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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear