For centuries religious groups have sought to restrict the religious practices of those who belong to minority faiths. In China, with it’s prevailing atheist belief, tight restrictions are placed upon theist groups. Saudi Arabia, with a prevailing Islamic belief, places tight restrictions on Christian groups. Britain, in centuries past holding both Catholic and Anglican beliefs, placed heavy restrictions on those of dissenting faith. Such restrictions on the freedom of religious belief prove hugely hypocritical in each circumstance and do little to further true belief in the religion of the state.
It can be argued that little has changed in both China and Saudi Arabia as they continue to curtail the freedoms of adherents to minority religions. However, in Britain, state-led religion has all but died in name with a general tolerance of all faith beliefs espoused in favour of theocratic dictates. In this, those previously restricted by the established religion have found a means by which they can freely practice their religion and openly voice their beliefs despite, as it seems, the current government agenda bent on revoking the heritage of free speech and expression that we have enjoyed in this country. The British dissenting tradition is one of a number of minority beliefs that has more recently found a freedom which in the past saw many of their practices restricted. Under such new found freedoms, some Evangelical Christians in Britain have now become synonymous with many of the views held in earnest by political right-wingers.
As a group that should understand what it is to be deemed a minority, Evangelicals should empathise with the plight of those who consider themselves unjustly restricted by law. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that many Evangelicals are keen to limit the freedoms they now enjoy to the Evangelical groups to which they belong. Indeed, it appears that many Evangelicals in Britain are overly concerned with restricting the rights of those deemed in contradiction to Evangelical thought rather than extending their freedoms to a wider circle within society. One can argue that this development smacks of an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality that causes Evangelical Christianity to obtain liberation of their own beliefs and then pull the ladder up behind them.
The Evangelical Right, by holding such a political stance, face a gross inconsistency. How, when they actively esteem ‘good Christian men and women of the past’ as a result of their social actions, can one adopt a right-wing political agenda that neglects such social responsibility? Moreover, with such a heritage of defending freedom throughout British history why must we now seek to restrict it to a privileged few?
One cannot praise the noteworthy work of George Muller whilst espousing a political philosophy that would see funding revoked from works like his. Likewise, to applaud the achievements of William Wilberforce, highlighting his faith as a central factor in his convictions, whilst at the same time calling for further restrictions on other members of society (immigrants, homosexuals, those of other faiths to name but a few) seems inconsonant to say the least. Such discrepancies render the political stance of the Evangelical Right ill-considered, lends little credence to evangelical religious belief and lead many to assume that such ideas characterise all Evangelicals.
The Evangelical Christian advocacy of, for want of a better phrase, left-wing ideologies can be traced back as far as the leveller and digger movements of the mid-17th century. Both movements were made up of Christian Non-Conformists who espoused policies of democratic rule, an extended franchise, equality before the law and religious toleration. This Non-Conformist social agenda can be followed right up until the 1950s and Aneurin Bevan’s creation of the NHS. Indeed, even the in the mid-17th century Evangelical Non-Conformists were calling for religious tolerance and yet, in the “enlightened” 21st century, the Evangelical Right disown this tradition and lobby against the freedom of religious expression.
When one considers the impact that Evangelical Non-Conformity had in Britain, even the most hardened of anti-religious campaigners must agree that the beliefs and principles of this movement have brought a great deal of positive social change. In light of this, one must question why, amongst Evangelical Non-Conformists in the last 30 or 40 years, there has been such a lurch to the right of the political spectrum. There are three potential reasons for this change.
Firstly, Evangelical Christians have felt the need to show active opposition to growing secularisation. It can be argued that Non-Conformists found themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that of the Conservative Party between the Major and Cameron years. With the movement of the Labour Party towards the centre of the political spectrum, encroaching on the traditional ground of the Conservative Party, each new Conservative leader found themselves eager to distinguish the party from New Labour. Since New Labour began to occupy the centre ground the Conservative Party could only position further to the right. In a similar way, Secularism in the last thirty years has provided the vehicle upon which many minority groups have pinned their political hopes of further inclusion in society. With Evangelical groups keen to distinguish themselves from Secularism they soon began to find much social activity synonymous with secularist thought and to support such secular movements would be anathema to many Evangelical Christians. As a result, many Evangelicals began to reject much social inclusion due to it becoming synonymous with Secularism.
Secondly, unlike the mid-17th century where the dissenting classes were those outside the circle of tolerance, in more recent times Evangelical Non-Conformity has been widely accepted in society. In stark contrast to the austerity of the 19th century and the work of George Muller, the modern day Evangelical is in no position to simply ‘set-up’ orphanages and roam streets with an aim to helping the inner-city impoverished. In this regard, the scope for Christian Non-Conformist activism is lessened. Moreover, it must be remembered that the ultimate aim of the Evangelical is to proselytise (that is not to say they don’t care about the works in which they are involved, however, such works are often used as a vehicle for sharing Christian beliefs). Where fewer opportunities are afforded to Evangelicals to engage in such works Evangelical Christian actvism can be seen to decrease.
Thirdly, there is a theological reason. Most Evangelical Non-Conformists believe that the commandments and instructions given in the Old Testament still have relevance today. Whilst most interpret these commandments in light of the New Testament there are those who believe that Old Testament laws and regulations should be incorporated into British law. Such laws and regulations, they argue, provide us with a basis for a good and right society sanctioned by God. Whilst in the past the implementation of such laws would have largely been supported by the collective will of the populace today such ideas are not held by the masses. In seeking to push Old Testament commandments into modern civil law the Evangelical Right find themselves propagating views that are seen by many to be backwards. the Evangelical Right therefore find themselves squarely on the right of the political spectrum by upholding ultra-Conservative law.
The inconsistency of the Evangelical Christian Right, evoking heroes of a bygone era whilst ignoring their social activism, remains a disparity that does more to hinder attempts to share their faith than it does to help. It must be remembered that the ‘Christian Right’ is not necessarily the widest supported political belief within Evangelicalism, however, it is arguably the loudest. With this being the case, their political inadequacies are ones that affect the whole of the Evangelical movement. Instead of simply evoking the memory of ‘old saints’ and harking back to an era of British religiosity, the Evangelical Right would do well to remember their Non-Conformist, Dissenting heritage. Indeed, such groups should seek to revive the spirit that moved many to do something for Britain rather than continue to propogate a spirit that moves some to intolerance.