Why should we be afraid of a UK Religious Right?

Last week’s Theos report asks the question ‘is there a religious right in Britain?’ and concludes not. The piece is well-researched and well-argued, and seems to me convincing. The Religious right in the US has coalesced around eight issues, of which perhaps two or three are on any UK Christian group’s political agenda; it has well-established links of influence with one political party, whereas UK groups either have no real influence, or work indifferently with all parties; UK Christians can be shown to be more left of centre than the general population on many or most questions of social and economic policy; and so on.

At most, we can see two things. First, the beginnings of some symbiotic relationships between a couple of – small and unrepresentative – groups and certain sections of the press, notably the Daily Mail, where there appears to be a shared interest in presenting a (largely false) narrative of Christian marginalisation; this is disturbing, partly because of the undeserved prominence it gives to the Christian groups in question, and partly because the narrative is false, and should not be given publicity. Second, there are or have been broad religious coalitions which have pushed hard on specific policy questions: Sunday trading; abortion; and now equal marriage. These coalitions have been ad hoc and single issue, however, with no attempt at entanglement, or at creating a movement that can be mobilised on other issues. There is, clearly, nothing in the UK comparable to the USA’s religious right.

The report begins with extensive evidence of media concern over the rise of a UK religious right, which gives justification for devoting time to the question. What it does not explore, which seems to me an interesting question, is why we are so worried about this? The report details dark hints in much of the quality press, reports a whole edition of Dispatches on Channel 4 given to the question, and generally presents a picture of deep concern over any possibility of a religious right emerging in this country.

Why?

I should say I am no fan of the religious right. My own political views are of course complex, but on the decisive economic issues, I am comfortably to the left of all mainstream parties in Britain.Even on touchstone moral issues, I generally tend to a libertarian position: laws should only restrict our choices when there is a clear and obvious danger of harm. If the American religious right, and those groups that look most like it in the UK, disappeared tomorrow, I would celebrate.

But I believe passionately in freedom of speech, and that means believing that people I disagree with are allowed to say their piece as well. Further, I assume that in a mature democracy, this respect for freedom of speech is, or should be, general. The fact that a section of the media/the establishment/’all right-thinking people’ find an imagined UK religious right objectionable is not sufficient reason to object to its (possible) existence, or to complain about its (alleged) public voice. So, why are we concerned? In particular, why are we more concerned about right-wing Christian pressure groups than any other pressure groups?

Phrasing the question like this seems to me important: many answers seem to come down to ‘undue influence,’ ‘privileged access,’ and the like. These are proper matters for concern – but, as far as I can see, the concern is about the possibility of the subversion of proper political process, not about the identity of those doing the subverting. Let us agree that any attempt to gain undue influence is improper; still, why the particular concern over right wing religious groups?

We might answer by saying that they are the prime suspects – they do this more, and more effectively, than anyone else; if true, this would be good reason to single them out. The claim is profoundly implausible, however: after Leveson, we have very good insight into the levels of access to government allowed to certain businesses; to object to Christian Concern whilst saying nothing about News International would seem to be in gnats and camels territory… So, why the concern?

We might say that specifically religious groups should stay out of politics. There are two versions of this claim, one of which is worth considering. One version concerns the ‘secular’ public square, and the idea that religious opinions are private matters which should not intrude on public reasoning. This was a noble vision in Locke and others: only that on which all can agree, because proved indubitably from unassailable starting points, is admissible in public moral reasoning. Unfortunately, this noble position has been shown to have a fatal flaw: there is just about nothing on which we can all agree – particularly in the ethical sphere – and so no possibility of such a neutral, shared, process of public moral reasoning.

The more interesting version would be a claim that campaigning groups ought to restrict themselves to their proper ends, and so religious groups might reasonably campaign on specifically religious matters – say, RE in schools – but should not campaign about other matters of public interest. This seems to me to be an interesting line, insofar as it presses against a problem I see in culture presently, that of improper entanglement of issues. To take an example, a trade union exists for a proper ethical purpose: to protect employment rights; if the union votes to hold a policy on the right solution to the Israel-Plaestine conflict, it seems to me that it is acting improperly. It has no business stating an opinion on the issue (assuming no special circumstances); its members are free to join other campaigns on either side should they wish to, but should not be implicated on this issue by their desire to protect the employment rights of themselves and others.

There are two problems with this argument, one pragmatic, one more fundamental. Pragmatically, who is to decide where the limits lie? Is marriage law a proper topic of concern for churches? Surely yes, since they conduct a significant number of weddings. But on this basis, when we consider that the UK churches are the largest supplier of voluntary youth services, run most of the foodbanks in the country, &c., &c., the areas on which the church might reasonably campaign become – significant… More fundamentally, a well-functioning democracy would seem to need representative lobbying groups: ‘what will elderly people/people with disabilities/nurses/Christians/… think about this idea?’ is a valid question for a politician to ask.

So why the particular concern over a possible religious right? It seems an interesting question, and the answer seems to me at least to be somewhat elusive; perhaps others have a better sense?

2 Comments

  1. Mike
    Feb 6, 2013

    I suspect that part of the answer is that there is a fear of a certain kind of polarization of cultural/political life – a polarization that, at least from this distance, seems to characterize recent US life, and which seems to have been driven or exacerbated or somehow crystallised by the rise of their religious right. And behind this, I guess, is the (erroneous, but to some extent understandable) thought that to take a moral or political view as a religious matter is to remove those views from the sphere of reasoned public discourse. So there is a fear of a political/cultural polarization accompanied and complicated by a failure of the very means we have for negotiating across such polarized divides. In other words – the deep fear is of the breakdown of civilization. And it’s not actually a stupid fear – even if it rests on all kinds of simplifications, misrepresentations, and confusions.

  2. JD
    Feb 6, 2013

    I don’t get the impression you are going to agree with me on this but here goes… There is large and growing secular group in this country who understand secularism not as freedom of religion so much as freedom from religion. I don’t think there is a religious right in this country that could be considered akin to the American religious right, but I do think there is a fairly extremist form of secularism. And it is to their benefit to label even very reasonable and perhaps fairly mainstream Christian views as ‘extreme’ or ‘fundamentalist’ and akin to the American religious right, thus stifling debate. This highly charged and hysterical rhetoric is the warp and woof of political and cultural debates these days…just look at the way the gay marriage ‘debate’ was conducted!

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