Whatever their views about the rights and wrongs of Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time last night, church leaders will now have to think long and hard about some of the arguments they employ.
Last night, the leader of BNP used the words “Christian country” three times in setting out what he believed about what it means to be British - which many in the churches should find a little close for comfort.
To their credit, some churches seemed to anticipate that this is what the racist leader of the Far Right party would do. Joint statements were issued by a number of church leaders distancing themselves from the BNP, and the Evangelical Alliance pre-empted Griffin's appearance on Question Time with a press release saying that the BNP 'does not speak for British Christians.'
But the fact that they felt the need to do this suggests that churches should also now think long and hard about the language they use and the arguments that they mount with regard to national identity. In particular, it is time to drop the ideology of ‘Christian Britain’ which so many employ.
This does not mean that the churches have to deny the huge historic religious influence of Christianity on this country. (And nor does it mean that we should forget the huge mistakes that Christianity has made). What it does mean, is relinquishing the desire to describe what it means to be British in the terms of one religion.
The churches have long found themselves in a strange situation. When they want to appear important and influential, they tend to draw attention to the 72 per cent of the population who identified themselves as 'Christian' at the last census. But when they want to plead they are a minority and need special protections, they will usually focus more on the 5-10 per cent of the population who regularly attend church services.
The BNP has employed a strategy which fits a little too neatly with such an approach. Over the last five years it has been making a play for the Christian vote, and seeking to portray itself as a ‘Christian’ party, particularly when playing on fears over Islam.
Like many in the churches, on the one hand it appeals to the majority of the population who see their cultural identity in religious terms. On the other, it also seeks to win support from those who feel that they are now a persecuted minority, facing threats from ‘the Muslims’ to ‘secularists’ and the ‘politically correct’ to name just a few of the groups which some Christians and the BNP have caricatured as the 'enemy'.
And those who might be tempted to think that this is all pretty inconsequential should take a long hard look at what has been going on over the last few years. In the run up to the European Elections, the BNP produced posters featuring a picture of Jesus Christ on the cross and quoted part of a verse from John's Gospel (John 15:20) in which Jesus says: "If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you". A few years earlier, they also facilitated the establishment of a body called the Christian Council of Britain.
Ekklesia’s analysis of the leaked BNP membership list showed that such tactics seemed to be having an effect. Some BNP members were listed as a Pentecostal Christians attending an Assemblies of God church. Another was called a Quaker. Still another a "practising Catholic". Others are said to be Cathedral tour guides, members of the Anglican Society, and supporters of the Evangelical Open Doors charity which works with persecuted Christians around the world - many in predominantly Muslim countries. Another was listed as someone who preaches regularly in Baptist, United Reformed and Presbyterian churches. One was described as a "committed Evangelical Christian" who attended bible studies and prayer meetings, others as "born again" Christians. Another had an email address linked to a Christian bookshop.
The overwhelming majority of the records had no comments on them. The number of self-identifying 'Christians' in the BNP's ranks is therefore likely to be still higher.
It is also likely that these problems will cause further discomfort for the churches. The BNP now has several dozen 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 BNP governors advancing a strategy of social division by vigorously endorsing the admissions policy - run by many church schools - of favouring Christians over others in the local community.
This is tough news for a Church that wants to rely on 'cultural capital'. The churches can pass all the bans that they like on BNP membership, but this will not tackle the underlying problem of the shared rhetoric and, for some, the shared perspective on preserving a Christian identity for Britain.
But there is another way. Instead of adopting a defensive stance which pleases those seeking to make political capital out of civic 'de-Christianisation', the Church has an opportunity to refocus its message. 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. The churches are in a prime position to do this. They are the main providers of election hustings and have a presence in communities up and down the country. They work in some of the most deprived areas, as well as some of the most middle class ones. And they have a long track record of advocacy for migrants and refugees.
It is time for the churches to ditch the rhetoric of 'Christian Britain' and religious identity and to replace it with a new discourse based on a Christian vision of justice and equality, rather the hankering after a bygone age which will do nothing but fuel the BNP’s racist ideology.
(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.