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

Christianity and politics are separate, thank God.

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.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change