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The strange masochism of Labour-supporting evangelicals

February 20, 2015

It is not just cinema goers who are fond of masochism these days. Voters often seem to have strange tastes about the parties they want in power.

 

Earlier this month the Polish ambassador told the Today programme how a number of Poles intended to vote Ukip at the next election, a party that basically opposes eastern European immigration. Surprising to some, yet a number of surveys have shown that Ukip has a fair amount of support among eastern Europeans and minorities, including around 6 per cent of Sikhs and Hindus.

 

Strange? Maybe, but political tastes that seem odd to one are natural to another. This week a survey by the Evangelical Alliance showed that evangelical Protestants, among the most socially conservative mainstream voters, put Labour as their number one choice for the election.
 
And while the people’s party has a strong Christian tradition, and still wins the support of well over 40 per cent of Catholics, it seems perverse that in the same survey evangelicals picked as their most important policy requirement those 'that ensure religious liberty and freedom of expression' – and this is one of Labour’s weakest areas.
 
In some ways the last government was the most anti-religious in British history.  It was also the most authoritarian, with a succession of Christians being prosecuted by the police or sacked from their jobs simply for expressing their faith.
 
Blair and Brown created or upgraded discrimination laws that made life difficult for Christian preachers, hoteliers and adoption agencies, most problematically the Equality Act.
 
In this environment police and judges also became more likely to use the 1986 Public Order Act to harass street evangelists, while groups like Stonewall grew in power and prestige.
 
In 1997 it could still be said that the public square was, if not explicitly Christian, than at least welcoming to it; who would say that now?

 

Misunderstood

 

So why is Labour support among evangelicals up 9 per cent from 2010?
 
Partly because the phenomenon of evangelical Christianity is misunderstood, and in the popular mindset is associated with the Republican Party, whereas US evangelicals were once a mirror of the British non-conformists who helped to play a big part in both the Liberal and Labour parties.
 
Dave Landrum, a member of the Evangelical Alliance and Labour party, and one of the people behind the survey, says 'Most of the people knocking on doors for Jimmy Carter were evangelical Christians but then there was a purge by east coast liberals and the Republicans welcomed them with open arms.'
 
That hasn’t happened in Britain, yet, although it is certainly moving that way, but Landrum says the social gospel is still strong:
 
'Over 70 per cent of welfare between 1850 and 1900 was done by evangelical Christians - a whole structure of charitable works.
 
'For good reasons it was secularised,' he adds, 'but evangelicals are still political, in particular about poverty. That’s the nature of evangelicals.'
 
Indeed. Although this survey comes with a caveat about selection bias, it suggests that evangelicals are seven times more likely than the public at large to have contacted a politician and 14 times more likely to have been involved in a campaign.
 
In the United States, where the proportion of evangelicals is much larger and now tend to be partisan, it is easy to see how effective they can be.
 
In Britain there isn’t such a culture war, and if there is any sort of politicised Christianity, it is the Christian Left.
 
For the issue of most concern to evangelical Christians is poverty and inequality, some 32 per cent ranking it of importance, compared to just four cent for the British population as a whole.

 

In contrast only six per cent of evangelicals are concerned about race and immigration, compared to one-fifth of the public at large, the number-one topic for British voters.

 

Where UKIP have won support here, Landrum says, it is mostly over same-sex marriage, whereas for other people it is immigration or Europe.

 

Freedom

 

For evangelicals the defining image of the election is the food bank, which Labour has solidly made their issue, while on religious freedom both major parties are seen as equally poor and basically ignorant of Christianity.

 

The most recent example was the Government’s attempts to restrict so-called 'extremist' activity at universities, which Landrum describes as an 'astonishing attempt at erosion of freedom'.

 

He adds: 'We have governments that don’t understand the principle of religious freedom that underpins all freedom.'

 

Yet it seems odd to place religious liberty so highly and to then turn to the party that did most to damage it. Masochistic almost.

 

And while evangelicals may not be interested in immigration, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, immigration is interested in them, multiculturalism being intrinsically connected to the loss of religious liberty.

 

Under Blair, Labour embraced 'diversity' as a new faith in itself, but the dark side of this secular universalism (which derives from the Abrahamic tradition) is stricter state control over religious belief.

 

Whereas the almost-entirely-Christian-but-not-very-religious English were once able to enjoy a robust and lively public debate about faith, with multiculturalism came the inevitable move towards a more Singapore-style system in which criticism of other religions was strongly suppressed for fear of violence.

 

Panicked

 

The previous government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which came close to effectively criminalising religious criticism, was a panicked and authoritarian response to the Scandinavian cartoon saga and various other incidents involving Islam.

 

Increasingly, whereas Englishmen once refrained from discussing religion as a convention, the state now intervened; one of the more disturbing cases involved the Vogelenzangs, Merseyside Christian B&B owners who were investigated over a breakfast debate with a Muslim convert, and who were pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service under the Public Order Act.

 

Then there was the overhaul of the Charity Commission, which tightened its traditionally relaxed relationship with hundreds of Church bodies because some Islamic charities had dubious foreign connections - another by-product of multiculturalism.

 

Now we have education, and the issue of whether, to prevent Islamic separatism and encourage “British values”, church schools must be sacrificed.

 

In all these cases Muslims are third-act characters drawn into a long-running (and, some might say, overly long) play involving Christians and secularists.

 

Read the Faith in Politics? report in full.

 

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