Little more than a week has passed since yet another election has turned British politics on its head. One of the most prominent themes: the role of evangelicals in politics.
With her loss of 13 seats, Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Theresa May was sent scrambling to form a coalition government in what is now a hung Parliament. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is in negotiations to be the likely partner.
Founded by pastor Ian Paisley as the political arm of the Protestant factions during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the DUP gained notoriety for its fiery social conservatism. Even as social policy across Britain liberalized, the DUP held the line to protect abortion restrictions and to ban the expansion of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
These policies drew public attention in the aftermath of this year’s general election as some speculated what price May would pay to form a majority and hold her place as prime minister. A current YouGov poll finds 48 percent of Britons disapprove of this would-be coalition.
Amid this frothy speculation, Tim Farron, an avowed evangelical and leader of the Liberal Democrats, resigned. In his speech, he described the tension between his public service and his sincerely held religious beliefs. This contrast was presented in stark relief by a recent radio interview in which Farron refused to answer questions about whether or not he believes homosexuality is a sin. Despite reciting his party’s stance on LGBT rights, Farron was repeatedly pushed to publicly confess his own personal religious beliefs.
At the center of both events lies the media’s fascination with evangelicals.
Whether a result of religious illiteracy or a desire for salacious copy, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of British evangelicals and their politics. The extremist depiction of evangelicals has become far too easy a crutch for sensible public discourse, and is at odds with the reality in which British evangelicals situate within the cultural mainstream.
Following up on interviews with a variety of political and religious elites (including members of Parliament, activists, journalists, and high-ranking clergy), I conducted a series of focus groups in 10 evangelical congregations across Britain. These represented a variety of denominations and geographic locations, and are striking for what they revealed about the religious and political identities of British evangelicals—in their own words.
To puncture one errant assumption, British evangelicals do not prioritize their social conservatism. It’s true they are largely conservative on issues of sexuality, hewing to theological and cultural orthodoxy about marriage and family. However, issues of abortion and same-sex marriage are not salient to British evangelicals because they view these issues as settled law. No group I spoke with demonstrated any enthusiasm for a political movement to change these policies. Indeed, only a single participant (1 out of 81) voiced any hope that the status quo would change—and that she expressed as a simple matter of faith that “all things are possible.”
What is clear is that rather than a culture war, British evangelicals struggle with a social justice imperative. When asked what they consider to be the most important national problem, participants responded not with a list of any of the social conservatism marking the DUP, but with a veritable roll call of social justice issues—poverty, hunger, human trafficking, and the environment. British evangelicals connect to a variety of groups—both religious and secular—in efforts to alleviate these needs. In fact, my research shows the social justice concerns of British evangelicals outpace those of the general population.
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.