The odd connection between Brexit and lukewarm religion

Date: 28-09-2018
Source: The Economist
Subject: Anglicanism, evangelicalism and Brexit

The odd connection between Brexit and lukewarm religion

A happy breed of nativists who like their religion cool and English

YOUR correspondent was chatting the other day to a young home-furnishing salesman, representing a firm in the north of England whose market is mostly British. He proved to be a strong believer in Brexit, hard if necessary, and the reason he gave was slightly unexpected. As he saw things, the nation was reliving the age of Henry VIII, who in 1534 renounced the authority of the Pope, declared himself head of the church and laid the foundations of Anglicanism. “The king went for a complete break, and England soon started doing better than anywhere else in Europe. It will be the same after Brexit.”

Not all Brexit voters would pitch their case in such religious-historical terms, but English nostalgia has long had a weakness for the Tudor age: an era when Anglican heroes were burned by the Catholic Queen Mary, and William Shakespeare (in between pinching plots from Italian cities like Verona and Venice) lauded his country as “a sceptred isle” which stood proudly apart from the continent, “a precious jewel, set in the silver sea”.
All that may help to explain one of the conclusions from a nuanced and interesting piece of research by two scholars of religion which shows a strong correlation between identifying as (loosely) Anglican and supporting Brexit. Their findings are laid out in a blog for the London School of Economics and in more detail in a journal, Religion, State and Society.

As is noted by one of them, Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University, polls suggest that 66% of Anglicans voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, whereas in the nation as a whole, the Leave percentage was just 52%.

Ms Woodhead goes on to ask whether being Anglican really is an independent variable associated with supporting Brexit. As she acknowledges, the correlation might simply exist because Brexit voters and Church of England adherents share certain other characteristics, like being older and living outside London. But on examination, the evidence indicates that professed Anglican adherence is indeed an independent factor. Within every category of sex, age, economic status and location, being Anglican was positively linked with Leave convictions.

So does that mean that the more Anglican you are, the more Brexit-minded you are likely to be? Rather the opposite, it turns out. Indeed, that is where the scholars’ arguments get more interesting. On the basis of earlier research, Ms Woodhead believes that relatively keen Anglicans—those who attend church at least once a month—are less committed to Brexit than people whose attachment to the church is looser (although the devout are still on balance in the Leave camp). She cites one poll in which 55% of Anglicans who attend church at least monthly said they wanted to leave the EU, compared with 69% of those who consider themselves less fervent.

Her co-author, Greg Smith of the William Temple Foundation, a religious research group, comes up with an even more surprising conclusion by crunching the results of a survey of evangelicals, Christians with a strong belief in the unique power of Jesus Christ to redeem humanity from the consequences of sin. This is a category which overlaps with Anglicans, but in the majority adheres to churches with simpler forms of worship.

Among evangelicals, Mr Smith notes, there is a clear majority in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union, although one subset, the Pentecostalists, leans in the Leave direction. The preference for Remain applies to evangelicals in all parts of the country, in both genders and in all age groups.

As both authors note, this stands in utter contrast with voting patterns in the United States, where the defensive nativism personified by Donald Trump attracted the support of roughly 80% of white evangelicals. As they put it:   

In the United Kingdom…it was religiously “cool” Anglicans who made the difference [in the Brexit vote] rather than religiously enthusiastic evangelicals, whereas in the United States it was the other way round: it was enthusiastic, church-going Christians – above all evangelicals – who made the difference [in the Trump victory].

Of course any comparison is also skewed by the fact that church-going is much more frequent in America than in Britain; four in ten Americans claim to attend church regularly compared with less than one in ten Britons. But evangelicalism is not a negligible force in Britain: the Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella body, believes it speaks for about 2m people.

To explain their findings, the scholars note that among self-identified but lukewarm Anglicans, reasons for adhering to the faith have much to with culture and sentiment and little to do with religion. In one poll asking people why they considered themselves Anglican, the three top answers had nothing to do with God: the faith was deemed “integral to English culture”, “an ethical voice in society” and “part of our heritage”.

As the authors note, this reflects a feeling that

The Church of England is inseparable from the development of the English nation, monarchy, language, people, culture and mores: they have co-evolved for five centuries. Until recently, to be Church of England was simply to be born English.  

This deep-rooted conservative nativism, the authors argue, is in contrast with a non-conformist tradition that is more internationalist in outlook and closer to the political centre.

To put it another way, the legacy of King Henry VIII, and his determination to assert English independence in both politics and religion (which were hardly separable in his time) seems perversely durable and stubborn.

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