A New Religious Right???

Hannah Mudge who is part of the new wave of Christian Feminists has posted this interesting critique of the new Theos Think Tank report looking at “Is there a ‘Religious Right’ Emerging in Britain?” which was produced by Andy Walton with Andrea Hatcher and Nick Spencer.

The Theos report used a mix of quantiative and qualitative data to look at whether the view put forward in the media and elsewhere, (including in the Guardian by Bishop Alan – our local bishop here), that there is a new religious right emerging is accurate or not. The introduction of the report indicates this is complex and that you need to read through the full report to understand the complete and nuanced picture.

The report begins by looking at the differences which exist between some of the groups emerging in the UK and those which are associated with the religious right in the US. It looks at the way in which the economic perspective of the groups in the two countries differ. In the US the focus is on liberalism and free market economic whilst in the UK a majority of those in groups which might be associated with the Religious Right have a belief in the UK based welfare system.

With regards to the issues they focus upon it makes the point whilst there are points of overlap there are also additional concerns in the UK such as those related to various forms of addictive behaviour and the sex trade. Also the Zionist agenda of the US groups is largely missing from the UK groups.

The nature of worshippers within the UK is greater than the US and this country has undergone a much greater process of secularisation. The impact of having an established church in the UK is also discussed.

The Theos report gave a brief history of the rise of the political religious right in the US coming to the conclusion that whilst  there appears to have been a decline in their influence they are not totally gone yet. The report identifies white evangelical protestants as the key group who have comprised the Religious Right.

The report goes on to make the point that issues such as gay marriage don’t define political debate in the UK in the same way in which they do in the UK.

There is an overview of the key organisations which have been accused of being part of the Christian Right in the past. These groups are diverse in nature and cover a spectrum of thought from the Evangelical Alliance on one end to Christian Voice on the other with groups such as CARE and Christian Concern in between.

One interesting observation made is the way in which the Evangelical Alliance leadership is less ready “to criticise or repudiate the tactics of British-based groups like Christian Voice” than in the past.

It concludes by making the point that in the UK the groups are focused around a small number of concerns, with some exception they don’t have the same ties to a particular political party in the UK as in the US,  that whilst the income of such groups is not insignificant they don’t have the same funding as in the US, that there is broader support for these groups than just within the those who might be associated with the religious right, that they have a limited access to political power in the UK . The key conclusion is that the US and UK are in many ways not comparable – in part because of the different structure of the broadcasting industry within this country.

The report makes the point that those groups which have most access to the political powerbase are those which are most moderate in their approach and views and those which are most extreme and perhaps most hungry for political power are furthest from it.

It goes on to counsel the media and others that they need to be careful in their use of the term “Religious Right”.

Hannah Mudge’s response commends the report, as I do. She shows how in the UK feminists and socially conservative groups are working on similar issues, all be it from differing positions, citing lads mags and the sexualisation of childhood as an example.

She argues that we need to proceed with caution because whilst the majority of groups do have less resources and influence they are setting themselves up as having the “true biblical response”.

Mudge ends with a series of challenges.

The first of these is a challenge to journalists that right-wing groups must not dominate the media narrative on Christian issues. To this I would argue that neither should the liberals who are in many ways in direct opposition to the right-wing groups. Part of what creates the climate of fundamentalism is fear and if the voice of the moderate evangelicals is not heard the myth of two sides, rather than a broad spectrum of opinion, is reinforced. This is the reason why Christianity Magazine publishing the Chalke article and their own editorial was so important. It brings into the public space the truth of the diversity of opinion which does exist.

The second challenge is that moderate and progressive believers need to make themselves heard. Again the Chalke story feeds into this. Steve Chalke has spoken of the fear he felt in being honest about his opinions. That culture of fear needs to be removed and that can only happen when more people have the courage to speak out. The don’t ask, don’t say culture which exists in evangelicalism and results in a gap between public rhetoric and pastoral practice on a range of issues needs to be removed. There needs to be a new honesty so that the two can begin to match each other more.

The third challenge she gives is for Christians to be discerning about the organisations we support. This requires Christians to seek information but the problem here is where is the information coming from? If it is churches giving Christians the information they are more likely to trust it.

I came to reading this report and Mudge’s response at the end of the week when Christian groups and others had been meeting with a local MP to give their views on the same sex marriage bill. I want to outline what has happened locally to illustrate why the report is right but also why there are other issues to be thought about which are not mentioned, and which may explain some of the differences which exist between the UK and US.

The MP had a meeting set up with local faith leaders who were opposed to the same sex marriage bill, through one of his office employees. The information of this meeting was diseminated through professional and social networks, primarily through the office of one of the new churches. The meeting with the MP was apparently well attended, with all but two of the participants being from the new churches – which in MK includes the black majority churches.

The email also went through to some people who weren’t in opposition to the bill. The result is some people had a seperate meeting with the MP and one of them, from a mainstream denomination, went to the meeting which was mainly attended by the new church leaders.

There was, on the part of the MP, a clear desire to be seen to hear all the voices of his constituents.

His expressed view on the bill is that in current form he has major concerns. He agrees that the inequalities which currently exist between civil partnership and marriage and between couples where one is trans and others need to be sorted out so that equality is achieved. However, he is also concerned about the way in which this is being done and whether the bill will have unexpected consequences in the future.

He has clearly read the bill and is not homophobic. However, he has had letters from the pro-gay side which have apparently implied he is homophobic if he votes against. This has understandably annoyed him.

What I want to draw out of this is the role of new church denominations and black majority churches in the UK as well as the way in which non-religious and more liberal people need to think about their language.

Taking the last point first. The language of secularists and those who have set themselves up against the socially conservative evangelicals (within and beyond the church) and others is sometimes as extreme as that coming from some religious groups who appear to be on the right. The impact of these words needs to be recognised as does the fact religion is a protected diversity strand, alongside others, and equality issues being promoted by faith based groups will be taken equally seriously to other diversity and inclusion issues.

The white majority new church networks have often been socially conservative but have also been involved in social entreprenurialship and social justice in a way that the US churches haven’t. These new churches, (such as New Frontiers), do have international links including to the US and are encouraging people to get politically involved but not in the same way as in the US. They understand the importance, in the UK context, of working with local authorities and so on. They are also part of wider networks such as Street Pastors and so the picture is quite complex.

In terms of the black majority church they are an increasingly significant group within the UK, particularly in the face of secularisation and whilst they may be socially conservative they are often not politically conservative. This element is important if we are to understand the true picture of what is happening in the UK and at the moment they are being marginalised. Race issues which remain in the US may also be important in making sure that the Religious Right does not emerge as a significant force in the UK. For organisations such as the EA the black majority churches are clearly being seen as a constituency to court.

So to conclude it’s complicated. We do need to be watchful as Mudge suggests and we do need to take her challenges seriously, as we do the Theos report. However, we also need to look at the full picture of what is happening in the UK taking the role of the new churches as seriously as that of political parachurch groups which the report focuses on.