Sticks and Stones: The Use of Anti-Secular Discourse in Britain

NSP-0071
In this post, Steven Kettell discusses a
rise of a strident anti-secular discourse in Britain. Intolorent secularist discourse is inherently anti-religious and wants to drive religion from the public space. Anti-secularist discourses, on the other hand have seen a rise in the promotion of religion in ‘public’ spaces. Kettell explores the motives and agendas of these discourses.

The past decade has seen the rise of a strident anti-secular discourse in Britain. Based on the idea that a militant, aggressive and intolerant form of secularism is trying to marginalise faith and drive it out of the public square, anti-secular rhetoric has found growing popularity among political as well as religious figures (particularly those associated with the Christian faith) aiming to promote a greater role for faith in the public realm. The interests and motives behind the new anti-secularism, however, are substantively divergent, and the prospects of success are slim.

For religious actors the main concerns centre on the progressive impact of secularisation and the on-going decline of religious influence in British society and culture. In this case the use of anti-secular discourse – replete with claims of marginalisation and discrimination against people of faith (examples here include high-profile court cases of alleged discrimination on employment grounds) – forms part of a broader strategic move towards a form of identity politics based on a language of minority rights and demands for religious freedom. One aspect of this has been to promote the notion of a competing hierarchy of rights, in which those of faith communities are said to have become subordinate to those of other social groups, such as ethnic minorities and homosexuals. The introduction of equalities legislation by the New Labour governments, as well as the legalisation of same-sex marriage by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, are held-up as significant developments in restricting faith-based rights.

The scale of the problem facing religious groups is well revealed (inter alia) by official census statistics. These show that the proportion of the adult population in England and Wales describing themselves as Christian fell from 71.7% in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011, while the proportion describing themselves as having no religion increased from 14.8% to 25.1% over the same period. Other surveys are available. Figures from British Social Attitudes in 2012, for instance, showed that the proportion of British adults describing themselves as belonging to no religion rose from 31% in 1983 to 50% in 2010, while the proportion describing themselves as Christian fell from 66% to 44%. Figures for non-Christian religions show increasing numbers of adherents, but the overall trajectory is distinctly one-way.

This process of decline poses a common threat to the interests of religious groups; a challenge that crosses religious and Christian denominational boundaries. In this respect, framing the problems of secularisation around themes of discrimination and the defence of minority rights is useful for a number of reasons. Establishing a sense of injustice provides a means of promoting group cohesion, solidarity and activism, while a strategy of appealing to the values of group rights, liberties and perceptions of fairness, is one that promises to resonate with the concerns and language of the wider public given the more general salience of human rights norms and identity issues.

The promotion of anti-secular discourse by political actors is driven by a markedly different set of concerns. Here the main issues have been shaped by the changing nature of governance and (in particular) the electoral merits of the Conservative party. The overarching context here is not that of secularisation, but the growing pace of political change and the transformative impact of processes such as globalisation, privatisation, deregulation and the ‘hollowing out’ of the state – all of which have, in various ways, contributed to an apparent diminution of state power and a narrowing conception of the ‘political’. One consequence of this has been to raise questions about the meaning and relevance of notions such as state sovereignty, parliamentary democracy and national identity in the twenty-first century.

In this respect, the use of anti-secular discourse by political figures signifies an attempt to deal with these problems by promoting a different form of identity politics; namely, one that is based on the idea of ‘Britishness’. Here the intention is inculcate a sense of shared national solidarity and common values, typically based around wholly ambiguous qualities (such as ‘tolerance’, ‘fairness’, ‘justice’ etc), infused with the ostensible benefits of religious beliefs and practices. In this, Christianity is framed as a core part of British national identity, providing a repository of shared values and furnishing a sense of community and belonging that brings with it a number of important social and cultural advantages.

Emphasising a connection between Britishness and Christianity provides particular benefits for the Conservative party as well, forming an anchor for its ideological beliefs (supporting traditional values, conventional bases of social order, and promoting small state politics) and helping to direct attention away from divisive, class-based economic issues resulting from the imposition of austerity. Another advantage is a potential broadening of the Conservatives’ electoral appeal amongst religious sections of the electorate. While processes of secularisation, partisan dealignment and the rise of value-based issue voting have led to significant shifts in the nature of electoral competition in countries across Western Europe – and while the influence of religion on party choice in Britain is less pronounced than in most other European countries – the salience of religious cleavages remains considerable. Figures from the 2015 general election show that 46% of Church of England members voted for the Conservatives (compared to 30% for Labour, 13% for UKIP and just 8% for the Liberal Democrats). Catholics and members of non-Christian faiths were more likely to vote for other parties, but the overall trend was one that favoured the Conservatives. In this context, the promotion of anti-secular discourse, combined with a growing emphasis on the value of faith in the public square, has the potential not only to enthuse traditional Conservative supporters on the right but to appeal to wavering voters with a sense of (if only nominal) religious identity who are sympathetic to the notion that religion is under threat.

At the same time, anti-secular rhetoric also enables the Conservatives to pursue these objectives without overtly compromising claims to be a reformed, modernised and tolerant political party. Framing militant secularism as being driven by oversensitivity to the concerns of minority groups provides a ‘dog whistle’ for right-wing antipathy towards issues such as multiculturalism and political correctness. The risk that linking Britishness to the specifics of Christianity will undermine claims of inclusivity is countered by a simultaneous assertion that a strong sense of national identity is itself in the best interests of minority groups, since this provides an overarching social and cultural framework within which they can feel more secure in their own faith-based identities.

Whether or not the use of anti-secular discourse will enable religious and political figures to achieve these objectives remains to be seen, but on the basis of the available evidence the prospects for success would not appear to be particularly high.

One core problem for religious proponents concerns the very nature of anti-secular discourse itself. Promoting a greater role for faith with a language of civic and human rights denotes the use and acceptance of norms and patterns for public discourse that are themselves intrinsically secularised. Putting the case for religion in such a way effectively concedes the point that in order to influence wider opinion, public discourse needs to be framed around avowedly liberal secular values – a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that religious views no longer command much influence among large swathes of the populace. Moreover, claims that religious groups need to be accorded the same formal rights and equalities as other social interests themselves highlight the sectional character of religious interests, and provide no obvious reason as to why they should continue to be treated differently to other social interests in the enjoyment of special political and legal privileges. Co-opting the methods of identity politics (originally promoted as a means of challenging the status quo on behalf of truly marginalised sections of society) for the defence of established interests is likely to have certain inviolable limits.

In a similar fashion, a key issue for political proponents of anti-secular discourse is that appeals made on the basis of religion are likely to resonate with a progressively declining share of the electorate, making it a strategy with ever-diminishing returns. A more immediate problem, however, is that adopting positions designed to appeal to religious groups contains the potential for clashes with party desires to be regarded as politically modernised and forward looking. This point was amply demonstrated in the reaction of more traditionalist elements within the Conservative party to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and the dilemma remains unresolved.

On the basis of this analysis, anti-secular discourse might be here to stay – at least for a while – but it is unlikely to produce the kinds of results that its proponents might wish to see.

References

British Religion in Numbers (2013) ‘Religion and Voting and Other News’, BRIN, 10 March. Available from:http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2013/religion-and-voting-and-other-news/ [Accessed 1 September 2013].

British Social Attitudes (2012) British Social Attitudes, 28th Report. London: Sage.

Steven Kettell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, at the University of Warwick. His main research interests are centred on the relationship between politics and religion. He is currently engaged in research projects analysing the politics of atheism and the politics of Christianity in the UK. He is is also a founder and Co-Executive Editor of British Politics.

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