How the English far right co-opted Christianity – and why its ‘crusade’ shouldn’t be ignored

Britain First and EDL (English Defence League) protesters walk along Northumberland Avenue during a demonstration in London. PA Images

The far-right group Britain First went on the rampage again recently, this time in the West Midlands of England. Earlier this month, the group held a demonstration in Wolverhampton city centre, where members carried white crosses through the city. The bearing of white crosses is now a trademark of Britain First’s self-styled “Christian Crusade”.

The group regularly co-opts Christian rhetoric and symbolism in its white nationalist dog-whistle campaign against the “Islamisation” of the UK. It conducts “Christian patrols” in multicultural towns and cities – usually piggybacking on recent terrorist events or abuse scandals – and doles out bibles during its mosque “invasions”.

The white crosses brandished by members of Britain First are seemingly chosen more for the sinister white supremacist imagery than they are for being emblems of Christianity – echoing the Ku Klux Klan insignia and that organisation’s use of burning crosses to signify intimidation and the threat of impending violence.

Ku Klux Klan at a cross burning in Tennessee. September 4, 1948. Shutterstock

Although Britain First adopts clearly confrontational, aggressive and hate-fuelled tactics such as pouring beer outside mosques, threatening to leave a dead pig on the site of a new mosque in Dudley and wearing paramilitary-style uniforms, its leader, former British National Party councillor Paul Golding, refuses to accept that Britain First’s extremist provocations are intimidating and instead appeals to Christianity as a cover for the group’s white nationalism:

We weren’t aggressive and we didn’t intimidate anyone … to suggest it’s intimidatory to give out bibles in a Christian country is nonsense. We live in a free country where you’re allowed to try to recruit other people to your religion. Muslims do it all the time … We just went into the mosques, gave out a few bibles and leaflets, talked to some elders and left.

Despite his claim to civility, Golding also alludes to the New Testament verse Matthew 10:34 and the belligerence of Jesus to justify his group’s terrorist actions. Speaking to Christian Today, Golding commented:

Jesus Christ did use physical violence according to the Gospels in the temple in Jerusalem, and he met a very violent end. He preached love and forgiveness etc, but he also said he didn’t come to bring peace; he came to bring division and a sword, he came to bring fire upon the world to sort the world out.

Undoubtedly, Britain First is adept at appropriating Christianity, staging publicity stunts and attracting interest on social media, but the group is far less successful in achieving its political ambitions.

It has failed to garner any sway with the electorate having been trounced in the London mayoral elections, its “patrols” are poorly attended, and its attempts to harass Muslim communities are hampered by expensive litigation.

In a devastating blow, even Britain First founder, former BNP member Jim Dowson, left the group in 2014 condemning them as “unchristian”. Dowson lambasted Britain First and its leader in his public statement following the resignation:

I think he is fooling himself and lots of people that Britain First is a Christian group. Sadly, it has just become a violent front for people abusing the Bible.

Ignore the racists?

Dowson isn’t the only one to condemn them. Rather awkwardly for a group marketed as a defender of “British and Christian morality”, Britain First has been “denounced by every major Christian denomination in the UK”. Most recently, the Bishop of Wolverhampton, the Rt Revd Clive Gregory, criticised the group:

Britain First’s use of the cross and claim to support Christianity is actually a kind of blasphemy … Jesus’ way is always the path of peace and reconciliation, of self-sacrifice and costly love, and in our contemporary multicultural society that means particularly in our relationships with our neighbours of other faiths including Muslims.

Given Britain First’s underwhelming credentials, then, it’s tempting to agree with William Morgan, who went undercover at a Britain First conference last year and dismissed the group as “a small and nasty far-right group, who just so happen to have a strong social media presence including 1.3m Facebook likes … a racist drinking group, too old and overweight to do anything but intimidate members of the public and lose elections”.

Morgan’s final words of advice following his single experience with the group? “As I have learned, the best way to deal with Britain First is to completely ignore it, see it as a group project and an online message board for the angry and bitter, and move on. Trust me: we have very little to worry about.”

Morgan’s words may sound like a sensible approach to a small and seemingly ineffectual group of far-right extremists – until they’re considered in the context of the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Unite the Right demonstrated that white nationalist and supremacist groups are emboldened by the current US political context. President Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist groups and his insistence that they shared a “moral equivalency” with anti-fascist protestors has only helped to reinvigorate white supremacist politics.

In other words, ignoring small far-right groups doesn’t work and, in fact, could well help them to thrive.

The response to Tina Fey’s recent Saturday Night Live skit on Charlottesville exposed the danger of imperatives from well-meaning white people to “ignore the racists”. Only those not touched by the realities of racial violence have the freedom to be able to ignore it.

As a society we must not become complicit in white supremacism because of white privilege.

As Musa Okwonga wrote on Twitter: “White supremacy isn’t just white men with burning torches. It’s white people brushing off warnings from non-white people till it’s too late.”