Sunday, February 03, 2013

Is there a ‘Religious Right’ Emerging in Britain? My perspective

Andy Walton’s recently published thesis on the UK’s Religious Right is both thoughtful and well-researched. He concludes that there isn’t a Religious Right – at least not one that remotely resembles that in the USA. Reflecting back on my own life, I would only half agree with him.

I grew up deep in the Tory Shires. The local village churches which I attended as a child and teenager were the absolute epitome of the “Tory Party at Prayer”. Indeed, it was reading the Sermon on the Mount as a teenager that forced me to question whether their politics squared with their religion.

At university in Birmingham, things were very different. People wore jeans to church and we’d head for a curry after an evening service. If my university Christian friends had been representative of the nation at large then the Liberal Democrats would have won the 1997 election by a landslide. I knew nobody who openly admitted to voting Tory. I got the impression back then that Christians saw voting Liberal Democrat as the equivalent to voting Labour but with the added advantage that they were morally untarnished by power (how times have changed!). That being said, I never felt disapproved of for being in the Labour Party per se. It was more a case of seeing politics as a worldly activity that distracted from the real work of the Kingdom.

At Keele University I encountered two very different groups: liberal Christians who were instinctively leftwing and conservative Christians who had been influenced by the US Religious Right. I seemed to spend my life arguing doctrine with the first group and politics with the second group! But even within the second group, things weren’t always as they seemed. One friend married a woman from a missionary family who hailed from Kansas. She was a qualified nurse and after she married she worked for many years in the NHS. Whilst she gave indication of being conservative, as a Wesleyan, she couldn’t buy wholesale into the agenda of the US Religious Right.

I spent a year in Bristol where I attended a Baptist Church. Whilst it was a very traditional church in many ways, it served a multicultural area of deep deprivation. It was about as far away from the “Tory Party at Prayer” of my childhood that it was possible to get. If there was one political issue the pastor was passionate about it was racial equality. He would have made an important ally in Anti-BNP campaigning. At a time when the Tory Party were dog whistling on immigration, I doubt his sermons would have moved people to the right politically.

I had a friend at that time who was a Christian and a member of the Tory Party. He invited me to a meeting of the then fledgling Christian Institute. This was my first encounter with anything resembling an organised Religious Right. At that meeting I asked what the Christian Institute’s policy on immigration was. Immigration was a central plank of the Tory’s 2001 manifesto and the bible takes a very unambiguous view on the issue. They replied that they did not have a view on immigration because they did not want to duplicate the work of other Christian organisations. I always remembered this when, years later, they started developing a database of MPs assessing them on how they had voted on what, even they would admit, is a very narrow political agenda. Needless to say, Anne Widdecombe came out very well on this database while the obviously deeply devout Christian, Stephen Timms, didn’t.

Oddly, it was only when I found myself deep in Copeland’s Labour heartlands that I began to see the Religious Right really take a foothold in the Church. At meeting after meeting of the Parochial Church Council, we would get updates from the Christian Institute and we were frequently encouraged to sign petitions. This, in a congregation which produced two key Labour Party activists (including the current CLP Chair), several more party members and vast numbers of tribal Labour voters. Perhaps this was Blue Labour in all its glory, or perhaps churches are more complex places than we give them credit for. Church leaders wield tremendous influence over their flock, but churches are not bloc votes – and shouldn’t be seen that way. Equally, one awkward fact that the media always ignores is that those “nice” Christians who run foodbanks, debt counselling services and campaign against traffiking and those “horrid” Christians who sign petitions against Same Sex Marriage are often the same people.

I wish I had known back then just how bipartisan the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum and the Christian Socialist Movement are in the way they work together. At one joint event, Baroness Berridge – of all people – stood up and said that if you were a Christian and had voted Labour at the 2010 election you should join the Christian Socialist Movement. Such a statement would be utterly inconceivable coming from a member of the US Religious Right. Moreover, the CCF have done themselves great credit in distancing themselves from some of the more unsavoury campaigns coming from hardline Christian groups.

And while a trustee of high-profile conservative evangelical church, St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, Michael Farmer, is also a leading donor to the Conservative Party, it is hard to know in that context whether that is evidence of the “Religious Right” or the “Tory Party at Prayer”. In many parts of the Home Counties and London, in congregations full of wealthy and successful people, it is often hard to tell the difference and it is hard to escape the words of John Kenneth Galbraith that:

“the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

In my Cumbrian parish, in contrast, the “Religious Right” stood out like a sore thumb – and, in that sense, caused more havoc by appearing to encourage poor Christians to vote against their economic self-interest.

So, what I have learnt on my journey is that, yes there is a Religious Right which is hugely influential in some circles on issues of human sexuality, religious freedom and abortion. However, the vast majority of British Evangelicals that I have met are leftwing on economic issues – and this is borne out by Andy Walton’s research. But both the Religious Right and the Secular Left make the mistake of polarizing things and grossly exaggerating the importance of the “Culture Wars” in ordinary people’s lives. The people who suffer most from this are ordinary working class religious folk who, too often find themselves guilt-tripped into voting against their economic interests. It breaks my heart to see West Virginian coal miners used as pawns in the political games of the Republican Party as they were when they appeared in a Mitt Romney speech having been forced by their employer to take a day of unpaid leave. Please don’t let us do the same to British workers.

Rachel Burgin


Andy said...

Hi Rachel,

thanks for engaging with the research and taking the time to write about it. I really value your input and the wide variety of experience you bring to this question.

Why only quibble would be that in the report we specify what we mean by Religious Right. Two of the key indicators are 'access to power' and 'mono-party affiliation'. In your description, simply showing support for the Christian Institute wouldn't be enough to qualify. The people in the West Cumbrian parish who supported the CI had no access to power and as you say, were likely Labour voters anyway.

I think this is such an interesting area, worthy of further research. Glad you're getting involved.



Rachel said...

Thanks for your response, Andy. It's hard in a blogpost to offer a comprehensive critique of such a lengthy-and well-researched thesis. I simply wanted to reflect on my experiences and how it informed my reading of it.

You are right that the CI struggles to have access to power, however many many Christians are hugely influenced by their campaigns.

There is much more to say - and that can be said. There is material for many more blogposts.