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01 February 2013

Is there a ‘religious right’ emerging in Britain?

Is there a ‘religious right’ emerging in Britain?

The latest research report from Theos rejects the oft-quoted predictions of the emergence of a 'religious right' in Britain. Following several high-profile media portrayals drawing comparisons between the actions of Christian groups to the religious right in the US this report sets out to establish what that looks like and whether it is a legitimate label to use.

The report analyses the characteristics of the religious right in America and the path it has taken over the past 40 years. One of the key features is the coalition that developed between evangelical Christian groups and Catholics, and the pursuit of common policy goals. While those policies include sexual ethics and abortion they also extend to a preference for small government, military intervention and support for Israel. In America the evangelical and Catholic communities also constitute a far larger proportion of the population and have used this size to exercise significant influence on the political landscape.

The influence of the religious right in the US was visible in the mid-1990s as campaign groups coalesced with the Republican Party to seize control of the House of Representatives. A further show of their influence came with George W Bush's deliberate courting of the evangelical Christian vote to help secure his re-election in 2004.

The report demonstrates that the size and political interest of Christians in the UK is considerably different to the US. Not only is it a far smaller community, but it also has more diverse political interests and in particular those who are religious and frequently attend services are likely to be more supportive of redistributive economic policies than the general public. UK Christians are also more open to different viewpoints on the issue of creation and evolution than their US counterparts.

Andy Walton, author of the report, said: "The British theological and political context is just too different from the American one for us to see the same kind of 'religious right' emerging here, at least for the foreseeable future. For a start, the number of committed Christians is much smaller, religion plays a less important part in their voting patterns, and Christian organisations have significantly less access to political power than in America."

The political coordination, access and influence of evangelical organisations in the UK was compared to those in the US. For the report the leaders of several organisations, including the Evangelical Alliance, were interviewed and their organisations were analysed to consider whether they might constitute the religious right or the emergence of one.

Alliance general director Steve Clifford is quoted in the report saying: "My experience is that a lot of the evangelicals that I hang out with – from quite a wide cross-section – shake their heads and say 'we really don't want to go down that pathway – the culture wars-type approach is not something that we want to copy." Concluding their assessment of the Alliance the report states that: "Religious right organisations seek to win power for conservative Republican candidates on the basis that they, and they alone, will legislate in the 'right way'. This is clearly not part of the Evangelical Alliance's goals or strategy. It seeks to support and be supported by politicians of all stripes, regardless of party affiliation."

Having established that there is not a religious right in the UK, and that the emergence of one is unlikely, the report concludes by considering what it is that commentators, journalists and even a Church of England bishop have observed. The report observes there is something of a socially conservative movement within British evangelicalism, but this is not comparable to the US phenomena and shouldn't be labelled as such. "While it is not impossible that a coordinated religious right evolves in Britain," the report summarises, "it hasn't done so to date and would, if it did materialise, look rather different from the US version."