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Could Britain’s evangelical Christians ever support a Trump-like figure?

14 March 2016

5:51 PM

14 March 2016

5:51 PM

Building walls, banning Muslims, mass deportations. However bad things appear in UK politics, we console ourselves with the thought that Trump could never happen here. Before that comforting thought tips over into full schadenfreude at the expense of our American cousins, we might wonder why that’s the case.

There are two obvious reasons we don’t have a Trump figure. Firstly, Trump’s appeal is in a class of its own. There’s nobody in British politics who matches his ‘outsider’ status, brazen style and celebrity. Secondly, our electoral system prevents significant gains by any outsider candidates. Ukip’s paltry one MP from over four million votes at the 2015 election confirms this.

Leaving aside the differences in personality and the electoral system, there’s another vast difference between the two countries which means that it’s highly unlikely we will ever see the emergence of a British Trump: the evangelical vote.

As any House of Cards or West Wing devotee knows, evangelical voters are key to the Republican base. Indeed the New York Times reported that Trump is outperforming Cruz by 33 per cent to 22 among the evangelical bloc. Incorrectly used as a cipher for ‘horrible Christian bigots’ by some in the secular media, there is nonetheless a vast voting bloc in America which is socially conservative and firmly attached to the Republican party.

Just how Christian these voters actually are is up for debate, but it’s clear that among those who claim the label ‘evangelical’, Donald Trump is very popular. His biggest Super Tuesday wins came across the South where evangelical voters are concentrated. He has now begun polling above Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — both conservative Christians — among evangelical voters.

This is astonishing, considering Trump’s business interests in gambling, his record of two failed marriages, his inability to name a Bible verse and his admittance that he has never asked forgiveness from God – a key tenet of evangelical faith.

Yet Trump is speaking to this demographic and the endorsements are rolling in. Jerry Falwell Jnr – son of Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority – and a key cornerstone of the Religious Right, has been among Trump’s key backers. Trump has been seen praying with ‘big name’ televangelists such as Paula White and Kenneth Copeland, and he recently appeared with veteran Religious Right leader and conspiracy theorist Pat Robertson.

Theories abound as to exactly why Trump is proving viable with a growing number of evangelicals. One reason might be that they’ve been fooled into thinking they need ‘one of their own’ in the White House in the past and it hasn’t worked. George W Bush was a card-carrying evangelical, yet even with a Republican Congress, he wasn’t able to legislate fully in their interests – there was little change in the law on abortion, for instance. So now, the argument goes, they’re voting for a commander-in-chief, not a ‘pastor-in-chief’.

For any Republican to win the nomination (and then the Presidential election) they have to reach out beyond this evangelical base. Libertarians, free marketeers, neo-conservatives and, of course, swing voters need to be convinced. Yet it is impossible to underestimate the significance of the evangelical bloc. In America, over a quarter of the whole population self-identifies as evangelical. Simply put, to win as a Republican, you must energise the evangelical base – something Trump’s team is beginning to achieve against the odds – and something John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 failed to do.

What of the British evangelical vote? Though we lack some of the other specifically American voting blocs – Hispanics and ‘soccer moms’ for instance – in the UK we have our very own evangelical Christian contingent. Would that group ever fall in line with a populist British version of Trump? It seems unlikely, for a number of reasons.

In the aftermath of the last US election I researched this British evangelical constituency for the thinktank Theos. At the time I said, ‘There is no sign of the kind of tight-knit, symbiotic relationship between a right- of-centre political party and a unified Christian constituency emerging in the Britain as it did in the last quarter of a century in the US.’

I also found that British evangelicals are not nearly as convinced of the need for a smaller state and free-market policies as their American counterparts. British evangelicals are just not as easy to categorise as simply ‘right-wing.’ Evangelical Christians in Britain are more socially conservative than the general public, but their economic bias is left-of-centre, arguably more so than those of no religious faith.

We found a number of reasons why British evangelicals (and the wider Christian community) remain relatively socially conservative but are not as politicised as American evangelicals  Firstly, the establishment of the Church of England – and its more gentle and constructive approach to political engagement. Secondly the media landscape here – with only a fraction of the Christian media outlets accessible in the US. Thirdly, the left-leaning commitments of the majority of British Roman Catholics. Fourthly, the apolitical nature of senior British evangelical leaders, such as John Stott and Tom Wright. The final reason we don’t have a potential Trump-style support base among British evangelicals is the size of the constituency – the number of evangelicals is about two million, only around seven per cent of the total UK population, and they are spread fairly evenly nationally.

At the moment, despite signs of growth in the evangelical wings of the British church, there is no sign that the political commitments of evangelicals here are shifting significantly. This being the case, even if a Trump-style demagogue was to arise in the UK he would be excluded from the mainstream not just by the electoral system, but by a lack of evangelical support.

Andy Walton is a writer and broadcaster specialising in religion and politics. He works for the Centre for Theology & Community and is an associate researcher at Theos. He tweets here.

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