear that they will not be bullied. Any religious group that indulges in political activity should lose its special (and in my opinion unjustified) tax status immediately and permanently. I am sick to death of them trying to impose their fantasies on the rest of us.
I don't just believe in God, I also believe what He says. That can be something very different from what is commonly believed that He says. As I understand the political parties right now, there is not a single candidate in my area for whom I can vote with a clear conscience before God. None of them have policies that support God's opinion, or follow God's morals.
GC, Bury, UK
Canon John makes a very good point when he says that morality should take precedence over party, but seems to be under the illusion that morality is restricted to Christians. Of all the election coverage I have seen in print, radio, TV etc. this is the first mention of the morals of our prospective politicians. Why? Surely we should be more interested in the moral integrity of our parliamentary candidates than how they are going to tax the banking sector.
Geoff, Enniskillen, N. Ireland.
Thank you for this article. Many Christians I know think seriously about politics and vote for the individual rather than the party. The major UK political parties were all initially influenced by committed Christians who felt called to serve God in politics.
Michael, Warfield, Berkshire, UK
This is personality politics again, people voting for a candidate purely based on their personal attributes instead of their actual ability to do the job. You wouldn't ask someone at a job interview if they were religious and use that to decide if you wanted to employ them.
Giles, Cannock, Staffs
It is about time Christians started to speak out whether in government, any part. I was on the Town Council, and District, and felt like a voice in the wilderness, and yes there is persecution of Christians, but so was Jesus persecuted, comes with the territory we walk through.
Pat, Liskeard, Cornwall
In the Constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria where I live, the Christian vote is important because they are a large part of the 30% of voters who are organised to vote. Two of the candidates wear their Christian credentials on their sleeves.
A very good article addressing the influence of Christians in politics. We should all be very wary of allowing religion to mix with politics. The religious groups are consistently opposed to most recent steps forward in human rights legislation, particularly in areas promoting the rights of women and gays, and openly contemptuous for the rights of kids. My vote will go to the party that most clearly blocks religious influence on education, and which moves towards the removal of all the special privileges currently given to Christian groups. With a former Archbishop of Canterbury openly asking for special treatment of Christians in the courts, we are moving to a very dangerous place.
William, London UK
"Christians are going to be concerned with how someone comes across, whether they are genuine, what their character is like". That's a characteristics of humans - not Christians!
I'm a Christian and very embarrassed by George Carey and other extremists claiming to speak for me when opposing human rights legislation.
Yikes this all sounds a bit worrying. I would have thought that big tent politics was a good thing rather than multitudinous factions spitting bile at each other. I haven't read the Westminster 2010 Declaration but from what you have published it seems perfectly reasonable and supportable by anyone interested in personal freedoms, not just Christians. Keep Religion out of electoral politics! No Reverends, Mullahs, Popes, Rabbis etc etc running the country. They should be free to engage in debate and by all means exhort their members to support certain behaviours, but please no candidates.
Mike, Milton Keynes, UK
I have emailed a set of 10 questions to each of the candidates in my constituency, ranging from abortion to the war on terror, Christian employment law to overseas aid. So far only the Green Party candidate has replied - so is in with a chance of getting my vote. All responses will be forwarded to members of my congregation. It is time that Christians took greater responsibility for shaping the nature of politics and leadership in this country. After all, we are privileged to be able to worship without restriction and should take our opportunity to vote seriously.
Chris, East Lothian