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Has Britain a 'Religious Right'?

This week the Christian think tank Theos published a well-researched essay that asks IS THERE A RELIGIOUS RIGHT EMERGING IN BRITAIN? by Andrew Walton, a former Premier colleague.

There are a number of Christian organisations campaigning on public policy issues to influence Government and Parliament but do they have any similarity to America’s religious right? Occasional headlines in left-leaning newspapers seem to suggest there is. On both sides of the Atlantic Christians campaign against abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia, homosexuality and sexual ethics, family values and religious freedom but there the similarities end.

The Christian community is much smaller in Britain, giving campaigners fewer potential supporters and a smaller donor base. The American Christian Right is closely linked to the Republican Party in which it has exerted significant influence. Each of the major UK parties has a Christian group including modest numbers of MPs but in no case do they have significant influence. The same applies to other Christian campaign groups such as CARE, the Evangelical Alliance, the Christian Institute and Christian Concern. None of them are close to any one party and at least some of them campaign on a range of issues including those not usually associated with right wing politics.

It is the Evangelicals who are most likely to be labelled as the religious right but once again there is a difference between British and American Evangelicals. Fundamentalism is much more influential in America, evidenced in the support for a literal interpretation of the Creation narrative and deep hostility to the teaching of evolution in schools. Fundamentalists are fewer and less influential in British Evangelicalism and it is rare for Christian parents to be concerned about the teaching of evolution in science classes. The American Christian Right is strongly pro-Israel but British Evangelicals include many concerned about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

A few British Christian campaigners have links to the American religious right and receive funds from that source but are not yet a significant influence in British politics worthy of the religious right label. As Walton argues, however, one would not have said that about American Christians in 1960 so any conclusion has to be provisional.

What, though, explains press headlines about a British religious right? One explanation is religious illiteracy that now pervades British society and has even penetrated the churches. In some instances this ignorance about religion is compounded by hostility from atheists and secularists opposed to Christian presence in the public square. The National Secular Society and the British Humanist’s “Secular Europe Campaign for Universal Human Rights” expressed this in the statement, “One does not need to be Richard Dawkins to find the application of religious beliefs to public policy abhorrent”.

Whether on the right, left or in the centre, Christian prayer for the nation and well-informed, biblically-based campaigns are needed provided they are presented with grace and humility, recognising in whose name we serve and our minority status. This is our democratic right and our Christian calling.