Britain's Religious Right: myth or reality?

It might not look the same as in the US, but the UK still has a strong historic link between religious and moral conservatism and Conservative politics, Nelson Jones argues.

Perhaps it's the convenient alliteration, but it's easy to assume that the Religious Right is a thing. It is in the United States, of course: the agenda espoused by conservative Evangelicals and Catholic traditionalists has long enjoyed an ascendency over (if not a total domination of) the Republican Party. From the televangelist-led Moral Majority in the 1980s, associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to the more recent phenomenon of the Tea Party, religion and fiscal conservatism, family values and a minimalist state, have come to be part of the same package, wrapped in Republican red.

But in the UK? There are obvious differences between Britain and the USA both politically and socially: for one thing, this is a much less religious society. Nevertheless, in the past few years many observers have detected the emergence of a British version of the religious right and with it the first stirrings of a cisatlantic culture war. You can see hints of it in the increasingly virulent debate over abortion, now encompassing US-style picketing of clinics, and in high-profile court cases funded by Christian pressure groups, such as those decided the other week in Strasbourg. There's the ongoing campaign against same-sex marriage, of course, which may be doomed but which has galavanised a lot of religious support. An online petition organised by the "Coalition For Marriage" has attracted more than 600,000 signatures, of which some at least must represent real people.

Even creationism, which most people in Britain had forgotten about, has drifted across the Atlantic.  True, you still won't find many mainstream politicians (except in Northern Ireland) proclaiming a belief that the world is less than 10,000 years old. But creationists are starting to make their presence felt here, for example putting in bids to run free schools. It remains a fairly marginal phenomenon, but it's growing.

But what does this really amount to? A report published by the Christian think-tank Theos this morning, written by Andy Walton, finds little evidence of a US-style religious right in Britain. Instead it finds a number of groups, ranging from the fairly mainstream to the lunatic fringe, which may take inspiration and even some funding from their American counterparts but which are nowhere near to gaining the same kind of political influence. Crucially, Evangelical activists have so far failed to take over the Conservative party, despite the existence of groups like the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Nor is this even their ambition. Rather they try to influence politicians of all parties. This is important, Walton argues, because what characterises the US Religious Right isn't just the existence of a critical mass of people with socially conservative views motivated by religion, but their symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party. Britain's religious and political demographics make such a scenario highly implausible.

Traditionally, of course, the Church of England was seen as being the Tory party at prayer, and it's still the case that practising Anglicans are more likely to vote Conservative than members of the public as a whole. But the C of E is no-one's idea of the religious right (for Walton, indeed, the official role of the Anglican church is one of the factors that prevents the emergence of US-style religious politics here). Roman Catholics, meanwhile, tend to vote Labour. Evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey suggests that the most religiously observant voters (Catholic and Evangelical alike) tend to be considerably to the left of the general population on economic issues, even while holding extremely conservative views on such issues on gay rights and premarital sex. The same is true of the leadership of the Catholic Church, at least going by many of their public pronouncements.

So does this mean that "religious right" is a misnomer in the British context? I'm not convinced. The British version is certainly much smaller and much less party-political. But it shares many of the same concerns, prominent among them opposition to abortion, assisted dying and same-sex marriage (homophobia's last chance saloon?) along with worries about sex education in schools and the decline in the traditional two-parent family. Differences are mainly cultural: in the US support for Israel, small government and gun rights, over here Daily Mail-type concerns about multiculturalism and the apparent marginalisation of Christianity in public life. It's clearly true that in Britain there's no automatic read-through from religious to economic conservatism. But it's also true that the conservative Christian lobby has powerful friends in government, including Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove.

Political Christians are currently prominent in calls to impose controls on internet porn and further criminalise sex work and in the current debate about the "sexualisation" of children, especially girls. In such cases, conservative Evangelicals and Catholics often form tactical alliances with like-minded feminists, something also seen on the American scene. The main difference is that our Evangelical politicians, such as the Conservative MP Claire Perry, are likely to make the case for things like mandatory internet filtering using the language of feminism rather than that of Christianity. To British ears, it sounds better.

A particularly interesting case is that of CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), an organisation that originated in Mary Whitehouse's Festival of Light. These days it puts a great emphasis on political work, lobbying MPs on issues like abortion and sponsoring Parliamentary researchers. It also provides the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution, which is currently pushing for the adoption in this country of Swedish-style anti-prostitution laws.

For Walton, the fact that, like other groups, CARE aims to win over MPs from all parties, rather than just Conservatives, is evidence that it doesn't constitute part of a burgeoning religious right. I see things differently. In denying that the UK has a religious right in a narrow party-political sense, Theos is attacking claims that no one really makes. At the same time, it's almost perverse to deny the strong historic link between religious and moral conservatism and Conservative politics. It's not a coincidence that most Parliamentary opponents of same-sex marriage are Tories. At the very least, right-of-centre parties are more prone to making moralistic, pro-religious noises than left-of-centre ones. “Back to Basics” was a Conservative slogan. It might not have done John Major or his government much good, but it got a big cheer in the conference hall.

Campaigners for equal marriage at the Conservative party conference last year. Photograph: Getty Images
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.