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Political and Religious Identities of British Evangelicals

Political and Religious Identities of British Evangelicals

Andrea Hatcher, author of forthcoming book, was interviewed by Theos about the identity of British Evangelicals in August 2017.

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Evangelicals get a bad press. A brief google search uncovers the negative association our British media outlets have with the ‘Evangelical’ label: Evangelical support for President Trump; Evangelical condemnation of homosexuality; and Evangelical pro–life campaigns. Socially conservative values are associated with the Evangelical community and form the basis of an Evangelical assumption in Britain. 

The suspicion that surrounds Evangelicals in Britain is primarily built on the belief that ‘Evangelicalism’ is a homogenous and universal term, with British characteristics identical to those across the pond. The British media’s emphasis on sexual ethics and Donald Trump conflates American and British evangelicals. Though these two groups have religious similarities there are significant points of political differentiation. 

Recent Research

In 2013 Theos published a report asking Is there a ‘Religious Right’ emerging in Britain?. Andy Walton, in collaboration with Nick Spencer and Andrea Hatcher, questioned the growing assumption that British Evangelicals have the same political marriage as their U.S. counterparts. Though the Religious Right in the U.S. is “entrenched”, Walton argued that “the insinuations of a British Religious Right are erroneous”.[i] There are some socially conservative organisations associated with Evangelicalism in Britain but they are not mobilising vast numbers with the capacity to swing significant votes in favour of a right wing party. Walton shows that though regular church–going Christians have more socially conservative values than the general population, they are more likely to be “left–of–centre” when it came to economic concerns. This means that Evangelicals find themselves at various points across the political party spectrum and leads Walton to conclude that it is better to speak of a “socially conservative bloc of Christians, which transcends party politics”, rather than a Religious Right in Britain.[ii]

Andrea Hatcher’s latest research Political and Religious Identities of British Evangelicals (2017) further explores the nature of political and religious Evangelical identities in the UK. During a one–to–one interview with Theos, Hatcher explained her research methods, objectives and findings. 

Hatcher defines Evangelical Christians beyond self–identification or denominational affiliation, by using David Bebbington’s quadrilateral: Conversionism, an individual being ‘born again’; Activism, an outward expression of the gospel through social action or mission; Biblicism, the centrality of the Bible and its authority; and finally Crucicentrism, redemption through the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross.[iii]

Hatcher interviewed political and religious elites about the characteristics of British Evangelicals, specifically their religious similarities and political differences to Americans. These interviews brought to light the political diversity of British Evangelicalism and the limited desire to mobilise Evangelicals as a political force. However, a study limited to elites does not always fully appreciate the experienced reality of the masses. 

Hatcher’s second phase of qualitative research was a series of focus groups in 10 Evangelical congregations, giving a “good snapshot” of their religious and political identities in Britain.[iv] The congregations were identified and approached through The Evangelical Alliance (EA), a body of over 3500 member churches across 81 denominations. The 10 congregations met sufficiently diverse denominational, demographic and geographic criteria for sampling validity. However, they were arguably biased towards political engagement given the self–selection of participants and congregation’s contact with an EA staff member. In June and July 2014 Hatcher met with a total of 81 individuals in these focus groups (4–12 per group) for between 1.5–2 hours. She began the focus groups with a survey followed by a probing discussion about the groups’ religious and political identities. Her findings confirm the expected difference between Evangelicals in the U.S. and Britain and show a distinct potential for British Evangelicals.

The British Evangelical Identity 

Hatcher said that: “uniformly, British Evangelicals hold their religious identity very strong”.[v]However, this religious identity was predominantly ‘Christian’ rather than ‘Evangelical’, with only 2 out of the 81 participants stating their sole identity as ‘Evangelical’.[vi]

The primary identification of British Evangelicals with ‘Christian’ rather than ‘Evangelical’ distinguishes them from Evangelicals in America. The ‘us and them’ mentality, so prevalent in U.S. Evangelicalism and fueling ongoing culture wars, is not present in Britain. Hatcher said that Evangelicals see themselves as “just part of the mainstream. So they don’t see themselves as a defined group, there’s no boundaries encapsulating or defining Evangelicals against other parts of society”.[vii] She commented that Evangelicals identify themselves as “theologically distinct not culturally set apart” and also found that the term ‘Evangelical’ “carries with it very serious negative connotations”.[viii] Amongst distinctive theological characteristics, such as ‘Bible’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Gospel’, participants listed “less flattering descriptions” such as ‘judgemental’, ‘blinkered’, ‘dogmatic’, and ‘aggressive’ when describing the Evangelical label.[ix]

A Political Identity

Hatcher’s research was prompted by observations that the political identity of British Evangelicals was strikingly different from Evangelicals in America. Evangelicalism in the U.S. is a religious and political force to be reckoned with. The ‘Culture Wars’ began as Evangelicals demanded political space to provide a counter–narrative to progressivism and liberalisation dominating the second half of the 20th century. Evangelicals today make up 25.4% of the population in the U.S. and since 2003 have contributed to at least 23% of the electorate.[x] This gives the Evangelical movement political weight, enough to warrant consideration from politicians and policy makers. Although not all Evangelicals adhere to majority voting habits, there has been “remarkable cohesion in presidential elections” and an infamous “marriage” between the Evangelical community and the Republican Party.[xi]

While American Evangelicals are intimately connected to Republicans, British Evangelicals show no innate party affiliation. Political identification among Hatcher’s participants was spread “across the ideological spectrum” showing British Evangelicals to be non–partisan. 21% of respondents affiliated with the Conservatives; 25% with Labour; 5% with the Liberal Democrats; 1% with UKIP; 4% as Socialist and 31% with no party affiliation.[xii]British Evangelicals show both plurality and high non–affiliation when asked about their political party preferences.

As well as diversity in the political ideologies of British Evangelicals, Hatcher shows that there is no statistical relationship between holding a Conservative party affiliation and levels of religiosity. While in the U.S. theological conservatism is related to political and social conservatism, in Britain there is no evidence for the same relationship.

The reason for non–partisanship is complex and Hatcher offers some contributing factors. The numbers game is one: with British Evangelicals making up about 3–4% of the population, their electoral capital is limited. If British parties sought to compete for the ‘Evangelical vote’ they may do more to ostracise the general population than win over the Evangelicals. This is furthered by the “ideological muddle” of Evangelicals which restricts cohesion as a voting bloc. Another factor is the role of elites: there is “no coalition building” between religious and political elites.[xiii] Political mobilisation of U.S. Evangelicals is facilitated by relationships between pastors and politicians but in Britain, though there are partisan Christian organisations (e.g. Conservative Christian Fellowship and Christians on the Left), church leaders are not quick to support particular parties or candidates. It is decidedly ‘Un–British’ to be preaching politics from the pulpit and this hinders the formation and mobilisation of a distinctive political identity for British Evangelicals.

Key issues for Evangelicals

British politics more broadly has experienced a season of cynicism. Despite this cynicism and the lack of a political identity, British Evangelicals show high levels of political engagement and interest. A social agenda has been present in British Evangelicalism from its 18th century roots. The Clapham Sect, most famous for William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the slave trade, was at the forefront of religious and social reforms and the Evangelical revival. This concern for social reform has continued and issues identified by participants as ‘the most important problem’ had a distinctly ‘social justice’ flavour.

When waging the culture war in the U.S. there are some “standard battles” for the Evangelical movement.[xiv] These include abortion, same–sex marriage and religious freedom in public spaces and in schools, “consistently, those issues are very salient to the American audience”. However, “none of the 81 participants listed any of the standard cultural war issues” when suggesting the “most important issue facing this country”. Instead of the dominant issues in the American culture war narrative, the problems raised by Hatcher’s focus groups were “issues that are firmly grounded in the Social Justice tradition”, such as ‘poverty’, ‘employment’ and income inequality.[xv]

Even debates around human sexuality were not a priority for the British Evangelicals Hatcher interviewed. Though doctrinally it appears Evangelicals continue to hold an orthodox view on marriage and sexuality, this is not translated into the realisation or desire for political mobilisation demanding change. There is, perhaps, defeatism among Evangelicals that the law is settled, as of March 2014, and that nothing can be done to reverse the U.K.’s legal status of same–sex marriage. One respondent concluded that “there’s no going back, you can never turn things back to the way they were”.[xvi] This again is the sentiment of Evangelicals who are a very small minority with limited capability to shift public opinion and swing votes, unlike their U.S. counterparts.

One black–majority church was included among the case studies and the pastor, in particular, was more actively seeking a platform to raise his views on same–sex marriage and homosexuality. He sent an article to a media outlet expressing his perspective and stood out from the rest of the interviewees in his activism and passion for the saliency of this issue. Hatcher gives several reasons for this ‘outlier’, including acknowledging the distinct challenges for church leaders in “navigating a legal system that permits a marriage they do not condone”.[xvii] For the time being, at least, Evangelicals in Britain seem to be predominantly resigned to the legality of same–sex marriage.

Conclusions

Two conclusions emerge from Hatcher’s research. Firstly, British Evangelicals are more integrated into British society than the media might assume. Their numbers are fewer, with around 3% of the British population compared with 25% of the U.S., and their impact on politics is significantly smaller. Though they do hold similar religious characteristics to their American counterparts, the British Evangelicals have a different “public outworking” of their faith. Their political identity is not affiliated with any one party and the salient issues are not motivators for a culture war. The extreme perspectives of Evangelicals in the media hold little weight in reality as Hatcher describes British Evangelicals as clearly “situated within the cultural mainstream”.[xviii] Hatcher recollected a passage describing the identity of God’s people as: “a holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9) and she suggested that American Evangelicals took pride in this peculiarity but Evangelicals in Britain did not.[xix]

Secondly, they have potential. British Evangelicals may not have the numbers that appear so attractive to parties and candidates in the U.S., or the political weight to influence policy debates, but they have a taste for activism. Evangelicals are engaged in civic life and are passionate about socio–economic issues. Their emphasis on social justice issues is universally applicable across the political spectrum and this interest can be harnessed for action at a political and community level. In fact, their lack of distinctive party affiliation could be an asset for engaging with policies across the board and though Evangelicals are not prone to partisanship they are not apathetic in their approach to politics.

The increasingly “muscular – kind of liberalism” that we are experiencing in Britain may underestimate the potential of Evangelicals in politics.[xx] The rise of a liberalism which proposes a single vision of society gives little space for the influence and possible good from those depicted as ‘Other’. The political cohesion of American Evangelicals demarcates them from the rest of society and gives them an ‘Other’ political identity. This identity cannot, or will not, be subsumed into a secular political narrative. Hatcher’s research shows British Evangelicals to be less boundaried, more non–partisan and less focussed on distinctive, culture war issues than the U.S. Religious Right. British Evangelicals are not the same politically “defined group” and this enables British Evangelicals to participate in and influence politics across the political spectrum.[xxi]

The question is will they be allowed to? Will the media release British Evangelicals from the assumptions surrounding Evangelicalism across the pond? Will British society be open to all that Evangelicals can offer? And will British Evangelicals embrace their potential to be a political force for the good that they stand for and believe in, seeking the Kingdom of God and the growth of the Gospel in British society? 

Political and Religious Identities of British Evangelicals (2017) is by Andrea Hatcher.

Imogen Ball is a research assistant at Theos | @imogenadderley

[i] Walton, Andy. Is there a ‘Religious Right’ emerging in Britain?. Theos, 2013: 28, 86

[ii] Hatcher, Andrea. Political and Religious Identities of British Evangelicals. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017: 84–85

[iii] Bebbington, David. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House

[iv] Interview with Andrea Hatcher, June 29, 2017

[v] Ibid

[vi] Hatcher, Political and Religious Identities: 81

[vii] Interview with Hatcher

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Hatcher, Political and Religious Identities: 82

[x] Ibid: 11, 18

[xi] Ibid: 18,19

[xii] Interview with Hatcher

[xiii] Hatcher, Political and Religious Identities: 52–3

[xiv] Ibid: 125–128

[xv] Interview with Hatcher

[xvi] Hatcher, Political and Religious Identities: 133

[xvii] Ibid: 130

[xviii] Interview with Hatcher

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Spencer, Nick. “Tim Farron’s resignation symbolises the decay of liberalism”. New Statesman, June 16, 2017.

[xxi] Interview with Hatcher


Image by Jantanee Runpranomkorn available under licence from shutterstock.com

Imogen Ball

Imogen Ball

Imogen Ball is Research Assistant at Theos | @ImogenAdderley

Posted 15 August 2017

Bible, Britain, Evangelism

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