Is there a religious right emerging in Britain?

religious-right-flagBefore the US election last autumn several high profile Christian leaders offered their support for the Republican party and I wrote about it. Billy Graham said everything he possibly could short of endorsing Mitt Romney and Wayne Grudem produced a crib sheet comparing party A to party B – there were no prizes for guessing which was which and who a good Christian would vote for.

Taken against the previous 40 years of American politics such interventions are not unusual or unexpected: a cohesive bloc of voters encompassing both evangelicals and Catholics has disproportionately sided with the Republican Party. The political theology behind this is questioned, and rejected by a large minority of evangelicals in the US but the trend still exists, in contrast such a move is currently unthinkable in a British context.

Religious right front coverOr is it? That’s the question at the heart of a new Theos report out today. Because something in Britain has been labelled as the religious right by journalists, commentators and even an Anglican bishop. The activities of Christian groups have been investigated and ‘exposed’ to show the apparent dangerous power of right wing religious lobby groups. Most memorably this took the form of a dispatches documentary in 2008 but perhaps most graphically illustrated through an organogram which accompanying Ben Quinn’s article in 2011.

Andy Walton’s research draws a helpful distinction between Christians with socially conservative values and a religious right. The report develops a criteria for measuring this but at simplified level equates to a clear cohesion of different groups centred around specific policy aims and political affiliation and having the size and influence to leverage political action. This is evident in the US, although perhaps not as stark now as in the mid 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America which saw considerable mid term gains in 1994. A movement of this nature is not in existence in the UK, although some of the social conservative policy goals are similar to across the Atlantic.

A more pertinent question than whether a religious right exists is whether one is emerging, or could come to exist. Taking appropriate caution the report does not completely rule out the development of such a trend but considers it unlikely. Three areas of difference back up this argument: size, policy focus and political affiliation. Firstly, the UK religious population is far smaller than the US, the number of evangelical and Catholic voters make up a far smaller percentage of the population and therefore there is less political power to leverage.

Secondly, evangelical organisations that engage in lobbying do so on a far broader range of topics than those characterised as ‘right-wing’, these include adoption, alcohol and aid. Issues around sexual ethics and abortion do feature, but not to the exclusion of other policy goals, and have not become the touchstone for evangelical engagement. Research from the Evangelical Alliance showed the diversity of issues Christians contacted their MPs about (page 12 of this research booklet).

Finally, and perhaps related to the previous point, evangelical Christians in the UK support political parties along broadly the same lines as the wider population. While they are more socially conservative than average they are also more likely to support traditionally left-wing economic policies (see page 11 of this booklet). There is also minimal evidence of key Christian leaders encouraging their congregations or supporters to vote for or against certain parties or candidates. One point that is relevant here which is not noted in the report is the role of charitable status: a church could not retain its charitable status and support one party or candidate over another. While this should not be the principle reason for remaining a(party) political, it could be a factor which discourages campaigning organisations from taking this position.

The report shows good reasons why the UK has not seen the development of a religious right along the lines of the US and offers strong evidence for why the development of such is unlikely. But the question that recurred earlier this week at a discussion around the report was whether the definition had been drawn too narrowly and even the US religious right would fail to meet the criteria. The defence offered was that when the comparison is used it is used to suggest a certain thing, and certainly not a good thing, is happening within UK politics, and the report strives to point out this is not the case. But something is happening, several commentators suggested that the way Christian groups engage has changed and become more sophisticated and the current focus on government plans to introduce same-sex marriage perhaps invite the US comparison.

If something is emerging that represents a new turn in Christian political engagement in the UK then it is definitely different to what occurred in the US over the past 40 years. The challenge for commentators, researchers and Christian organisations is to identify what it is and discuss it without recourse to simplistic comparisons. It is also incumbent upon Christian organisations involved in political activity to understand the direction they might be travelling in and the potential consequences both of such a shift and the perceptions of this move.

As the report makes clear, organised political activity, or lobbying to give it its sometimes more grubby title which I’ve defended before, is a legitimate part of our democratic system. It shouldn’t be pejoratively labelled just because you might disagree with the goals. At the same time, perhaps there is a space for Christians to imagine a better way of engaging in politics: one that is more akin to playing on the pitch than shouting from the sidelines.

Britain sprints for the line

We did it.

Yes it was the athletes with their astonishing acts of human endeavour. It was the stories of triumph over adversity. It was the legion of volunteer Gamesmakers who sacrificed time to ensure everything ran smoothly. It was the staff, even the G4S security staff, and the armed forces who as so often stepped into the breach. It was the politicians who aimed high: Tony Blair, Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, Lord Coe. But it was also something more collective than all that.

We did it. Whether we were spectators in the park, or on our screens. Whether we shone with pride at the wraparound covers on each day’s Times newspaper, or nearly broke down in tears as the final act was played out last night. Great Briton dipped for the line and took the crown.

But it didn’t have to happen this way. There was no guarantee that putting thousands of elite athletes in a corner of East London would provoke such collective euphoria. We could have failed, we could have gambled high and became the laughing stock of the world. We could have been so overcome with cynicism that no matter the achievements on the track we would resent the imposition on our lives. The transport delays, the hiked up prices, the tourists crowding every corner of the place we call home. We even had a sitcom in Twenty Twelve to parody how it would turn out, ready to give us a reference point and a cultural validator when it failed to live up to the hype.

Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony got this perfect. Out of the chaos and melee of ideas, hopes and dreams, emerged something which summed us up. It was self-deprecating in its treatment of our tendency to self-deprecate. It was humble, cautious, loathe to make claims too lofty, reluctant to fuel hopes it could not fulfil.

It was at that point we came together for a summer we will never forget. As if in that moment the cloud of limitation was lifted off us all. Out of chaos came beauty. At the moment when it could have all fallen apart something incredible emerged.

The crowds roared for the favourites and new ones to took up residence in our hearts. On the eve of the Olympics Britain received the shot in its arm to spur us on. How dare Mitt Romney say that we were a little country that never achieved anything? In a master stroke no planner could have dreamt up the country came together.

And together we found our voice. We found who we are.

We did not look on others with envy, wishing the days of the Empire returned. We did not shrink in the shadow of China’s economic growth, America’s military might, or the coming carnival Rio 2016 will bring to the world. We learnt the best is not an imitation of another.

We shrugged off the challenges and sprinted for the line. Achievement can never be taken for granted, but nor is it ever out of reach. Britain learnt this summer that self-deprecation is no alternative to success. We may have a joke at our own expense to mask the fear that we might not make it.

But we made it. Britain, you did good. Very good.