Don’t let your goodwill be abused 18 May 2014

food-bank2Debate on whether Britain is a Christian country hides a much more practical debate, argues Karen Willows.

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country” wrote Prime Minister David Cameron in the Church Times, “more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”

These are powerful words, and come only a week after he delivered an equally strongly-worded speech at the Easter reception in Downing Street, in which he spoke of his ‘pilgrimage’ to Israel, the place where ‘our Saviour was both crucified and born’.

These are powerful and emotive words by Cameron. Although he has spoken on faith and religion before quite openly, much more than Tony Blair who was perhaps the most deeply convinced Christian Prime Minister of Britain for decades, Cameron has never spoken quite so reverently or with such personal conviction.

The article in the Church Times quite quickly received criticism. A group of academics, authors and journalist responded with a letter in The Telegraph objecting to his ‘characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country”’ and argued his claim ‘fosters alienation and division in our society’.

The debate didn’t end there. Even Jack Straw came out in support of Cameron, taking a swing at Muslims in the process by saying they should accept Britain is ‘Christian’. The Muslim Council of Britain incidentally issued a statement, along with other groups such as the Network of Sikh Organisations and the Hindu Council of the United Kingdom, saying they were all quite comfortable with the description of Britain as a Christian country.

I can’t help but think with all this wrangling back and forth people have quite missed the point of what Cameron is trying to do.

Certainly, on one level, he is trying to woo voters for the next election, and many have pointed this out. But Cameron and the Coalition Government’s policies have always been more ambitious than simply re-election. There is a very fundamental reorganisation of society taking place. The privatisation of nationally owned institutions such as the Royal Mail, the reforms to education that paved the way for academies and faith schools to flourish, and the slow dismantling of the welfare state for example. These are all part of Cameron’s vision of small government, which has been rebranded into ‘Big Society’ (“Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago” claimed Cameron during the Easter reception).

What Cameron is harking back to is an almost Victorian vision of society. A small government and a non-existent welfare state in which the basic social and welfare need of society’s poorest were met by the churches and religious movements of the era. Cameron’s careful and well-chosen words to religious groups in Britain invite them to fill the gaps left by a retreating welfare state; something that has already taken place as more and more people turn to Church-run foodbanks as they find themselves unsupported by the state.

Church leaders themselves don’t seem too keen on this. In February, 27 bishops and many other faith leaders published a joint letter that criticised the government’s welfare cuts – something to which Archbishop Justin Welby leant his support. Cardinal Nichols of the Catholic Church was equally scathing, describing the situation of the poor in Britain after welfare changes a ‘disgrace’.

The question of whether Britain is a Christian country or otherwise is purely academic. The more important question, the one that is being debated by proxy in the media and public sphere, is about the line between state responsibility and public responsibility. Should the poor be support by Foodbanks or benefits?

If Cameron intends to continue the reforms to the welfare system, which are almost certainly to include dismantling existing support, then he will require religious groups (churches and otherwise) to continue to step in and fill the gaps.

Religious groups, especially churches, must be conscious of the abuse of their goodwill by the government. Religions can certainly serve the poor by providing foodbanks– as well as a host of other pastoral and practical support offered by inner city religious groups. But one of the most important duties the religious can do is to resist the dismantling of the welfare state that abandons the poor in the first place.

This article is from Issue 7 of On Religion – a quarterly magazine that provides informed commentary and coverage of religion in the UK. To get more articles like this, and support our work, please subscribe to our print magazine: –[wp_paypal_payment]

About Karen Willows

Karen Willows is a researcher and freelance journalist. She has a BA in Religion and Geography and an MA in Social Science Research.

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