Thus, fear-mongering about bringing the DUP into national government are premised on a culture war not evident in British politics; and the prevailing depiction of British evangelicals is one of a Christian Right fighting a culture war. Such portrayals, focusing on deviance and conflict, largely derive from the mobilization of American evangelicals. However, context matters.
For all their work with social interest groups, British evangelicals remain largely absent from partisan and electoral politics; not because British evangelicals see themselves embattled against a defined “other,” but because they do not share a group identity, which is a necessary ingredient to political mobilization. The result is that being evangelical has no meaning for their political life. Unlike their American counterparts, British evangelicals do not orient toward a particular ideological or partisan affiliation. Whatever political identity they do claim is weakly held, and their religious identity is unrelated to their party affiliation.
Still, British evangelicals say they are interested in politics and discuss it frequently, so why are they divorced from political action? The treatment of Farron and others like him is one reason. This was the second general election in which Farron had been quizzed about his theological beliefs—not his party’s stance—on homosexuality.
Evangelicals recognize that their mentions in the press are too easily equated with fundamentalism and extremism. Whether such depictions merely mock or stoke fear of that phantom “Christian Right,” the result is a chilling effect on their political engagement. They are reluctant to extend themselves in the public square because, as with Farron, they will be judged on doctrine rather than policy.
British evangelicals feel that politicians pay lip service to them periodically but ignore them mostly, and that media hold them up for equal parts scare tactic and tabloid fodder. All the while, both groups misunderstand their issue concerns and their political interests.
Unfortunately, that is to the detriment of the greater good. Because in drawing the line between his personal beliefs and his party’s policy stances, Tim Farron illustrates that evangelicals can be more liberal than the Liberals.
Andrea C. Hatcher is associate professor and chair of the department of politics at the University of the South–Sewanee in Tennessee. Her book, Political and Religious Identities of British Evangelicals, comes out June 26.