Starmer the Evangelist

Keir Starmer’s Labour is becoming a vehicle for the right-wing politics of US evangelicalism, writes Fanny Wright.

Addressing the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983, Ronald Reagan endorsed the push by the anti-abortion movement to require parental notification for abortions procured by those under the age of eighteen by asking: “Isn’t it the parents’ right to give counsel and advice to keep their children from making mistakes that may affect their entire lives?” Addressing Mumsnet in 2023, Keir Starmer said: “I feel very strongly that children shouldn’t be making these very important decisions without consent of their parents. I say that as a matter of principle. I say that as a parent.”

These parallels tell a fascinating story about the state of the Labour Party and its rightward turn. Four years before Reagan’s address, the US was deep in the doldrums of the Carter presidency. The humiliation of the Vietnam War and the temporary enshrining of abortion rights in US law by Roe vs. Wade were not so much specks in the country’s rear view mirror, as mushroom clouds threatening to engulf the horizon. It was then that televangelist Jerry Falwell (and his deep-pocketed financial backers) established Moral Majority, an organisation dedicated to campaigning against the joint evils of communism and social liberation, and for evangelical supremacy.

Through capture of mass media and other levers of the culture industry, the organisation worked to conflate anticommunism with evangelical social mores. By tethering anticommunism to Christian conservatism, the evangelical movement leveraged liberals’ consuming hatred of communism against their lacklustre commitment to social progress. It was thanks to Moral Majority and the collapse of a robust liberal opposition that Reagan was swept into the White House, a debt he worked tirelessly to repay.

The influence of the evangelical movement on Reagan’s regime was never clearer than in his 1983 address. Now known as the “Evil Empire” speech for its extensive diatribe against the Soviet Union, it began with a survey of the ills done upon God-fearing Americans by abortion and opposition to prayer in schools, and ended with the proclamation of a holy crusade against communism. To the evangelical movement, no difference exists between the movement for abortion rights and the communist state; each erodes the fundamental morality of mankind. These were the domestic politics of the Reagan administration: the calculated malice of its response to the AIDS crisis went hand-in-glove with supermassive cuts to the welfare state. Each gay man who breathed his last was as mighty a blow against the Evil Empire as every dollar looted from the social safety net. For eight years, evangelical priorities sat at the fore of American policy, leaving an indelible mark on modern history.

Despite their accumulated power, evangelicals found themselves unable to conjure a Reagan presidency at will. From the late 1980s, they made a strategic turn to soft power strongholds in the media and corporate America, exporting evangelical politics to near allies like the United Kingdom, and cheerleading right wing successes in distant Russia. At home and abroad, evangelicals became some of the most important funders of right wing politics, bankrolling a series of crusades against queer liberation, in support for Israel and against Palestine, and against action on climate change.

It is impossible to ignore the conditions under which Keir Starmer came to power. After a ruthless multi-year campaign against Jeremy Corbyn by the British establishment (replete with some of the most comical examples of modern anti-communism), Starmer positioned himself as a sensible alternative to the paper-hawking Soviet who came before. Brooking no welfarism in his shadow cabinet, Starmer reneged on a veritable cornucopia of promises to improve Britain’s welfare system, firmly shutting the door on the possibility of a Labour government lifting working-class people out of poverty. On this, as on every major social issue on which the left comes into direct conflict with the US evangelical movement, Keir Starmer has conceded without complaint.

For the left, full-throated opposition to evangelical influence is non-negotiable. Evangelicalism’s dismantling of the last vestiges of an American welfare state and its attempted re-subjugation of women and queer people are two sides of the same coin. To any sensible person, it would appear impossible to spend only one side of the coin while retaining the other.

Yet Keir Starmer is not sensible – if there is one word to define his leadership of the Labour Party, it must be “insensible”. We will afford him the grace of assuming that his insensibility is that of a man asleep at the wheel rather than a man who just doesn’t care that he’s hit someone with his car. But just as a court looks no more fondly on recklessness than outright intent, thus we must judge Sir Keir Starmer KC’s overtures to the evangelical right through his opposition to abortion rights, his support of anti-gay evangelical churches and his U-turns on trans rights.

A Labour movement which refuses to reckon with the influence of the US evangelical movement on global politics is doomed to failure. In a part of these isles that Keir Starmer is no doubt incapable of identifying on a map, an ostensibly-progressive mass party narrowly avoided inaugurating the gruesomely right wing evangelical Kate Forbes as its leader. Begrudgingly, we must congratulate the SNP for doing what Labour has thus far proved itself unwilling to do.

It is deeply troubling if Keir Starmer does not care whether he has hit someone with the political car that is the right-wing evangelical movement. It is even more troubling if he is simply asleep at the wheel and has become a powerful ally for the vicious right-wing politics of US evangelicalism through his own unshakable apathy. Starmer’s inability to recognise and confront this enemy leaves the whole labour movement exposed. This vulnerability will not go unnoticed by powerful reactionary forces if he finds himself stepping into Downing Street next year.

Fanny Wright is a writer and historian based in Dundee. She occasionally writes for Heckle, the magazine of the Republican Socialist Platform.