The outcome of the British election last week echoed the 2008 U.S. election in the claim (by the principals and the press) that a “new era”—a difference in kind not just in tilt—had begun.  From this side of the Atlantic we might suggest that from our experience the honeymoon won’t last long.

But I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade, rather to reflect a bit on the place of religion in the election and its outcome.  There are three registers through which we might think about this: 1) changes in the religious demographics of the new Parliament; 2) the role of religion in the politics of the election; 3) the potential role of religion in the politics of the new coalition.

I should stipulate the outset that it takes some cheek for a Yank to comment on a British election.  I’ll not claim particular expertise, but I do have more experience with UK politics than the typical American.  We were in Scotland the day Margaret Thatcher was first elected and enjoyed the ’97 election from Oxfordshire.  I remember the SDP and the Alliance (we even attended a rally for the “two Davids” at Central Hall during the ’87 campaign, walking up from our flat in the King’s Road).  We experienced the advent of David Cameron in 2005 from a flat in Pimlico (our upstairs neighbour was a Tory MP).  But, I’ll still proceed with due humility.

First, it is worth noting that on a superficial level, religion is one of the factors that makes a Tory/Lib-Dem coalition particularly odd.  In a certain and significant way, it has brought together the most and the least “religious” of the three leading parties.  Religion was a theme in some key races in ways consistent with this overall situation.

Two races were exemplary.  In Sutton and Cheam (just love those quaint constituency names in Britain, though considering there are 650 of them it would be more sensible to adopt the U.S. system where they are simply numbered) Conservative Candidate Philippa Stroud embodied a British version of the Evangelical politician we are familiar with here.   Though she’s apparently quite a bit beyond moderate in her views, particularly on gay rights.  She is at the same time involved in a think tank called the Center for Social Justice or somesuch and attends what seems like a Pentecostal church of some kind.  Interestingly, mainstream media coverage of her religious beliefs reminds one of some of the more lurid stories about Sara Palin’s church.  Here is an example from a post-election blog in the Guardian.  She lost.

The second example was also a losing candidate.  Evan Harris, the Lib-Dem MP from Oxford West  had became a particular target of religious conservatives.  He is emblematic of the secularism that is the stereotype of his party, having been named “secularist of the year” by the National Secularist Society.  He has very progressive and modernist views on reproductive rights, stem-cell research, and euthanasia.  Religious activists and religious money flowed in, and what seemed like a strategic alliance formed to ensure a single conservative candidate, acceptable to these religious forces, would stand against him.  The strategy worked.  Harris lost, though by only 176 votes.  The winner, Nicola Blackwood, is an active and professing Christian (C of E) who seems to hold rather progressive views in comparison to religiously identified candidates on this side of the Atlantic (showing once again how hard it is to draw direct parallels between the two contexts).

The election could be said to have resulted in a religious realignment within the House.  Frances Davis of Oxford, on Radio 4’s Sunday program, suggested that within the Tory backbench there is now a block that shares in common a Christian identity.  Davis was careful not to suggest that they might vote as  a block, but rather that religion might serve as a kind of conditional force in relation to politics and that it might contribute to tensions and solidarities at key points.  In postmortems on the new alliance there is lots of speculation about how the Tory backbench will respond over time.  Davis suggests that religion might well be an important factor in this, particularly given that “anti-religious” Lib-Dem stereotype.

One notable outcome of the election (which Davis also noted) was the remarkable success of Muslim candidates.  Eight were elected overall. But the real news was the first three Muslim women ever in the Commons, Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham), Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton), and Rushnara Ali (Bethnel Green).  It is notable, though, that while there was some media attention to what appeared to be an emerging Muslim leaning toward the Lib-Dems during the campaign, all three of these candidates are Labour, and among the eight Muslim MPs overall, there were two Conservatives, but no Lib-Dems.

So, in general terms, religion plays a similar role in Britain and the U.S., though in very different proportions, and with different extents and limits.  It was interesting to see that one of the great areas of consistency between the two contexts continues to be the tropes and topoi of religion found in press treatment of it and its role in politics.

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