Towards a Progressive Political Public Voice 26 October 2014

Charlotte Dando reflects on faith based action and the example of the late Archbishop William Temple.

Archbishop William Temple

Archbishop William Temple

In his first major public address as Cameron’s newly appointed Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, stated: ‘We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the political realm’, before adding, ‘The important thing charities should be doing is keeping to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda’.

Not surprisingly, many people active in the third sector were astonished at their new minister’s apparent lack of understanding of how most charities operate. Little specialist knowledge of civil society is required to realise that the best way for a charity tackling poverty, for example, to engage with its mission is not simply to open a soup kitchen, but to tackle the social structures which create and sustain inequalities. To confront these situations effectively charities must have a public and political voice. Laura Taylor, head of advocacy at Christian Aid is quoted as having said, ‘We find the Minister’s comments surprising and way off the mark about the sector that he now represents’, adding ‘[it] is clear that organisations like Christian Aid have a mandate to speak out about social injustice wherever it is found. Indeed we know it is our duty to do so.’

Whilst the Big Society encourages charitable organisations to fill gaps in welfare spending cuts, the Lobbying Act (which sets out tough new rules for how charities and other civil society organisations can campaign in the lead up to national elections) threatens to curtail the voice of these same organisations. In such a climate, perhaps more than ever, we might look towards religious institutions to challenge and to lead the fight against inequality and injustice.

In recent months ecumenical groups of leaders have challenged the rise of foodbanks, the Church of England has spoken out against pay-day lenders, and many faith-based organisations have asked difficult questions of the brutal proposals for so-called welfare reform. Interestingly, and tellingly, there were only one or two grumbles that religion has no right to interfere in politics, and these were mostly drowned out by the rowdy support of religious and secular folk alike.

In 1942, when former Archbishop William Temple wrote his most famous book (and blueprint for Beveridge’s vision of the welfare state) Christianity and Social Order, the tide of secularism flowed so high that Temple spends a third of the book justifying its existence. ‘What right has the Church to interfere?’ asks Temple in the title of the opening chapter, before continuing on this theme for another thirty pages of this slim volume. Over sixty years later, Archbishop Justin Welby speaks of contemporary inequality with the easy demeanour of someone who has every right to raise his voice, and who knows he will be heard.

At the William Temple Foundation’s November conference, a range of diverse speakers will take on the question, ‘What role for religion in public life in contemporary Britain?’ A big question for an hour and a half slot, but one which becomes increasingly pertinent in our post-secular society. With our media currently saturated by religio-political stories (sadly not all especially well researched or balanced), with faith-based organisations increasingly filling the gaps in welfare and social care provision, and with religious voices leading political campaigns on subjects ranging from poverty to war, and even Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights, the presence of religion in public life is nothing like the stark predictions of secularisation made in earlier decades; hence my use of the term post-secular.

According to my William Temple Foundation colleague Chris Baker, influenced by Habermas, we no longer live in a tidy and ideologically pure public sphere where only the secular counts as ‘public’ and religion is allowed to function only in the ‘private’. Rather, we are entering into uncharted territory where the forces of secularisation (as a social phenomenon associated with modernising), secularism (as a political and cultural ideology) and a newly-emergent and often assertive religion have to learn to share the public sphere.

It is clear that religious voices have permeated the post-secular space. Sadly it is also clear that such voices do not always have a positive message. Global news stories demonstrate that the presence of religious voices in the public space may come with severe problems. Indeed, the post-secular has created a messy space in which many religious and secular actors alike are currently unwilling to negotiate. Temple’s vision does not offer great guidance for these negotiations, but his work is timely in its vision for a progressive religious voice which both looks towards and speaks into the public sphere, for the good and the equity of all of society.

Temple wrote, ‘From the very outset Christian faith has intimately affected social as well as personal conduct, and the main Christian tradition carries with it a massive body of social teaching.’ Not just Christianity, but most religions are inherently social, with a concern for people reaching beyond their own congregations and communities. This type of local, progressive religious leadership — which we are seeing demonstrated by the sterling work of faith-based organisations and initiatives such as foodbanks and job clinics — can inspire shared engagement with the world. As Chris Baker suggests, these ‘new, emerging political spaces are based on shared concerns and a new openness to engage with others who are shaped by different worldviews’. Hence they might have the knock on effect of bridging divides between people and communities of different faiths, as well as between the religious and the non-religious. For so many reasons then, progressive voices need enabling and encouraging. To those groups stitching up the frayed social fabric of contemporary Britain, I say keep on knitting; but please don’t do it too quietly.

For more columns on religion from experts and specialists, subscribe  to On Religion for just £19 a year. [wp_paypal_payment]

About Charlotte Dando

Charlotte Dando is Assistant Director of the William Temple Foundation. She has an MA in Religions of Asia & Africa from SOAS, University of London and is passionate about fostering good interreligious relations throughout the UK and Europe. Twitter: @CharlotteDando

all, Christianity, Opinion