Monday, 11 February 2013

The myth of the British religious right

Modern Britain is a secular country in which religious doctrines have little influence on public policy.  In the last few years, however, some parts of the media have begun talking about the existence of a British "religious right".  A new report from the think-tank Theos examines this alleged threat of theocratic extremism in British society and concludes that it is largely bollocks.  It seems to have been created mostly by journalists in search of sensationalist copy.

The "British religious right" narrative seems to date from around 2005.  The comparison is, of course, with the American religious right - which certainly does exist.  But the comparison is absurd on the face of it.  The American religious right has real power over public policy on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia, extending all the way up to the US Congress and the Supreme Court.  The British religious right couldn't even persuade the Westminster Magistrates to prosecute Jerry Springer: The Opera.  The American religious right has been able to make and break Presidents.  The British religious right is on good terms with Nadine Dorries.

The truth is that there exists a network of faith-based campaign groups which have connections with each other and with the world of Conservative politics.  They include the Christian Institute, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), Christian Concern for our Nation, the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, the Christian Legal Centre, the Christian Medical Fellowship and the Family Education Trust (Family & Youth Concern).  Most of them stand in the Evangelical Protestant tradition (there is a separate collection of organisations for Catholics).  These groups certainly exist, and they would certainly like to influence Government policy.  What is much less plausible is the idea that they are succeeding in doing so.  To the contrary, they are generally regarded as a bit of a joke.  To take one example, the Christian Institute has lost nearly all the court cases which it has brought to challenge alleged anti-Christian discrimination, and at one point the Anglican Bishop of Leeds felt moved to issue an apology for its antics on behalf of Christianity.  At the present time, the "religious right" groups are failing miserably to stop same-sex marriage from being enacted - the legislation passed its second reading in the Commons last week with a stunning majority of 400 to 175.

It is worth noting that the more "religious" - and "American" - the groups are, the less likely they are to wield any influence.  The best known exemplar of the British religious right, Stephen Green of "Christian Voice", is a media favourite because he is a fertile source of extremist nonsense (supporting the reintroduction of Old Testament laws, for example).  But he is regarded as a marginal figure even by other conservative Evangelicals, let alone by mainstream politicians.

There are several reasons why Britain has no real "religious right":
  1. Brits aren't religious.  We don't really do God.  Surveys and the census show that around 50-60% of us are prepared to describe ourselves as Christian, but this is overwhelmingly a cultural rather than a religious affiliation.  Most "Christians" in the UK don't practise the Christian religion in any active way, except perhaps if they're trying to get their kids into the local church school.
  2. British Christianity has no strong tradition of political activism.  Brits are much less likely than Americans to see a connection between their spiritual beliefs and their political allegiance.  Evangelical leaders like John Stott, Nicky Gumbel and N.T.Wright have had little to say about politics.  Catholic bishops have actively steered clear of sticking their necks out on political issues until very recently.
  3. The Conservative Party has kept "religious right" groups at a distance.  The contrast with the Republican Party in the US is striking.  True, there is a Conservative Christian Fellowship with official backing, but it is a relatively moderate outfit which is anxious to distance itself from the likes of Stephen Green.  Plus, there is also an explicitly atheist Conservative Humanist Association, along with competing religious organisations in other parties, notably Labour's venerable Christian Socialist Movement.
  4. The "religious right" is not really "right".  Practising Christians in Britain tend to be socially conservative on issues such as gay marriage, but on other issues they are more likely than average to be left-wing.  This is particularly the case with Catholics, who have historically tended to be working-class Labour voters.  By contrast, the American religious right is not renowned for its support for redistributive economic policies or the welfare state.
In some cases, journalists who report on the "religious right" don't even seem to have done their basic research.  For example, the "religious right" narrative was aired in an edition of Dispatches broadcast in May 2008.  The most damning scene in the programme showed Lord Tebbit apparently agreeing to table an amendment to a bill relating to abortion at the request of a lobbyist from Christian Concern.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to check whether Tebbit actually tabled the amendment, and in fact it turns out that he didn't.

Talk of a "religious right" tends to come from secular commentators, but the Theos report points out that the narrative risks playing into the hands of the very people who would like there to be an American-style religious right in Britain.  Sometimes overestimating an opponent is as dangerous as underestimating them.