It has now been four years since the Evangelical Alliance examined, in idea magazine, what Evangelicals thought about British values, and the debate and its political context have most certainly changed significantly since then.

So, as we explore freedom in this edition, and I, more specifically, consider freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, I’d like us to revisit this hot topic and think about how discussion of these values has informed policy in the past few years, where these discussions might be going wrong, and how Evangelicals can continue to contribute to improving them.

But, to start, we have to take a trip back to 2011. For that was the year the Government made a list of fundamental British values and defined extremism’ as vocal and active opposition to these values. These values include democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths or beliefs”.

In the survey of Evangelicals that we published in 2015, we found that 71 per cent of those surveyed thought that the Government was right, in principle, to define and promote British values. However, 75 per cent thought that freedom of speech needed greater protection in this context, particularly as the Government was proposing to take legal measures against those deemed extremists.


What’s happened since 2015?

It’s fair to say that the Government’s list of values and its campaign against non-violent extremism” have faced a lot of criticism. For example, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights reported in 2016 that: The Government gave us no impression of having a coherent or sufficiently precise definition of either non-violent extremism’ or British values’. There needs to be certainty in the law so that those who are asked to comply with and enforce the law know what behaviour is and is not lawful.”

The committee went on to note that legal measures against non-violent extremism in the name of British values’ could be used against a wide range of groups that hold conservative religious views. Vague national values could easily be misused to justify acting against a wide range of such groups, deeming them dangers to society.

The committee’s concerns were echoed by many others, including the Evangelical Alliance. And while new anti-extremism laws were promised, none appeared, chiefly due to concerns around how they would impact fundamental freedoms. The new Commission for Countering Extremism has been consulting this year on the best way forward, including exploring different definitions of extremism that will focus on violent groups in a more targeted way.

Even in other areas, attempts to promote national values through policy have caused trouble. For example, in December 2016, the Government published the Casey review into integration, which recommended that: The Government should work with the committee for standards in public life to ensure [British] values are enshrined in the principles of public life, including a new oath for holders of public office.”

However, the Government decided last year to reject this proposal. Lord Bourne, the relevant minister, said that their department had considered [the oaths] in the round and decided that this was probably not the British way of achieving things”. Ironically, an oath to British values was itself an un-British proposal, highlighting the confusion which shared values may cause. 

What’s gone wrong with shared values?

This then begs the question, why such a list of values should lead to problematic policies? Perhaps it is because, since these values were formulated, we’ve realised just how diverse we are as a society in key areas. In a 2017 ComRes poll commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance and others, more than half of the public (54 per cent) thought that using the word extreme’ was not helpful in social and political discussion. 

There was also widespread disagreement on what counted as extreme. For example, 30 per cent thought it was extreme (not just wrong) to believe the UK should remain in the EU, whereas 36 per cent said it was extreme to believe the UK should leave. The language of extremism’ and British values’ become problematic when people on each side of such debates struggle to see what they have in common with those on the other. 

A more recent problem for this language has been posed by the sociopolitical movement Extinction Rebellion. Its participants use non-violent resistance to highlight the urgency of climate change and are prepared to be arrested and go to prison. Is this extremism, contrary to British values? While they set aside the rule of law, these protestors argue that the real extremists are the ones who oppose this radical action. An appeal to shared values’ does not really help us grapple with the morality or legality of such protests.

Is there a better approach?

Given the problems they have caused, some argue that it would be best to abandon the whole project of discussing British values’. However, others say that whilst it is important to articulate what binds us together as a society, especially for the purposes of education, to call these things values’ is the wrong emphasis. For example, in giving evidence to a government inquiry on citizenship, journalist David Goodhart commented that the whole point about a liberal society is that we can live freely by different values and even, to some extent, opposing values”. And he went on to talk about how we would be better served by talking about shared institutions and common ways of behaving towards each other.

Similarly, in a report for Theos entitled The Problem of Proselytism, research fellow Paul Bickley warns on British values: The problem is that values’ are treated as essential rather than procedural – about who we are’, rather than about how we do things’. This can only lead to tension between religious and other identities, one where proselytising for certain faiths or views becomes not only objectionable but subversive.

Therefore, if we are to deal with our diverse beliefs, and particularly religious beliefs, we may need to talk about what we share in terms other than shared values’. Such an approach would allow us to deal with radical politics, deep disagreement and religious diversity alike in a much better way. The Government has, so far, resisted efforts to change its list of values, but this debate is sure to continue in the coming years. 

What do Christians think?

Evangelical attitudes to British values have remained relatively stable over the past few years. When we re-ran our informal survey in 2018 in connection with the Government publishing its Integrated Communities strategy, a majority still agreed that the Government was right to attempt a definition of British values. However, when we asked if the Government could be trusted to define British values, 70 per cent disagreed.

This mix of views reflects two streams of evangelical – and more broadly Christian – thought. On the one hand we can see the great importance of acknowledging what we share with each other in British society; we are not mere individuals but are bound together by common concerns and responsibilities. This view has animated a long British evangelical tradition of social reform. It is also based on biblical exhortations for us to seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7 – a theme echoed in 1 Peter).

We also recognise that many principles highlighted within common lists of British values’ have deep roots within Christian faith. Evangelical reflection on the importance of conversion has shaped our views of conscience and democratic participation. And biblical teaching, with warnings against arbitrary power, has moulded our understanding of the rule of law today. For more on this theme, read our resource What kind of society?, which is structured around the Christian values of freedom, justice, love and truth.

On the other hand, some in evangelical history have also experienced the darker side of attempts to unite a nation around shared values’ – particularly when this discussion is driven by the state. In the past, narrow theological and political definitions of citizenship excluded even dissenting Christians who were not part of the established church. As set out above, shared values’, and the policies that promote them, risk excluding a new set of dissenters from public life.

As Evangelicals, we are heirs to both traditions, which perhaps explains why we want to be both positive and cautious as the Government seeks to articulate our shared values’. This joint perspective will be a valuable resource to all society as the debate around these values unfolds.

What can we do?

This debate, like many others, is currently not moving very quickly, as Brexit consumes so much parliamentary time and attention. However, as the Commission for Countering Extremism will report soon, we expect this debate to reopen. With the above perspective in mind, there are a few things we as Christians can do to influence this debate, following the example of the apostle Paul in his own diverse context.

1. Pray

As Paul exhorts us in 1 Timothy 2:1 – 4, we should pray for all those in high position as they deal with this issue.

2. Listen

We are a diverse society, and many others within it will have very different views from us about what unites us. We need to hear these views, to avoid being trapped in our own silo, and so we can proclaim the gospel effectively.

3. Speak

Of course the other side of this point is that if no one knows what our values are as evangelical Christians, increasingly shared values will be shaped in our absence. This makes it important for evangelicals to speak out, not just in a church context but across society.

The advocacy team of the Evangelical Alliance continues to explore how we can contribute to each of these goals, so stay in touch as we seek to make progress in this important debate, by signing up to receive our Everything Advocacy newsletter: www​.eauk​.org/​s​t​a​y​-​i​n​-​t​h​e​-loop