Still time to face facts: the EU referendum is a religious issue too

by - 17th June 2016

POLITICIANS are ignoring research that shows that religious affiliation could determine the EU referendum .

A survey in April by the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) showed that 54 per cent of those identifying as Christian were more likely to favour leaving the EU compared with 43 per cent of those with no religious affiliation.

This is even after allowing for the effects of political partisanship, region, age and education.


The survey also revealed significant differences among Christian denominations, with 60 per cent of Baptists likely to vote leave, compared with 54 per cent of Methodists, 52 per cent of Anglicans and 51 per cent of Roman Catholics.

Dr Stuart Fox of WISERD concludes: ‘There is clear evidence of the potential for religious affiliation to have a notable impact on the outcome of the EU referendum.’

Yet, crucially he adds: ‘The Remain and Leave campaigns have focussed their efforts on issues relating to economics and public services, and have almost paid no attention to “identity issues” such as religious affiliation.'

Differences in voting intentions between Christians and those of other or no religions were also revealed in a survey of English adults conducted by Populus in May for the Hope not Hate campaigning organization.

Nearly 51 per cent of those identifying themselves as Christians, said they would definitely or were more likely to vote to leave the EU, compared with 41 per cent of those of no religion, 38 per cent of Muslims and 13 per cent of Hindus.

Sample sizes for Sikhs and Jews were too small to draw any conclusions, but a poll for the Jewish Chronicle in May showed that just 34 per cent of Jews in Britain backed Brexit.

It is not just in Britain that support for the European Union has a religious dimension.


Using data from the European Social Survey (ESS), Margaret Scherer of Goethe University, Frankfurt, showed that citizens of EU countries with a Catholic heritage are more likely to support European unification than citizens of historically Protestant countries.

Scherer’s somewhat surprising conclusion is that ‘Religious historical background still shapes contemporary political attitudes towards the EU’ and represents ‘a deep layer of public support for European integration’.

Brent Nelsen and James Guthalso comment: ‘Religion shapes a confessional culture that lingers long after the vibrancy of faith has diminished.’

Europe may have a secular face, but religion still resides at its heart.


Academics are increasingly recognizing this. Addressing a conference in April on Keeping Faith in the EU at the University of Winchester, Dr Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, stated that there is ‘a welcome revival of scholarly interest in religion as a genuine explanatory factor in the EU’s origins, evolution and practice.’

Further, terrorist attacks and the migrant crisis, with their strong religious content, have strengthened awareness of the importance of religion in the European political scene. ‘God is certainly back - at the heart of the most secularized continent in the world’, said Chaplin.

Yet, despite both the situation on the ground and the burgeoning of scholarship, commentators still find it difficult to recognize, understand or report on the religious dimension of political phenomena.

And, as Chaplin argues, the public debate in Britain over the EU still ‘struggles to rise above the level of the net economic benefit of staying or leaving’.

None of the above surveys investigated whether or not respondents make a conscious or explicit connection between their religion and their attitudes to the EU.

It is likely that the majority do not. Among those who do, however, there are some clearly discernible discourses that shape attitudes to the European project, related, for example, to understandings of Christian ethics or beliefs about the inviolability of nationhood or about Britain as a ‘Christian’ nation.

Religion, therefore, continues to shape popular attitudes and its influence is increasingly recognized in scholarly debate.

It is a major factor in Europe’s current crises, and an important determinant of people’s voting intentions in the forthcoming EU referendum. Like it or not, ‘religion is back’, and the EU referendum is a religious issue.

But it could be too late for those who report, comment or seek to influence the EU debate to recognize it.

Dr Peter Carruthers is a writer and strategic analyst and is Director of Vision 37 Ltd which helps organizations understand themselves and their constituencies.  He is a co-founder of the Farming Community Network.