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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue