Why do Anglicans lean pro-Brexit, while atheists favor 'Remain'?

Though rarely invoked in British politics, religious belief does present correlation with Britons' positions on whether to stay in the European Union.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People visit Peterborough Cathedral in Peterborough, England, in April. The cathedral is the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Peterborough.

The dozen parishioners gathered for a solemn sung mass in the dimly lit Saint Laurence church hardly seemed a fiery lot.

But this place of worship east of London, built in stone in the 12th century, could be a hotbed of protest against Britain’s future membership in the European Union during the in-out referendum dubbed “Brexit.”

“I’m definitely out,’’ says Cheryl Goddard, one of the parishioners as she left Sunday’s Evensong service, a liturgy with a centuries-old tradition. “We have little control over what’s going on in the EU. Democracy is going out of the window.”

Religion is rarely invoked in British political affairs, and officially religious authority has remained neutral on the June 23 vote. Class, age, or education are much better indicators of voter preference. Ms. Goddard is the first to say she is not voting along religious lines but because of terrestrial politics.

But polls show Anglicans as by far the most likely “Brexiteers,” when compared to other religious groups and those who proclaim no religious affiliation at all. In a poll commissioned by the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data, and Methods (WISERD), 55 percent of Anglicans say they back the Leave campaign. That was the highest “out” vote among six Christian denominations in the survey.

While nearly split, Catholics on the other hand favored staying, by 43 percent to 42 percent. Other polls have shown much more support for Remain among the UK’s various religious minorities, including Muslims.

“There is nothing along the lines that you might see with the ‘religious right’ in the American vote; it is not as collective and cohesive as that as a voting bloc,” says Ben Ryan, a researcher at the London-based Theos, a thinktank that studies religion and public life. And while religious affiliations overlap with age and geography, history may be a driving factor, as are current politics that impact the various faith groups unevenly. “Religion does matter in this debate.”

Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest and co-founder of Christians for Britain, made the argument explicitly when he summed up in his column in the Guardian this month that “Brexit perfectly recycles this defiant spirit of the Reformation.”

Ripples of the Reformation

In fact, in explaining the difference between Catholic and Protestant Euroskepticism, with the latter much higher generally across Europe, researchers have gone back to the 16th century, when national churches were founded in harmony with local institutions against Rome. The Reformation was born from the fight against foreign authority and many would argue that spirit carries on against what is today perceived as dictates from Brussels.

Adrian Hilton, the other co-founder of Christians for Britain and a conservative blogger, says that voters in the pews swing in all directions. But he is willing to agree that there is a North-South divide in which the Brexit debate also finds itself.

“Roman Catholics and Roman Catholic countries tend to be more favorable towards the vision of the European Union than Protestant ones,” he says. “For the Protestant, democracy is concerned with powers that the people give to a government. In other states it is very much top down, and the government decides what freedoms to give to the people. And that I think is the fundamental theological philosophical divide in this.”

More recent history also impacts various stances on Brexit, too, argues Mr. Ryan of Theos. The European community was founded in the 1950s by a group of largely Catholic politicians from the various Christian Democratic parties of the time. “You can show that the origins of the EU owe a lot to a particularly Catholic political philosophy,” he says.

Analysts are not just looking at differences between Catholics and Protestants. A poll by the firm Populus this winter highlighted a difference between Christians' sentiment – 43 percent voting for "leave" – and that of other religious minorities. In that poll, 31 percent of Muslims said they were voting for "leave," and a much lower rate of Sikhs and Hindus said the same. In the WISERD poll, carried out by YouGov, the group most likely to support Remain were those without religion. Fifty-two percent sided with Remain, compared to 34 percent for Leave.

Alex Gollner, who works in video editing London, is one such Remain voter. And he believes that minorities are likely to support the EU because of its construction of civil and religious liberties. “The EU can hopefully establish a full continuum of a liberal range for a lot of religions,” he says.

He also says he sees the “Anglican Brexiteer” as the response of a larger transformation. “Anglicanism is undergoing a fragmentation,” Mr. Gollner says. “There is pressure with regards to what it means to be Anglican given the growing churches in Africa and the US. The EU is a metaphor for that.”

“The Catholic Church doesn’t see the EU as affecting what it means to be Catholic,” he adds. “To Anglicans, it may. The EU is all about scale, and Anglicanism is trying to find its way in that post-industrial world.’’

Limited significance?

John Milbank, a professor in religion, politics, and ethics at the University of Nottingham, cautions against seeing trends in religious voting patterns. He sees age as the biggest predictor of votes, as older people and the English support Leave in higher numbers.

“The majority of people going to church in England are older. And there is a massive correlation between age and how you are going to vote in the referendum,” he says. “On the other hand, Catholics tend to be slightly younger people. And the other thing is that Catholics have a high proportion of people who are not English. There is going to be a huge number of people of Polish, Irish, Italian origin, and so on. If you consider how multinational London is, there are going to be a lot of people who are more European in the Catholic Church. This has nothing to do with religion.”

Stuart Fox at WISERD says there is a clear overlap between religious affiliation and other traits. Anglicans are more likely to identify with the Conservative party, he says, while 80 percent of Presbyterians are in Scotland, where support for the EU is highest. More than half those without religious affiliation are under 50, and younger voters are siding with Remain in higher numbers.

Still, he argues, even accounting for this, differences between denominations persist.

“I don’t think it will be completely decisive,” he says. “Their religious identity is feeding into a selection of other factors.” But he says religious identification is important – and deserves more attention, especially upon such a close, and momentous, race.

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