Have UK evangelicals drifted right?

Apparently the FT‘s magazine today has an article on the rise of evangelical Christians within the Conservative Party. (If anyone has a spare copy of this: I’d love to see it.) (Update: thanks to Phil for providing a link to the article on the FT website.)

Equally interesting is the rise of Conservatism among evangelical Christians. My personal experience – admittedly limited – is that post-war Anglican evangelicals tended to lean slightly left, under the influence of John Stott and his emphasis on social justice issues, and that a shift towards Conservatism has occurred since 1997. Go back further, to the 19th century, and non-Anglican evangelicals formed the backbone of the old Liberal Party (which, admittedly, wasn’t “left-wing” as we’d understand it; but it certainly wasn’t Tory, either).

A similar change that has occurred since I first entered evangelical circles in the mid-90s: a revival of creationism among UK evangelicals. Again, when I first returned to faith in 1994 there seemed nothing incongruous about being an evangelical who accepted evolution. Books such as Henri Blocher’s In The Beginning had a significant influence, and John Stott (again) was an example of an influential evangelical leader who accepted both evolution and even a non-literal reading of the Flood narratives.

My feeling – nothing scientific here! – is that young-earth creationism is now more common among younger evangelicals than it was, with intelligent design also commanding a great deal of support. Accepting mainstream evolutionary science feels like a minority position in a way that it did not 15 years ago.

I wonder if the internet has been a factor on both these issues. The web has brought UK Christians into closer contact with American Christianity. (I should know: I wouldn’t be a Lutheran today had it not been for exposure to reformational and Lutheran writers via the web.) And this in turn has increased the influence of American evangelical concerns such as anti-evolutionism and “culture war” issues rather than issues of economic and political justice; as well as encouraging the general sense of a correlation between political and religious conservatism.

It may also be a symptom of a wider fragmentation within evangelicalism, particularly between “conservative” and “open” evangelicals. (This is in many ways symbolised by Bible translations: fifteen years ago, the NIV was used almost universally among UK evangelicals. Now conservative evangelicals tend to prefer the ESV, with open evangelicals using the NIV or even NRSV, and charismatics possibly preferring the NLT. Again, just my perception, this.)

Sixteen years ago, I became a conservative evangelical in the John Stott tradition. I’ve admittedly moved from that tradition in a number of ways, but John Stott hasn’t changed – and yet I suspect he would now be seen as more of a “liberal evangelical” or “open evangelical” figure by many. (At least, he probably commands more support from those constituencies than from conservative evangelicals, among whom the main influences are now people like Mark Driscoll.)

I’d be interested to know what others think. Am I right that a shift has occurred on these issues? If so, why do people think this has happened?

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17 Responses to Have UK evangelicals drifted right?

  1. Dave K says:

    I think it is so difficult to have an opinion on this. Most of us have such limited experience of what the ‘mood out there’ that I hesitate to comment.

    The one thing I am fairly confident of is that there has been increased fragmentation. But I think that makes it harder than ever to say where things are moving. There is no one place (e.g. Spring Harvest, NEAC) you can go to see which way the tide is going.

  2. Phil Walker says:

    FT article: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/12400596-16ac-11df-aa09-00144feab49a.html (I can, um, do a bit of ‘redistribution’ if necessary.)
    ConHome coverage: http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thetorydiary/2010/02/christians-in-the-conservative-party.html

    Note that the issue raised at the beginning of the FT report concerns a ‘New Life’ church, which is non-con charismatic. You may recall the blow-up in Brentwood and Ongar when Pickles was selected; that was a similar problem with a Pentecostal church allegedly ‘taking over’ the local Conservative association.

    I think Dave’s quite right to say that it’s hard for us to extrapolate our necessarily limited experience out to a wider view of evangelicalism. I might add that things always look a little different in the big cities than they do out in the sticks. For instance, you may think that it was easer to believe in evolution fifteen years ago, but you might not have had quite the same perception had you been watching from the churches I grew up in. It is also quite different depending on whether you take a view which is focussed on Anglican evangelicals, or allows non-conformists in as well; and one which is centred on England, or includes Scotland and Wales.

    I also would want to question whether it is right to associate a rise in Conservatism with a rise in conservatism: that is, evangelicals have always been conservative on ‘moral’ issues (with varying degrees of attachment to the authoritarian idea of using secular law as a stick to beat the ‘immoral’), but many evangelicals have been happy voting for Labour in spite of that conservatism. Thus I suspect that issues like the equality agenda, especially now that it is cutting close to churches, have been a serious turn-off for many evangelical Labour supporters. In that sense, if the ‘culture war’ is becoming an issue, Harman has been enthusiastically firing the first shots.

    We’re also members of society at large, and are not immune to the general feeling of ennui regarding a tired governing party which has lost its way. If you wanted to ask the question more accurately, you would want to identify whether there has been a disproportionate swing towards the Tories among evangelicals. I think more generally, Labour is going to need to look at itself and ask itself where it went wrong: trying to conduct an exercise of identifying external factors is missing the biggest issue at play here, which is the failings of the current government.

    Also, I don’t think you can argue that evangelicals have lost some of the concerns for ‘economic and political justice’, such as a concern for the poor. Let me first register my disagreement with your implicit assertion that these are ‘left-wing’ concerns. They are not, as you well know: other people diagnose the problems differently and propose different solutions in consequence. That does not make them unconcerned. Indeed, Montgomerie argues that Christians in the Conservative Party have brought that concern with them and been a part of the way in which the Tory party has been able to renew its own concern for helping the poor, in a distinctively Tory way.

    Concerning Stott, I don’t think he has lost influence among conservative evangelicals as such. Obviously he is no longer personally active, which does change things somewhat, but I think it is more a case of sharing the platform with other voices. That’s no bad thing.

  3. joel in ga says:

    It is funny how perceptions differ. Growing up as a conservative Baptist in America, then a Calvinist, then Lutheran, my impression has been that, among Christians who take the Bible seriously, there is more openness now to intelligently designed evolution than in previous decades, just as there has been wider acceptance of women in ministry. At the same time, young earth creationists have been improving on their arguments, borrowing in part from the works of mainstream scientists who have bucked evolutionary orthodoxy. A recent example of which is geneticist John Sanford of Cornell University.

  4. Chris E says:

    As Dave K says, it’s difficult to build up a realistic opinion on this – though that’s what I’m about to try and do!

    I don’t really see much use of the NLT among charismatics – though there is perhaps much more use of of the KJV amongst stricter charismatics and pentecostals.

    I think what you are seeing are the particularly British effects of the Charismatic renewal movement. Generally, this has resulted in a drift away from parts of the Baptist and Anglican churches – especially during the 80s as those denominations each became less conservative in nature – with some formerly conservative churches becoming more charismatic as the generational mix changes and others experiencing attrition due to moves etc that were never replaced. I suspect a lot of the last has been due to the the dwindling number of purely conservative evangelical churches across the country – with the most vibrant churches ending up in a sort of conservative-charismatic-evangelical middle ground.

    I think the more literalistic reading of Genesis 1 can almost certainly be put down to this factor – amongst charismatics it has always been the norm, and generally their influence has been on the rise, though in percentage terms they have probably been in the majority since the late 80s.

    As for Stott – I suspect that it’s not so much that he is seen as a ‘liberal’ but that as he is seen to be a cessationist, he tends to be less read in charismatic circles, even if they still respect the name. Plus, I think he’s probably just a little too wordy for a generation that reads a lot less than their parents.

  5. Chris Williams says:

    John,

    I has a FT weekend magazine. I’ll try to discreetly scan it in work tomorrow and email it to you.

  6. Chris Williams says:

    The article, not the whole magazine, that is.

  7. John H says:

    Phil: thanks for your response – apologies for the delay in freeing it up from the moderation queue.

    I agree entirely that there is no inherent link between political and theological conservatism. I’m reminded of Chesterton’s observation on the expectation some had in his day that political Liberals should also be theological liberals: he said that this was like expecting low churchmen to enjoy Low Mass, or broad churchmen to enjoy broad jokes. A mere accident of language.

    However, I think in the US there is a stronger linkage between the two, and the increased connections between UK and US Christians – plus an awful lot of lazy reporting about “the Christian right” – has encouraged a similar perception here.

    As for economic and political justice issues not being simply “left-wing” issues: I quite agree. (Equally I wonder how well the genuine concern that evangelicals have brought with them into the Conservative party will survive in office. Useful as a means of “decontaminating the brand”, but I suspect more traditional Tory priorities will come to the fore in government. See also: civil liberties.)

    In the same way, “life” issues and issues of personal morality are not simply “right-wing” issues. However, if your political priorities are the poor and victims of injustice etc., you are more likely at least to consider the “left-wing” answers to those questions (even if those are not the only answers). Similarly, if your political priorities are matters of personal morality, defending the family etc., you are more likely to feel more comfortable with parties of the right. See, for example, the way in which evangelicals voting for Obama in 2008 generally expressed their decision in terms of wanting to move away from a narrow fixation on “culture war” issues to issues of political and economic justice. You may say they were wrong to see voting Obama as the only, or best way, to express that change of focus – but that’s still how they saw it, and how they voted.

    I agree as well that the collision between the government’s pro-equality agenda and the church has been a factor. How the church should relate and respond to anti-discrimination laws is a very complex area. I almost blogged on it a few days ago before deciding I’d be wading into a morass from which I might never emerge. On the one hand, there are issues of freedom of association and the freedom to practice even unpopular beliefs. On the other, you end up wondering what aspect of the gospel requires a Christian school to have a special exemption allowing it to fire gay teachers. How do you prevent a business from proclaiming itself to have a “Christian ethos” in order to arbitrarily exclude Muslims from employment? And so on.

  8. Phil Walker says:

    I agree entirely that there is no inherent link between political and theological conservatism.

    Yes, but it’s not just political and theological conservatism, at least if we’re using the term ‘theological conservative’ to mean the same things. I also mean that people with a socially conservative outlook (‘family values’, if you will) vote for Labour. As you will recall, Labour’s historic chapel roots have, for most of its duration, made it quite a socially conservative party. The Harman agenda is an aberration, perhaps in more ways than one…!

    I suspect more traditional Tory priorities will come to the fore in government. See also: civil liberties.

    Sure, we’ll have to see. Part of the issue is whether sites like ConHome are able to give the grassroots a chance to express dissatisfaction if the Tories are in government. If they have stay relentlessly ‘on-message’, then maybe they’ll get away with it. I should add, I’m not universally sanguine about the prospects of a Tory government: apart from the danger of losing the good things which are present, there are a host of inanities in the manifesto. I’m not going to leave the opposition if we have a blue Prime Minister come May 7th!

    On civil liberties, it’s rather saddening to see that evangelicals have only started to talk about them now that the government is proposing to infringe on our freedom to associate and so on. I know that in the Eighties, the civil liberties agenda was, to a certain extent, dominated by groups like Stonewall, but one might have hoped that evangelicals could have woken up rather sooner than we, as a group, have done. It’s only when ‘they’ infringe on ‘our’ liberties that we get worked up, and I think that’s wrong. (Niemöller’s poem stays with me on things like civil liberties. If you don’t give them to people you disagree with and even dislike, then they’re not worth anything.)

  9. Phil Walker says:

    One of my questions has been answered: Christians as a whole have not drifted as far towards the Tories as society at large. Given that I expect evangelicals to be dragging the Christian average up, I would think that they have not moved as far towards the Tories as society at large, albeit from a higher base.

    The Christian Socialist Movement on LeftFootForward tells us a Theos survey found that ‘Since 2005, support for the Conservatives amongst those of no religion has grown from 21% to 34%, yet amongst Christians, during the same period, support for the Tories has risen by just 2% from 38% to 40%.’ (src)

  10. Chris E says:

    Incidentally, the recent articles on Adrian Warnocks site regarding the whole issue of evolution would tend to bear out – via reading the presuppositions – my contention that creationism was always a force among a certain type of conservative evangelical:

    http://adrianwarnock.com/2009/12/evolutionary-spectrum/
    http://adrianwarnock.com/2010/02/darwin-and-the-christian-a-tour-by-christian-evolutionists/
    http://adrianwarnock.com/2010/02/is-it-really-possible-to-believe-in-a-form-of-evolution-and-still-be-a-christian/

  11. John Z says:

    I’m a little late to this party, John (by about two weeks), but regarding confessional Lutheranism in the UK: is YEC popular within the movement? It’s basically the only thing around in US-style confessional Lutheranism. Most LC-MSers aren’t even aware that there are other ways of looking at this that are still Biblical. I was told by someone once that by rejecting YEC I had violated my confirmation vows.

  12. John H says:

    Chris: undoubtedly YEC has been significant among UK evangelicals. But equally there was the strand represented by John Stott (and more recently someone like Alister McGrath). I get the impression that those who would once have held a moderately “pro-evolution” position are now more likely to hold to intelligent design (and probably mean much the same by each position).

    Phil: thanks for digging out those stats. I’ve clearly been living a sheltered life – plus Toryism has been “the politics that dare not speak its name” for most of my adult life, and people have only recently felt able to come out of the closet… I suspect also that those figures are a reflection of the middle-class nature of much of evangelicalism.

    John: the ELCE has no “official” position. My own pastor (LCMS background) is very pro-YEC, as have our last two curates (i.e. “vicars” in LCMS-speak). Other pastors take a different view, though I’m not aware of any expressing outright support for evolution. YEC is the view that doesn’t need to look over its shoulder when it’s expressing itself, put it that way… 😉

  13. Chris E says:


    I get the impression that those who would once have held a moderately “pro-evolution” position are now more likely to hold to intelligent design (and probably mean much the same by each position).

    Given that one of the IDers spoke recently at some event organised at All Souls, I suspect that’s correct.

    Incidentally, this is an interesting paper on the topic, and sets forward a very irenic model of going forward [and includes Kidner’s theistic evolution model from his commentary on Genesis].

    http://www.biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf

  14. Phil Walker says:

    Toryism has been “the politics that dare not speak its name”.

    It depends what you’re thinking of there. Moderate Tories, yes; libertarian Tories certainly. But the Taliban tendency Tories certainly haven’t felt a need to keep quiet! There again, for them a lack of reticence in expressing their views has been something of a defining feature.

    The class point is valid to an extent, but you shouldn’t make too much of it. In Leicester I was in a church with a good social mix of working and middle classes. Tories were still the loudest and the most in evidence. Tradesmen: Tories. Doctors: Tories. The story here is experiential, not statistical.

    YEC is the view that doesn’t need to look over its shoulder when it’s expressing itself.

    I like that description: it summarises what’s always been the case in churches of my own attendance as well. That in spite, actually, of having had ministers who take different views!

  15. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Tim Keller on creation and evolution

  16. Tom R says:

    Whereas British Lutherans would pay no heed to an epistle of Straw.

  17. John J. Jones says:

    I would argue that the Bible is NOT a scientific text book, and in all probability Genesis 1 is a parabel which sets out, not to establish HOW, or WHEN, the world was made; but rather WHO made it.

    However the value of anything we believe is seen in the effect that belief has on our lives.

    If, whatever we believe does NOT make us better people, it is just so much poppycock !

    Following Christ is not about RULES, but RELATIONSHIPS.

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