Tonight was another one of Channel 4’s periodic crazy Christian nights, this time a documentary in the Dispatches thread related to the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Bill that is currently working it’s way through parliament. Although at it’s heart the documentary was trying to make an important point about the growing influence of fundamentalist Christian movements within the establishment, it did inter-cut the segments on those groups with the more obviously nutty elements, including Stephen Green and Christian Voice. Whilst that did give the opportunity for the programme to ask the more establishment participants if they agreed with what Stephen Green was saying, including some of the sequences of both him and the driving instructor from Bristol certainly seemed to be as much for the entertainment value as anything else.
The general way that the film handled the participants was much the way that these programmes often go, which is with an element of apparent journalistic disconnection – essentially waiting for the participants to do something that would make good TV. Stephen Green served up one moment pretty early on. The documentary team filmed him on some of his pickets outside performances of Jerry Springer: The Opera, and Stephen Green seemed to be decidedly unpredictable, veering from being happy to have the cameras around and co-operating, to wanting the cameras to go away and stop filming. Then during prayers outside the final performance in Brighton, at a point when he is being co-operative, a seagull flying over him relieves itself over his shoulder whilst the crew is filming, resulting in Green declaring that the seagull is a message from God telling him not to co-operate. Of course considering that they were praying for the financial ruin of the company behind Jerry Springer: The Opera you could argue that it is a message from God against that, or alternatively that it is all just pure chance and not God controlling the bodily functions of a seagull at all!
Alongside this the programme also found a born again Christian from Bristol. A twenty-nine year old driving instructor, the programme highlighted the fact that he lived alone, and was a virgin. Again seeming to head down the crazy Christians line. We also got to see the private school run by his Church which is teaching it’s children creationism – something again that Channel 4 has covered before.
What tends to unite these elements is that more often than not these elements are extreme enough that they aren’t overly taken seriously. Whilst Stephen Green did garner a good deal of publicity in the early stages of the Jerry Springer: The Opera furore, he has largely been sidelined again, indeed much of his footage either showed him picketing gay rights events on his own, or with small groups. Whilst his opinions are extreme (he describes Islam as being the work of Satan at one point), there is at least the solace that these are apparently small groups.
What was much more interesting and perhaps concerning about the programme though was the third participant, Andrea Williams from the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, who is significantly more media savvy. Whilst the programme showed Stephen Green and relatively small groups, it showed Andrea, who admitted to sharing the same views as Stephen Green – although rephrased in less provocative language – handling much bigger demonstrations, and moving amongst some pretty well known politicians. Unlike some of the other participants she is well aware what plays negatively in the wider media, so the hellfire and brimstone preacher at the demonstration was moved away, she was careful to ensure that BNP members hanging around on the periphery of the demonstration were moved away, and when one of the participants in the demonstration started verbally attacking a pro-choice campaigner it was the demonstrator who she had moved.
That’s not to say that the documentary didn’t corner her on a couple of occasions – for example when the interviewer throws in a question about fossils and the age of the Earth she quickly flounders and calls a halt. Similarly when she is interviewed alongside Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who she has been helping draft the upcoming abortion amendment, and the interviewer asks Nadine whether they have discussed some of Andrea’s other beliefs – at which point he asks Andrea her opinion of Islam – after starting to answer Andrea then thinks better of it and turns off her microphone and refuses to say anything else. At another point in the programme, the documentary crew film a presentation given about Islam in Nigeria to a group of Christians which subsequently is partially retracted.
Having said that, it is disturbing quite what influence the group appears to have. Quite apart from the assistance to Nadine Dorries, which includes writing the amendments for her, a meeting with Lord Tebbit is also shown, where again a fully drafted proposed amendment is handed over. The group is also backing cases such as that of Andrew McClintock a magistrate who stood down over the civil partnership laws, aided by significant financial backing from across the pond.
That essentially is the key message of the programme, that in much the same way as they have done for a number of years in the US, fundamentalist Christians are starting to use the courts, and to wield influence in parliament to move their agenda forward. Also in much the same way as has occurred across the pond they are aware of what plays badly in the public perception and are steering around it, and as such, are becoming a very vocal and powerful small minority having a comparatively large influence compared to their size.
The problem of course is that as the fundamentalist wing of Christianity makes more of this sort of well targeted and well managed noise, the broad range of opinions across the non-fundamentalist Christians gets lost, and the small minority of fundamentalists end up being taken as speaking for the whole, so for example with the current bill, whilst in reality there is a broad range of Christian opinion, only one Christian voice seems to be being heard.