In May 2008, a triumphant-looking Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, adorned newspaper front pages when she launched a campaign to restrict abortion rights. Aided by those who called themselves Christian “fundamentalists”, the Tory backbencher was championed by the right-wing press for standing up against “the abortion industry”. Dorries and her allies eventually lost the campaign to reduce the legal time limit for abortion, but they were undeterred. This was always going to be a long-drawn-out battle. And they had God on their side.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the David Cameron project has been striking in its unwillingness to say much about faith. None of the inner circle of Cameron, George Osborne, Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton is regarded as particularly religious, and avoiding the subject is part of the Tory detoxification project. Yet there are signs that a change is afoot.
“Historically, there have been splits in the Conservative Party over religion. But the vast majority of the new MPs will be social Conservatives who have similar opinions to myself,” Nadine Dorries tells the New Statesman. “I can think of half a dozen Conservatives that don’t agree with me, but they’re leaving at the next election – people like Andrew MacKay and David Curry. The new MPs that are coming in are all social Conservatives – people like Fiona Bruce, Philippa Stroud, Louise Bagshawe.”
Cameron is not oblivious to his party’s uneasy coalitions, and has stealthily started to unveil policies designed to shore up its increasingly loud, ultra-conservative Christian base. Recently, he told the Catholic Herald that he was a “big supporter” of faith schools and that there should be a review of the legal time limit for abortion. Is he likely to go further?
The answer may depend on how well the Christian right organises itself. Strong links have emerged between the religious right and some Tories, with support from the media. Some groups in the UK have received funding from US groups. Their aim isn’t merely to push certain policies but, in copying tactics from their American counterparts, build a more sustainable, long-term movement that would change the face of British politics.
At the Conservative party conference last year, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi berated other political parties for their supposed hostility to faith: “The scepticism of senior Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris driving this secular agenda has now grown to become an ideology permeating through many parts of the public sector . . . It’s no wonder that this leads to accusations in the media that our country’s Christian culture is being downgraded.”
Warsi cited several incidents, including the case of a nurse being suspended for offering to pray for a patient’s recovery. “Christianophobia” has now become a mainstream obsession for columnists and politicians. A few years ago, Melanie Phillips wrote an article for the Daily Mail entitled “How Britain is turning Christianity into a crime”, complaining that Christians were being harassed by the law for their homophobic views. In late 2007, the Conservative MP Mark Pritchard called for a debate in parliament to tackle the phenomenon. “Some people seem to want to forget the Christian tradition going back to the first century and its contribution to arts, culture and science,” he told the BBC.
The rise of the Christian right is partly a backlash to increasingly liberal social attitudes and secularisation. But there is also a strategic element to the rhetoric. It may be hard to believe that Britain will turn into Jesus-land, but social attitudes are always in flux. And developing a sense of victimhood is an essential part of the religious right’s strategy to fire up its base. After all, it has been used to great effect in the US.
The nurse that Warsi mentioned in her speech, Caroline Petrie, took advice from a group called the Christian Legal Centre (CLC). The CLC seeks to protect Christians and Christianity and has been involved in many other cases. These include that of the paediatrician Sheila Matthews, who refused to endorse adoption by same-sex couples; Emily Mapfuwa, who took an arts trust to court for exhibiting a “phallic” statue of Jesus; and the 15-year-old Lydia Playfoot, who was barred from school for wearing the “silver ring” of abstinence.
The organisation is headed by Andrea Minichiello Williams, an activist who was behind several protests against legislation on embryology research and outlawing homophobic discrimination in 2008. A Channel 4 investigation the same year revealed that the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, for which Williams then served as public policy director, had received money from a US organisation called the Alliance Defense Fund that aims to “aggressively defend religious liberty” through litigation.
Among the Tory faithful, there is a growing feeling that Christian values are under attack. These concerns are being carefully cultivated for maximum effect. In March, when a judge ruled against a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, newspapers and religious groups fumed that judges were “biased against Christians”.
When Dorries unveiled her “20 Reasons for 20 Weeks” campaign in 2008 to restrict abortion rights, Williams cropped up as an ally through another organisation she runs: Christian Concern for Our Nation (CCFON). The campaign website stated that it was not politically motivated or religious; however, I can reveal that it was registered and created by CCFON members, a fact not mentioned on the site. When asked about the organisation’s involvement with her campaign, Dorries says it “helped out with the research”. She adds that it had “an army of interns” who proved “very useful”. And how was the slick-looking website funded? She pauses before replying: “One of their interns did the website for free.”
CCFON isn’t a normal Christian organisation. Williams believes that abortion should be illegal, homosexuality is sinful and the world is 4,000 years old. Dorries says she wants the legal abortion limit reduced to 20 weeks but, during the campaign, she admitted her preference was to make it illegal after nine. She said: “A woman seeking an abortion in this country is the victim of a well-organised industry.”
These sentiments alarm the Labour MP Martin Salter, who tabled a debate in parliament last year to extend England’s abortion law to Northern Ireland. “I wouldn’t be so concerned if politicians such as Nadine Dorries, who was selected on a mainstream ticket, stood on a ticket of Christian fundamentalism. But there is a certain amount of dishonesty when they work hand-in-glove with people whose views are so extreme – certainly not the kind of views that any politician seeking votes would put on their election leaflet.”
The lurch of the church
The impact of the religious right on Tory thinking is difficult to measure, but Cameron seems to recognise the need to keep the ultra-social- conservative base on side, especially since it has the support of many moderates.
One source of pressure will be Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website. Twenty years ago, he co-founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship, an organisation that aims to act as a “relational bridge” between the party and Christian communities. It is now housed at the Tory campaign headquarters on Millbank. Montgomerie was complimentary of Dorries’s 20 Weeks campaign and gave her ample space on ConservativeHome. He frequently calls on the party leadership to listen to and court the “Christian vote”.
Cameron’s biggest boon to Christian fundamentalists would be in allowing them to expand faith schools. Taxpayers already subsidise around 50 centres across the UK following the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, which aims to “reach the world for Christ, one child at a time”. Tory proposals could allow such groups to “reach” many more students.
The influence of the social conservatives is also seen as the reason Cameron stood firm on recognising marriage in the tax system, despite howls that a tax break for married couples, when public finances were perilous, was not sound policy. Abortion, too, will come back on the agenda if Cameron wins. Dorries is already relishing her role. “Cameron won’t bring abortion to the forefront of the government agenda – that will take people like me – but he will support it. He could be like Tony Blair – he feels strongly about his faith, but doesn’t feel he can bring it out until later.”
At the Conservative party conference last year, the traditional hymn and prayer were dropped in favour of a 500-seater church service, a pipe organ, folk music and a gospel choir in the style of American mega-churches. Change is coming. But perhaps not in the way many envisage.
Additional reporting by Rowenna Davis
Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberalconspiracy.org