The final votes were hardly counted when speculation began about how the Conservative Party would form a coalition to govern in a hung Parliament. Their prospective partners are the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland. Their ten members of Parliament will likely give the Tories a working majority and secure – at least for the time – Theresa May as Prime Minister.
The question as any coalition forms is what will the leading partner have to give, so what might the DUP demand? The DUP, from its founding by Rev Ian Paisley as a Protestant faction in the Troubles, is known for its social conservatism. It has vetoed efforts at same-sex marriage legislation in Northern Ireland as it has attempts to legalize abortion there. Of course, Theresa May would not be called to relinquish established, progressive social policy in the UK, but it remains to be seen whether and how this coalition might make social conservatism salient on the political agenda.
My research suggests that any attempt by May to placate her coalition partners in Northern Ireland on this front would not strengthen her hand among conservative Protestants in England. I conducted a series of focus groups in Evangelical congregations around the country to hear their perspectives on how they intersect their religious and civic lives and quickly learned there wasn't much overlap.
British Evangelicals hold their religious identity very strongly – for nearly all, being a Christian is the most important part of their self-representation. But they are distinctly lacking a political identity. They locate across the ideological spectrum and affiliate with a variety of political parties. Most significantly, their religious identity does not inform their political attitudes, partisan affiliation, or voting behavior. The religious and the political exist in separate spheres.
I asked the groups to discuss what they think are the most important problems facing the country today. Tellingly, no one – not among 81 participants – cited abortion, same-sex marriage, or any of the standard Culture War issues that, for good or for ill, define modern Evangelicalism. Instead, these Evangelicals talked about poverty, the growing reliance on food banks in their communities, and even climate change. They expressed concern about wealth and income inequality, which they connect to societal breakdown. In fact, this 'lack of society', as one participant described it, is the most important issue for British Evangelicals. They lament the social fragmentation that marks contemporary Britain. But they are skeptical of attempts by politicians to repair the social fabric via superficial policies (eg, the 'Big Society') even as austere fiscal policies seem to undercut those efforts.
In fact, Evangelicals exhibit much cynicism of political and party leaders. Evangelicals demonstrate high levels of political engagement in that they express much interest in politics and say they discuss it frequently with their neighbors, but they scoff at suggestions that a party leader would reach out to them on the basis of their faith. (They equally deride the thought that religious leaders might make political issues matters of faith.)
Entering these conversations, my assumptions were informed by the American experience where a pact for power between Evangelicals and the Republican Party forms the 'Christian Right', the most potent political movement in the last 30 years. Just as I projected my assumptions about American Evangelical political behavior onto British Evangelicals, so too do British media and elites. But that presents a stark miscalculation. To understand the political behavior of British Evangelicals, it's essential to understand that they do not identify as 'Evangelical'. Indeed, participants across the groups reject the label in large part because of its negative connotations from the American model. British Evangelicals do not self-identify as Evangelical, so it does not form the basis of a social identity whereby members define themselves and others. Being Evangelical has no individual or group relevance to the civic lives of British Evangelicals; it is not a frame for how they see political issues or structures. Thus, religious identity cannot be a catalyst to political mobilisation of British Evangelicals.
Rather than pay mere lip service to Christian values, May – and parties of all stripes – would do well to learn about British Evangelicals. And greater religious literacy would save media and elites from perpetually chasing the spectre of a Christian Right – without or without the DUP.
Andrea C. Hatcher is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, U.S.A. Her book, POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS IDENTITIES OF BRITISH EVANGELICALS will be published June 26, 2017 by Palgrave Macmillan. Follow her on Twitter @Prof_Hatcher