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We're a long way from a US-style religious right

Christianity and politics are separate, thank God.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Despite reports to the contrary, there is little evidence of the emergence of a US-style Religious Right in Britain. Yes, there's opposition to same sex marriage from some Christian groups, but to label this as a US-style Religious Right is either disingenuous or mistaken. That's the finding of the research published this week by the think tank Theos. We suggest that while observant Christians are indeed more likely to be right of the national average on social issues like abortion and gay rights, they are also more likely to left of the national average economically. Under these circumstances, "Religious Right" is a misnomer.

The New Statesman has reported this alleged phenomenon, as has The Guardian. But it's not only liberal-left publications sounding the alarm. The Times, The Telegraph and The Spectator have all spoken of a Religious Right as if it was a fact of political life in this country. There has certainly been increased activity, funding and profile of some socially conservative Christian groups. Meanwhile, a series of legal cases have been brought in a bid to defend Christians against alleged "persecution."

This has meant the growth of a symbiotic relationship between the Daily Mail and Christian pressure groups has rapidly developed. The Mail's argument that Christianity is being "pushed out" is given support by these cases, while the media exposure helps Christian Concern, The Christian Institute and others to grow their profile. In the light of this, it's easy to see why the stories mentioned (and many others) have been written. They suggest that, once again, our political culture has followed the USA and we now have our own Religious Right in the mould of that much-reviled American movement.

The American Religious Right coalesces around eight policy areas, namely: pro-life, anti-gay rights, religious freedom, pro-Israel, pro-military intervention, creationism, anti-Islam and anti-big government. It is defined by its support for these areas and its desire to see legislative success on them through the vehicle of the Republican Party. Despite some cross-over in terms of policy (gay marriage, abortion) the British groups we studied showed little interest in many of the others - Israel and big government just aren't on their agendas, for example. We also looked at the vehicle through which a British Religious Right would have to operate to achieve that success - namely the Conservative Party.

There are social conservatives within the party, of course, and many will rebel on gay marriage. But the Party leadership is united in its socially liberal agenda - there is no sign that socially conservative pressure groups will find a home in the Tory fold. At this point, the accusation immediately comes back "You've set up a straw man… of course there's no US-style Religious Right but we do have one of our own." See The Guardian's response and indeed Nelson Jones' blog yesterday which said, "In denying that the UK has a religious right in a narrow party-political sense, Theos is attacking claims that no one really makes."

Well, as we've already seen, there are plenty of people making precisely that accusation. So why am I more sanguine than Nelson Jones about the undoubted rise of a socially conservative streak within UK Christianity? According to British Social Attitudes data from 2009, 43 per cent of frequent religious observers either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well off.”

This was in contrast with 38 per cent of those who said they had no religion and 36 per cent of the general population. Similarly, when asked whether they thought it was “the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes”, 67 per cent the “religious and frequent attendance” group agreed, compared with 62 per cent of the no religion group. Other examples could be chosen, such as the 58 per cent of frequent religious observers who agreed that “the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements,” compared with 33 per cent of the non-religious. And what about that all-important access to the corridors of power, which is intrinsic to the American Religious Right? Jones says "the conservative Christian lobby has powerful friends in government, including Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove."

Well, hang on a minute, there's no evidence that this access (which arguably doesn't even exist) has resulted in any change in policy from the Tory-led government. Gay rights, abortion and other areas of concern aren't being legislated on as conservative Christian pressure groups would like. In fact, it's the right-wing party which is legislating for increased gay rights - a vast difference to the USA. Much has been made of the link between Christian Concern and Tory MP Nadine Dorries. This relationship was featured in a Channel Four Dispatches documentary. But we can easily see how insignificant this relationship really is. Dorries is an MP who isn’t part of the Government and has no prospect of promotion. Her attempts to influence abortion law have failed to gain significant support.

The central "scoop" in Dispatches was a clip of Christian Concern's Andrea Minichiello Williams asking Lord Tebbit to put down an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to lower the time limit at which abortion is legal. Footage shows him agreeing and the audience is left with the impression that Tebbit will do this. Modell wrote in The Independent that, “Lord Tebbit seems persuaded and agrees to the request. Andrea (our lobbyist) wastes no time in whipping out her pre-drafted amendment and hands it to Tebbit, who dutifully takes it away with him. Job done.”

This sounds as if Williams successfully managed to get Tebbit to table an amendment written by her. However, we found no evidence of Tebbit ever tabling an amendment to that Bill. It may be surprising to see the ease with which he appears to acquiesce to the demands of Christian Concern, but the fact that he didn’t follow up with concrete action undermines Modell’s contention that he’d seen concrete evidence of his claim that, “radical Christian groups are not in America – they are here and are aiming to change the laws of our land.”

Surely it is nonsensical to suggest the emergence of a British Religious Right without the access to power, the same range of policy concerns and the mono-party affiliation of the US Religious Right? Any attempt to do so would be to stretch that terminology far beyond its existing meaning. It is certainly possible that a US-style Religious Right could emerge at some point in 21st century Britain. However, the evidence to date suggests that one does not currently exist. Mislabelling risks provoking the very thing that critics claim to want to avoid.

Calling socially-conservative religious groups a nascent Religious Right may turn them into one, and this (we believe) would be deleterious. British politics would not benefit from the kind of religiously-tinged partisan nature of US politics and, perhaps more importantly, British Christianity would suffer greatly from being hitched to any particular party or narrow political agenda.