Jonathan Bartley

Is 'Christian nation' rhetoric aiding the far right?

By Jonathan Bartley
April 27, 2007

Christian denominations and church groups have been falling over themselves to denounce the British National Party (BNP) in the last few weeks, ahead of the impending local elections.

During the last European elections, I was taking part in a BBC phone-in on political extremism when the BNP's press officer called the programme. Not only was the BNP a Christian party, he claimed, but the institutional church had let the country down. His party would defend British culture because churches had failed to do so.

Since then there have been two noticeable changes. First, the BNP has stepped up its religious rhetoric. In recent local elections, the party's literature included copies of the controversial Mohammed cartoons. It also helped establish a 'Christian Council of Britain'. The goal is apparently to appeal to those in the population who identify with Christianity, but feel panicked both by 'liberal secularism' and the growth of Islam.

At the same time, leading figures within the Church of England have also become far more vocal in their calls to stem the tide of secularism, and to defend the predominant 'Christian culture' of Britain. The uncomfortable fact is that this puts the Church into the position of arguing the same political point about national identity as the BNP.

Of course the rationales of these messages are very different. The agenda behind the BNP's claims is essentially a cultural one - partly in opposition to an alleged liberal elite, and partly in an attempt to whip up fear of minority faiths. In contrast, few would question the commitment of the Church of England to combating racism. But the time has come to face the fact that when it uses 'Christian nation' rhetoric, it risks encouraging support for right-wing extremists.

It may be no coincidence that it has been the Church's two most senior black leaders, Archbishop Sentamu and Bishop Nazir Ali, who have made the most prominent pronouncements against 'the secular tide'. The Church must surely be aware of the dangers of its arguments. But it is doubtful that this will limit the damage, with the BNP also now claiming (no doubt disingenuously) some non-white members.

These problems look likely to get more uncomfortable. The BNP now has 47 councillors in the UK, and church schools could face BNP representatives appointed to their governing bodies. Local authorities, after all, have a duty to nominate some governors from different local political parties. If this happens, they may find these representatives wholeheartedly endorsing the admissions policies that many church schools run, favouring Christians over others in local communities, as a strategy for encouraging social division.

But the terrain is changing. A recent Tearfund survey found that just 53% of the population identified in some way with Christianity. That is a colossal drop compared to the last national census, when 72% did so.

This is tough news for a Church that wants to rely on 'cultural capital'. But there is another way. Instead of adopting a defensive stance which pleases those seeking to make political capital out of civic 'de-Christianization', the Church has an opportunity to refocus on the vocation of Jesus - which means costly discipleship, not cultural dominance.

It is easy to make a claim to speak for the sentiments of an (albeit dwindling) majority of the population. It is far harder to mount a practical stand for justice, and base one's political authority on the quality of one's actions in the here and now. But in an increasingly plural society, it will be the quality of contemporary political witness, not appeals to a bygone age, which will sort the sheep from the old goats.

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