The term ‘Religious Right’ is something we come across in the media from time to time. Another description might be ‘religious fundamentalism’. It’s a much more common term when referring to US politics and the relationship between mainly evangelical Christians and the Republican party. Here in the UK we don’t tend to see it used much, but when we see articles discussing Christian lobbying against so-called religious persecution or abortion or gay marriage, then you can usually expect it to appear at some point in the press conversation.
Andy Walton’s new report for the Christian think tank, Theos, entitled ‘Is there a ‘Religious Right’ Emerging in Britain? aims to get to the bottom of this and establish whether a Christian religious right in the UK is perceived or real. I suppose the first thing we have to try and establish is what we actually mean when we talk about the Religious Right. Walton describes it as follows:
‘When we speak of the Religious Right we are not referring simply to Christians who happen to be conservative in their politics. The US Religious Right is a coherent movement with identifiable leaders, objectives and influence. Comprising religious and Republican leaders and groups, the Religious Right mobilises adherents to action on issues that relate to their fundamental values. This set of issues has come to make up the battleground on which the so-called ‘culture war’ is fought.’
Walton goes on to explain that although the Religious Right is made up of a variety of religious conservatives, the overwhelming majority identify themselves as Evangelical Protestants. Evangelicals in the US are the biggest religious tradition. They mainly live in the South and are predominantly white. They are most likely to be working or middle class, describe themselves as conservative and vote Republican. The report identifies these issues and values that are of fundamental importance to those who identify themselves as being part of the Religious Right:
- Anti-Homosexual rights
- Pro-military intervention
- Religious freedom
- Anti-big government
The conclusion is that:
‘The Religious Right is not simply socially conservative and Christian. It’s a large-scale, well-organised, well-funded network of groups which has a clear and limited set of policy aims deemed as ‘Christian’, which it seeks to deliver through the vehicle of the Republican Party… When commentators talk of the Religious Right, either the long-standing one in the US or the alleged emergent one in Britain, it is clear that the term is short-hand for a mass movement of Christians that has become a large and influential bloc within a right-wing political party.’
Two things strike me when reading this explanation. One is that the US Religious Right has taken a number of issues, some of which have little or no grounding in the Bible and turned them into ‘Christian’ values. This sits at odds with what many British Christians understand by the term evangelical. The Evangelical Alliance defines ‘evangelical’ as having a passion for the good news of Jesus Christ and also believing that for Christians the Bible is the ultimate authority and governs the way we live our lives and act in our world. Whilst some evangelicals aligned to the Religious Right in the US might agree with this statement, the evidence suggests that political agendas have become as much a part of their theology as biblical teaching has. Steve Clifford, General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, makes this observation in the report:
“If you were to take most [British] evangelicals, and transport them across the Pond, I think the vast majority of us would be viewed as ‘left-wing’ in our political allegiance… When I speak to my friends from North America and reflect some of the views that would be mainstream within evangelicalism in Britain, they at times shake their heads because they can’t quite believe that there are evangelical Christians that hold those views within a European setting.”
The second is that the Religious Right aims to use the Republican party to advance its aims in a way that no Christian group does in the UK. Certainly Christian groups do lobby MPs on a variety of issues, however there is no obvious desire by any Christian group to use one political party to further their religious and political goals. Evangelical Christian MPs can be found in all of the main political parties and the fact that no denomination or high-profile Christian leader in the UK has publicly aligned themselves to one political party and encouraged their congregation or followers to do the same, shows that the Christians in the UK approach politics in a very different way to many in the US.
This should be enough evidence in itself to suggest that talk of a Religious Right in the UK that has any influence or credibility is misplaced. The only place where this term is used seriously in the UK is in the press. Despite Walton going on in his report to find that there is very little evidence of a Religious Right in any form in the UK, the Guardian’s article discussing his findings draws the opposite conclusion proclaiming ‘Britain’s religious right is on the rise’. This is either down to a misreading of the report or sensationalist journalism. Either way it highlights the ability of the press to attempt to talk something into existence and create a narrative that is misguided at best and divisive and destructive at worst.
In the report Walton studies a number of Christian organisations that could potentially be described as being part of a Religious Right movement. In some cases he interviews their leaders attempting to clarify whether their ethos and motivation can be linked either directly or indirectly to the Religious Right in the US. Of those groups mentioned only Christian Concern, The Christian Institute and Christian Voice could potentially be described as being on the Religious Right. Both Christian Concern and the Christian Institute have supported high-profile legal cases revolving around freedom of belief. They tend to focus on issues such as perceived Christian persecution, abortion, gay rights and marriage and have been heavily involved in the Coalition for Marriage petition. Despite these similarities it still takes a jump in association to compare them to anything approaching the US Religious Right and there is no evidence to suggest they are becoming a galvanising movement. In fact their influence within parliament and in churches is very limited and they are just as likely to receive criticism from evangelicals and other Christians because of their campaigning tactics as they are support.
Christian Voice, which is considered the closest to what we might describe as the Christian Right of those groups mentioned in the report is dismissed as having no standing within the Christian community and lacking in credibility with only a few hundred supporters. It is only because the media has latched on to some of its outlandish activities and claims that it has gained any profile at all.
Instead of finding anything of significance that could be labelled as the Religious Right in this country, Walton ends the report by giving a number of reasons why British Christians are averse to such a concept. These include the established Church of England, the historically left-of-centre allegiance of British Catholics and religious broadcasting through the BBC which tends to exclude those with more extreme views. Even if a Religious Right were on the rise it would take some seismic shifts to see them gain a level of influence that could be equated to that of the US.
The report, rather than bringing any sort of fear instead is reassuring. It confirms that there is still a gulf between the UK and US when it comes to faith and politics. It suggests that British Christians are much more considerate and dare I say it, biblically grounded than those in the US who would place themselves on the Religious Right. The on-going challenge British Christians face is to counter press stories that portray Christians inaccurately. Just because you may oppose abortion or gay marriage doesn’t in itself make you a fundamentalist with extreme religious views. The other is to be more proactive in getting the message over explaining the way churches, Christian individuals and groups are working hard, often behind the scenes to change their communities for the better. The point is not self-promotion in an opportunistic way in order to advance a political agenda, but rather being faithful to Jesus’ call to share the gospel.
We might look at the Religious Right in the US with a mixture of bewilderment and distaste, but the danger for the church in this country is that it goes the opposite way being too accommodating of secular agendas and just getting on with its business behind closed doors. The church has a place in society and a voice that needs to make itself heard. Challenging the failures of our culture and speaking out a message of grace and hope is something Christians shouldn’t be afraid to do as long as they are careful not to attribute political beliefs to God that cannot be justified.