Debating the existence of a "British Religious Right"

Saturday, 2 February 2013

A report published on Friday by Christian think-tank Theos discusses whether or not what can accurately be described as a "Religious Right" is emerging in Britain. Focusing on the publicity given to various conservative Christian groups and individuals, and their concern about issues such as equal marriage and abortion, it compares them with the well-established and powerful US Religious Right and comes to the conclusion that while there certainly are right-wing Christian organisations and politicians in Britain, the country cannot be described as having a politically influential Religious Right.

The report details a number of reasons why this is the case, including the tendency of British Christians to support progressive economic policies and favour welfare, redistribution of wealth, and social justice; the lack of overlap with the concerns of the US Religious Right (namely gun control, taxation, Israel, evolution, the military); the number of Christians in Britain; and the apolitical stances of Christian groups and leading evangelical figureheads. It calls for a more reasonable approach from both secularists and Christians towards the issue.

"[The report's conclusion] counsels those who have made such accusations [of an emerging British Religious Right] to pay closer attention to the evidence, if they seek to prevent the kind of culture war they claim to wish to avoid; while at the same time counselling those Christians inclined towards a narrowly socially-conservative agenda and defensive narrative of ‘persecution’ to expand both their theological focus and their perspective on what persecution entails."

Since the last election, numerous journalists and bloggers have written about what they see as the growing influence of right-wing Christian individuals and organisations in British politics and society. While many of these articles have been justified and written in response to concerning developments (such as the increase in anti-choice campaigning), what we've also seen is a tone that can tend towards scaremongering and exaggeration of the extent to which these groups represent British Christians, and a lack of understanding of certain Christian beliefs (hence my repeated reminders that "evangelical" is not synonymous with "fundamentalist"). I've written about right-wing Christian organisations on occasion but am hesitant to ascribe too much influence to them, although I do have some concerns.

I think, therefore, that Theos have done a good job of laying out the agendas of some Christian groups that frequently receive publicity - Christian Concern, the Christian Institute, the Christian Legal Centre - and proving that while they may make the news and incur the wrath of left-wing and secular activists, they're not as powerful as people may think - due to lack of support from the established church and lack of significant political influence.

While the report details some really useful information and makes important reading, it would be unwise to completely dismiss the influence and agendas of right-wing groups (the report did point out that the emergence of a British Christian Right would not be impossible, only that it would look very different to its US counterpart). The established church is, on the whole, fairly moderate, but I worry that the influence of right-wing organisations could grow if they are repeatedly seen to be driving debate on issues such as persecution and "family values".

One issue uniting conservative and progressive activists at present is the concern regarding porn, lad's mags, and what has become known as the "sexualisation of childhood". There are subtle differences in the approaches taken by conservative and more feminist campaigns (morals/decency/protecting children vs patriarchy/objectification/inequality). It's concerning when the loudest voices campaigning on an issue often appear to be coming from a paternalistic viewpoint that doesn't analyse all the factors involved.

The Religious Right in Britain may have less power, support, and money than similar groups in the US, but it is still receiving plenty of publicity and positioning itself as the "true Biblical response" to issues, which should be a worry for the rest of us. As the report points out I think it is highly unlikely that too much will be imported from the US (I still find it slightly mystifying that Wayne Grudem promoted his book aligning the Bible with Republican positions on the military, guns, and the environment over here) but that doesn't mean we won't see hardline voices making themselves heard on other issues.

While some organisations are more moderate than the media would have us believe, certain others are more aggressive, and much more belligerent about the groups of people they are "against" or see as a threat to so-called Christian values. It is these groups that claim to represent the faith and can easily influence public perception of what it means to be a Christian.

I believe this presents us with some challenges for the future.

1. A challenge to journalists: right-wing groups must not dominate media narrative on Christian issues

Recent focus on issues such as equal marriage, euthanasia, and "persecution" of Christians in the workplace have meant that newspapers such as the Daily Express, Daily Mail, and Telegraph invariably go to right-wing organisations for comment. These papers would be the first to point out what they might see as the negative influence of supposedly "wacky" churches or individuals (see most coverage of the Alpha Course over the years) but when it comes to "moral" issues, they've been known to give disproportionate column inches to Stephen Green of the fundamentalist Christian Voice group, which holds views so far outside the mainstream and so extreme that it has a minimal number of supporters. I would challenge the media to recognise and value the contributions and more measured approach of moderate and progressive Christian voices. Obviously this makes for less sensational headlines, but in light of the report it would be helpful, as well as more representative of British Christianity.

2. A challenge to Christians: moderate and progressive believers need to make themselves heard

We know that they exist! Thanks to their possession of more "reasonable" viewpoints, they're less likely to cause heated debate, Twitterstorms, and controversy. But they have a great deal to offer. The report showed that British Christians tend towards a progressive stance on social justice and that there is concern for issues that the US Religious Right doesn't touch on, such as poverty alleviation, the environment, and trafficking. Christianity is all too often defined by what - and who - it is against. By growing in confidence and conviction, politically progressive Christians can change this (as long as the media plays ball as per my first point). 

3. A second challenge to Christians: be discerning about the organisations we support

When right-wing groups spearhead seemingly innocuous campaigns (see Not Ashamed) it's important that as Christians, we examine their true agenda in the light of a tendency towards extremism on certain issues and the reality of persecution for Christians worldwide. It's vital that we don't get sucked in to a persecution complex where we view various groups of people and organisations as being "out to get us", when that's just exaggeration. It's vital that we call for Christian organisations to work with integrity (see the controversy surrounding crisis pregnancy centres) and that we don't promote one political party over others as the "correct" choice for a Christian to choose on polling day. When groups and their supporters display bigoted attitudes, we again need to think about what we put out names to.

Discussion elsewhere:


Ian said...

A great piece, but I sense there is a fourth challenge implicit in the 2nd and third. The voice of individuals can only carry so far. The 80's and 90's saw an emergence of 'Christian' political parties. It is clear that there is no appetite for such an approach, and yet the collapse of credibility within the main political parties means we need the space and opportunity for credible moderate voices to be heard, and alternatives to the three organisations you have identified. Sadly far too few churches are interested in promoting issues which might find resonance with these more reasonable thinkers.

J P McKeown said...

Thanks, an interesting article, in past I got impression from news media that Christians are right-wing. But when talking to people at my church I realise it's not so, there is much diversity, including "progressive" thinking among churchgoers.


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