This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
The National Secular Society’s (NSS) pyrrhic victory in stopping Bideford Town Council’s official prayers, and Eric Pickles’s fast-track legislative response, say much about the contrast between the apparent power of aggressive secularists and the political realities.
Far from claiming to speak for the majority, the NSS is a veritable David to the Goliath of the religious community. If blogger Archbishop Cranmer is to be believed, the NSS has a mandate similar in size to that of the British Sausage Appreciation Society (7,000).
By comparison, some 1.7 million people take part in a Church of England service each month, which is four times the combined membership of all three main Westminster political parties. Then there are, of course, other denominations and faiths, such as the UK’s 2.8 million Muslims.
Little wonder, then, that party leaders pay lip service – perhaps cynically – to this sleeping giant. When first quizzed about his religious views, David Cameron used the old oxymoron of claiming adherence to Christianity while insisting it should be private. Sorry, Dave, but you can’t get away with that – Christ’s parting words were to “go and make disciples of all nations”. While having once forgotten the old maxim that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx, Tony Blair appears, since leaving office, to have repented of his coyness about ‘doing God’.
The only party leader who is consistently transparent on such matters is Nick Clegg, whose atheism is more visible, and for which he pays a political price.
He was picketed by religious groups during the 2010 election campaign for his stance on family and parenting issues, which, as outlined in the poll opposite, went down like a lead balloon with some Christian voters.
Indeed, a ComRes/Premier Media poll of Christians conducted before the last election found that only six per cent thought he would make the best prime minister, compared to 37 per cent who said the same of David Cameron, and 20 per cent of Gordon Brown.
As Pickles knows, Britain’s churchgoers are a constituency that cannot be ignored. As the poll of churchgoers on the next page shows, the top campaign issues all relate to policy areas where faith groups have cause to be concerned.
|How important would you consider each of these issues is to campaign on?|
|Freedom of religious expression||68%|
|Care of the elderly||59%|
|Persecuted church overseas||54%|
|base: 529 regular churchgoers, July 2011|
Faith communities have at times, over the past two decades, expressed considerable displeasure about political changes. If Labour set out in 1997 to create a social revolution, it succeeded. However, this resulted in a rash of high-profile court cases that continue today, and it spawned new media-savvy lobby groups intent on pushing back against further change. And these campaigns were not just fought by religious groups – the campaign against the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill in 2004 united Rowan Williams, the NSS and evangelicals like the Barnabas Fund in its opposition.
However, Cameron would probably be unable to do today what Blair, with his overwhelming mandate and massive House of Commons majority, did back then, but he’s determined to try. Blair needed strong support from his own backbenchers, something that Cameron lacks and which could be critical, given his enthusiasm for measures such as legalising same-sex marriage. The majority of Conservative MPs oppose the PM on this issue, even if they are afraid to say so publicly, and their own voters are unenthusiastic. It’s hard, therefore, to see what political advantage there is in Cameron fighting his own side over an issue of supreme unconcern to most of the public.
Britain’s religious communities – and in particular the Church of England – have suffered from the worst of all worlds. It has attempted to accommodate a fast-evolving secular culture by compromising with it, while at the same time failing to adapt and modernise its own leadership structures to be more relevant and effective in both contemporary public debate and in attracting new members. It almost needs a bit of persecution to shock it into reforming itself and crystallise what it stands for.
Over the longer term, demographics will be critical. In a Richard Dawkins Foundation/Ipsos MORI poll, more than twice as many over-65s as those aged 15 to 25 and who described themselves as Christian in the 2011 Census, could correctly identify Matthew’s Gospel as the first book of the New Testament. More young people incorrectly said Genesis. This lack of biblical literacy is a reflection of changing childhood habits: fewer than one in five aged between 15 and 24 said they learned most about Christianity as a child from church or Sunday school, compared to almost 50 per cent of those aged 65 and over.
If this trend continues, the church will have a far greater problem on its hands than gay marriage and lawsuits from the National Secular Society.
Poll to watch - 10%
YouGov found the British public to be strongly averse to military intervention in Syria in early February with fewer than one in ten supporting sending troops to overthrow President Assad. By comparison the first ComRes poll after the Libyan action began in 2011 showed 35 per cent support – so higher but still not overwhelming – and, for comparison, early support for the invasion of Iraq was over 50 per cent. In the wake of the tragic death of Marie Colvin and toughening rhetoric on both sides it is likely that support for a stronger stance will increase.
Behind the figure - 62%
In a ComRes/ITV Index poll (19 Feb), almost two-thirds of the public (62 per cent) said they thought the NHS ‘is in crisis’. The dictionary defines crisis as “a time of intense difficulty or danger” which perhaps applies more to Andrew Lansley’s tenure as health secretary than to the service he oversees. In a sense, the public are correct; ‘crisis’ derives from the medical Latin relating to a ‘decision point’. None of which helps the perception that the government has lost control: barely one in five think the NHS is off the critical list.
Andrew Hawkins is chairman of ComRes