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Is there a Religious Right emerging in Britain?

Is there a Religious Right emerging in Britain?

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Tonight, Dispatches explores how fundamentalist Christians are trying to transform society ... Drawing inspiration from the Religious Right in America, Britain’s hard-line Christians are mounting fierce campaigns around a range of issues ... Christian fundamentalists could just be beginning to exercise their power.

So began a prime-time Channel Four documentary in May 2008. The programme followed Andrea Minichiello Williams (then part of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, now of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre) and Stephen Green of Christian Voice, observing their meetings, campaigning, and lobbying activity. It argued, in the words of film-maker David Modell that Christian groups had “borrowed the tactics of America’s religious Right in ... attempts to affect policy.”[1] The message was clear: be afraid – be very afraid.

Modell is not alone. Articles talking about the emergence of a US-style religious right in Britain have appeared in The Independent, Independent on Sunday,[2] The Guardian,[3] The Observer,[4] the New Statesman,[5]The Times[6], and the Daily Telegraph[7] over recent years. Not all have been as certain or alarmist as Channel 4’s Dispatches but the overall message seems to be that just as the UK has followed where US has led politically (a more presidential style of government, the establishment of ‘primary’ elections for selection in some parliamentary constituencies, the televised debate), so we are also following them theo-politically. The Religious Right, the single ugliest and most belligerent feature to blight the US political landscape over the last 40 years, so the voiceover goes, is coming to a constituency near you. And we should all be scared.

***

Is it? And should we? Over the last year or so, the authors of this article have been preparing a report, together with Andrea Hatcher, a US-based scholar, on whether there is indeed a US-style Religious Right emerging in Britain. Nick Spencer has trawled through quantitative data sets to ascertain, in as far as is possible, what are the political views of committed Christians/ religious believers, while Andy Walton has interviewed most of the individuals and organisations accused of being part of this nascent movement. And our answer is… well, let’s get a few preliminaries out of the way first.

The key question (read: accusation) is not whether there are Christians (or any religious people) on the right of the political spectrum. Everyone recognises there are, just as there are Christians on the left and atheists on both sides. Nor is it whether there are organising bodies through which the right-wing religious campaign. Again, everyone recognises that there are, just as there are organisations for left-wing Christians (the Christian Socialist Movement), left wing atheists (Labour Humanists) and liberal atheists (Humanist and Secular Liberal Democrats).

Nor is it a problem that such bodies campaign and lobby. CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), one of the Christian organisations that have been accused of being part of a nascent Religious Right, lobbies on marriage and family life, in the same way as it does on prostitution and human trafficking. In much the same way, the British Humanist Association lobbies on assisted dying, equality legislation and faith schools. Organised political activity is not a sinister activity conducted only by a handful of shadowy organisations: it is the bread and butter of a democratic society.

Nor (finally) is it a problem that such organisations have access to parliament or are affiliated to bodies within parliament. A number of MPs and peers belong to the Conservative Christian Fellowship, just as others belong to the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. The British Humanist Association boasts of having “monthly meetings with the senior civil servant responsible for CLG’s work on religion or belief”, and of having MPs table Early Day Motions in support of humanist policies “ranging from collective worship in schools to humanist marriages.”[8] None of this is controversial or suspect. A free democratic society not only permits citizens to vote, organise, campaign, lobby, and stand for what they believe is right. It needs them to do so.

What is in question is the specific issue, raised by so many media commentators, that there is a US-style Religious Right either existing or emerging in the UK. The US-style Religious Right is a specific thing, not a cipher for general activity carried out towards the right of the political spectrum by religious believers. Specifically, it is a large-scale, co-ordinated movement of reasonably well-funded religious groups (predominantly Christian) which have a clear and limited set of policy aims that they understand as ‘Christian’ and which they seek to deliver through the vehicle of the Republican Party.

Each of these elements is important. Size, funding and organisation are relevant because otherwise few people would judge the Religious Right to be as important as it apparently is. Religious identity is relevant because it signifies a movement whose logic is (apparently) Christian and therefore, in some ways, exclusive. A clear and limited set of policy aims – pro-life, anti-homosexual rights, pro-Israel, pro-military intervention, pro-religious freedom, anti-evolution, and anti-big government – is relevant because most of these are judged as litmus issues: vote the wrong way on them and your soundness is questionable. Finally, affiliation to a particular political party is relevant, indeed essential, because what distinguishes the US-style Religious Right from many other religious movements is not simply that it is politically activist but that its activism has become wedded to a particular political programme. Indeed some Republican leaders, such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, were hailed by the Religious Right in a quasi-messianic way, in much the same way as some on the secular left greeted Barack Obama’s election in 2008. The US Religious Right is Religious and it is Right, and for the UK to be developing a similar movement it would need to reflect similar characteristics.

***

The theo-political landscape in Britain is undoubtedly changing. You do not have to be a newshound to realise that there is growing evidence of greater presence, funding and co-ordination among Christian groups with a strong socially-conservative commitment, about which they are vocal and often willing to resort to legal action. The explanation for this differs according to who you ask.

The groups themselves will say that orthodox Christians are coming under ever greater pressure to leave their beliefs at the door. Those who are socially-conservative, particularly on issues of human sexuality, and those who wish to express their faith in public – whether by wearing religious symbols, protecting time for religious observance, or avoiding certain roles and responsibilities they deem incompatible with their faith – are increasingly finding themselves excluded or bullied. Put bluntly, they say, religious freedom is coming under threat.

Those who oppose them, by contrast, say that these people want to have their cake and eat it, seeking privilege when none is due to them. They point out that no-one forces Christians to work as registrars or to open bed-and-breakfasts, that no-one should be able to choose which part of the equality agenda they adhere to and which they don’t, and that it is entirely within an employer’s rights to dictate their uniform policy. Put bluntly, they say, (genuine) human equality is coming under threat.

Such disagreements about motivations and justifications do not change the basic fact, widely recognised, that (some) Christians are more vocal and more litigious in their pursuit of what might be generally called a socially-conservative agenda, in particular relating to human sexuality, marriage, family life, and religious freedom. As all these issues are high on the priority list of the US Religious Right it is easy, therefore, to see why Modell and others reach for that analogy when trying to describe the changing theo-political landscape in Britain.

***

Closer investigation, however, shows up some substantial and significant differences which render the parallel rather less convincing.

The first and most obvious is the political vehicle or, rather, lack of it in Britain. Leaders of the US Religious Right have found ready access to the pinnacles of power in America and during the Reagan and George W. Bush years the White House door was left on the latch for them.

By contrast, the big scoop in Modell’s Channel 4 film was a clip of Andrea Williams asking Lord Tebbit to put down an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to lower the time limit at which abortion is legal. Even if Williams was indeed successful in this (we found no evidence that Tebbit did table the amendment) this is hardly Pat Robertson in the White House stuff. Christian Concern’s links with Lord Tebbit and MPs like Nadine Dorries do show that the group has some influence and access but to read from them the existence, or even potential for a US-style Religious Right seems to be loading the evidence with more than it can comfortably bear.

It is not simply that the alleged UK Religious Right lacks the political clout of its transatlantic model, however. Rather, it is that the comparable right-wing party in Britain is nothing like as wedded to these socially-conservative issues as is the Republican Party in the US. Indeed, ironically, it is a Conservative-led coalition that is driving through the legislation for gay marriage, which has become such a powerful rallying point to those accused to being part of the UK Religious Right.

It is hardly a secret that there is much disquiet about this in Conservative ranks, both within Westminster and in constituencies, and that there are many Tories who disagree with their party’s stance on the policy, not to mention the manner in which it is being forced through without having been in any party manifesto or coalition agreement. Nevertheless, the key point remains: the Conservative party is divided on this issue – as it is on other key Religious Right issues, such as abortion and euthanasia, where it refuses to put up an official position. In other words, those social conservative issues that symbolise the union of conservative Christians and the Republican Party in the US, and which serve as powerful rallying cries to the Religious Right, simply do not have the same purchase in the UK, even within the party where they theoretically should.

***

There is another, equally important distinction to be made between the UK and US religious scenes. There are a number of obvious differences in issues and emphases between the alleged UK and US Religious Rights. Israel is a huge issue in America but insignificant in the UK. Evolution is equally important in the US and although it is growing among British Christians, it has nothing of its totemic status. Military intervention is a third area that is far more likely to be found and supported among US Christians than British ones.

However, the most fundamental difference lies in the respective attitudes to government. Small government is an article of faith among Republicans, as core to the Religious Right as is abortion.[9] In the UK, by contrast, British Christians (meaning committed and churchgoing rather than nominal ones) are disproportionately left-of-centre when it comes to economic issues.

In early 2012, the think tank Demos produced a report entitled Faithful Citizens, which concluded that British people of faith are, “more likely to hold progressive political values on a number of important political and economic questions at the heart of twenty-first-century policy.”[10] The annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey confirms this. According to BSA 2009, 43% of frequent religious observers either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well off.”[11] This was in contrast with 38% of those who said they had no religion and 36% of the general population.

Similarly, when asked whether they thought it was “the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes”, 67% the “religious and frequent attendance” group agreed, compared with 62% of the no religion group. Other examples could be chosen, such as the 58% of frequent religious observers who agreed that “the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements,” compared with 33% of the non-religious.[12] Whatever the precise statistics, it seems like those who would most naturally form the core of a UK Religious Right, committed believers, would not naturally share its economic views. Any putative UK Religious Right is unlikely to be especially Right.

***

The reasons for these differences and the more general differences between UK and US theo-political scenes are numerous.

Some, such as the size of respective religious constituencies and the consequent significance of religiosity in public discourse, are obvious. When asked by the Pew Forum in 2008 which factor influenced their political decision-making the most, 27% of weekly worshippers in the US cited their faith.[13] The 2009 BSA survey revealed that only 9% of British people with a religious affiliation said religion was “very important” in making decisions on political issues.[14] The UK not only has a much smaller religious constituency than the US, but within it, a smaller proportion of believers see faith as a direct influence on their political behaviour.[15]

Other reasons are subtler. An important one pertains to the historically left-of-centre allegiance of British Catholics. In the US, the Religious Right emerged as a power-bloc when evangelicals and Catholics overcame their historic mutual suspicion and came together as co-belligerents in the late 1970s. Although there has been respectful dialogue and co-operation between British Catholics and Protestants for around a century, the two groups have long exhibited, and still do, different economic loyalties.

Whereas Anglicans (“the Tory Party at prayer”) and some non-conformists were historically economically right-of-centre, British Catholics, largely because the majority came from immigrant stock and were therefore of lower social-grades, found in Trades Unionism and the Labour Party their natural political home. There are some indications that this might be changing; that, as class declines as a political and economic determinant within British society, so it informs Catholic affiliation today rather less than it once did. In other words, tomorrow’s Catholics may less likely to have a Labour allegiance in their genes than their parents, let alone grandparents. If this does happen, it could refashion the theo-political landscape significantly. However, until it does the emergence of a US-style Religious Right in the UK faces a(nother) significant obstacle.

Another reason for the transatlantic difference lies in the respective Christian landscapes. The US Religious Right was lead and shaped by figures such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson, people who were, ecclesiastically speaking, their own bosses. British Christianity, by contrast, is still shaped and dominated by two established churches. This not only makes such politically-freighted pastorpreneurship (as it has been called) much more difficult – fewer pastors can just take their flocks with them to their chosen political land – but it also makes the ‘persecution-by-being-ignored’ narrative somewhat harder to justify, when there are 26 bishops sitting in the House of Lords and the Archbishop of Canterbury is among the most respected figures in the land.

On that note, and writing for this magazine, mention must be made of the role of the most influential evangelical in the UK during the latter half of the 20th century, John Stott. Stott’s ministry engaged constantly with moral, social and political issues and he worked tirelessly to overcome the sacred-secular divide. But he never pretended that some issues (e.g. human sexuality) were naturally more important than others (e.g. creation care), or endorsed a specific party, let alone attempted to convince those loyal to his teaching that they should vote for that party. Those who could be seen as assuming his mantle today, such as Tom Wright or Nicky Gumbel, have followed suit.

A final reason lies in the respective media landscapes. Whereas since deregulation in 1990, a number of Christian companies have begun broadcasting in the UK, their activity pales into insignificance when compared to the 1,500+ Christian radio and TV stations in the US.[16] While the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson built huge followings and launched their (unsuccessful) electoral careers by broadcasting to millions of Americans, there is no-one who fits this bill in the UK. The sector is too small, as is the potential audience of Christians.

***

None of this should be read as an excuse for complacency. It is certainly possible that a US-style Religious Right could emerge at some point in the 21st century Britain. However, the evidence to date suggests, firstly, that one does not currently exist; secondly, that the only signs that one is emerging are limited and contentious; and lastly, that if one did it would look rather different from the US one, i.e. it would not be a US-style Religious Right.

All of which makes the programmes and articles with which we began a little alarming in themselves. While it is obvious why terms such as ‘Religious Right’ are used by commentators – they are useful shorthand – they are worryingly inaccurate. Repeatedly labelling a phenomenon incorrectly in this way risks the accusation that you are playing the man rather than the ball. Rather than confront the arguments of social conservatives, you merely label them as part of a sinister Religious Right movement, dispensing with the need to justify your case. That way lies the demise of serious public discourse.

Perhaps worse, mislabelling in this way risks provoking the very thing that you claim to want to avoid. Calling socially-conservative religious groups a nascent Religious Right may turn them into one, and this (we believe) would be deleterious. British politics would not benefit from the kind of religiously-tinged partisan nature of US politics and, perhaps more importantly, British Christianity would suffer greatly from being hitched to any particular party or narrow political agenda. Sex and taxes may feature in the New Testament, but the gospel is bigger than both.


Nick Spencer is Research Director of Theos | @theosnick

Andy Walton is a writer and broadcaster, andworks for the Contextual Theology Centre in east London.


[1] David Modell, ‘Christian fundamentalists fighting spiritual battle in Parliament’, Daily Telegraph, 17 May 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1975933/Christian-fundamentalists-fighting-spiritual-battle-in-Parliament.html accessed 10 June 2012

[2] Jane Merrick and Brian Brady, ‘Exclusive: right-wing group pays for Commons researchers’, The Independent on Sunday, 30 March 2012, http://web.archive.org/web/20091124091518/http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/exclusive-rightwing-christian-group-pays-for-commons-researchers-802607.html accessed 10 June 2008

[3] Ben Quinn, ‘Pro-choice activists rally for abortion providers to keep counselling role’, The Guardian, 9 July 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/09/pro-choice-protesters-abortion-rights-rally?INTCMP=SRCH accessed 10 June 2012 (The use of the word “resurgent” implied a previous incarnation of the Religious Right in the UK, but it is not made clear what or when this may have been.)

[4] Jamie Doward and Gaby Hinsliff, ‘Who would Jesus vote for? (Christians are on a mission to tell us,’ The Observer, 20 March 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/mar/20/religion.world?INTCMP=SRCH accessed 10 June 2012

[5] Claire Anderson, ‘Your conscience or my rights?’, New Statesman website, 17 January 2007, http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/campus-radicals/2007/01/religious-gay-rights-equality accessed 10 June 2012

[6] Tom Baldwin, ‘Religious right encroaches on Tory party despite Cameron’s stance’, The Times, 21 November 2009, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/faith/article2100835.ece accessed 10 June 2012

[7] Melissa Kite, and Patrick Hennessy, ‘Davis defies religious Right and vows to fight on popular platform’, The Sunday Telegraph, 2 October 2005, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1499719/Davis-defies-religious-Right-and-vows-to-fight-on-popular-platform.html accessed 10 June 2012

[8] See BHA Annual Reports for 2009 and 2010 for further details.

[9] This, as many have pointed out, may be construed as something of a contradiction: I want government out of my face in some – economic – issues but to get busy with the legislative pen on other – social – ones.

[10] Faithful Citizens, Demos, 2012, http://www.demos.co.uk/files/Faithful_citizens_-_web.pdf?1333839181 accessed 7 July 2012 p. 17

[13] Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008, http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf accessed 27 June 2012 p.78.

[14] British Social Attitudes Survey 2009, ‘How important is religion to you in making decisions on political issues, if at all?’ http://www.britsocat.com/Body.aspx?AddMap=RelDec2&control=BritsocatMarginals&AddSeries=12&JumpCrossMarginals=yes accessed 27 June 2012

[15] Of course, the influence of the Religious Right on this figure itself is open to discussion.

[16] Stephen Bates, God's Own Country (Hodder and Stoughton, 2007) p. 6.


Image by Theos.

 

Posted 30 January 2013

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