Faithful Politics

Is faith a very good starting point for progressive politics?

October 18, 2013
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Last month, think-tank Demos published The Faith Collection, a compendium of their recent work on faith and politics, edited by Jonathan Birdwell and myself. It argues that members of faith groups, and faith-based organisations, have a strong contribution to make to progressive politics. The writers of this essay provided an introduction to the report, and are particularly anxious that these arguments should be heeded by the Labour Party. Faithful citizens will be vital in winning an election; their ideas will be invaluable in building a successful political programme; and their energy will be needed to put key parts of that programme into effect.

The Demos report includes research indicating that–contrary to the assumptions of many–religious people in the UK are more likely to place themselves on the left of the political spectrum than on the right. They are more likely to be compassionate to immigrants and to value equality over freedom, positions traditionally associated with the left. The research, from the European Values Survey and the UK Citizenship Survey, suggests they are more likely than their secular counterparts to express their political convictions through voluntary action.

The report looks at the contribution of 20 faith-based and faith-motivated organisations as providers of public services, both voluntarily and through commissioning, working in areas such as welfare to work, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and youth services. The research–albeit limited in scale–suggests that faith-based providers are highly motivated and particularly effective in some areas, with no evidence of aggressive proselytising or of discrimination on grounds of faith. It also proposed that local authorities should encourage collaborations between service providers with different faith backgrounds, and should undertake a "faith service" audit of their local communities to identify further areas for collaboration between groups.

The Demos report argues that faith is a very good starting point for politics, and for progressive politics in particular, because faith inspires, on a large scale, exactly the values that can make politics work: responsibility, solidarity, patience, compassion and truthfulness. We will comment on each of these in turn.

First, responsibility means recognising that a better future won’t emerge from nowhere. It only comes when people take ownership of the task of improving their own lives. A group of Muslim young people discussing this drew attention to the Qu’ranic assertion: “God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." That is what is so impressive about community organising. It is highly political in the best sense, a way of developing, realising and releasing leadership, even building power. It is deeply ethical, yet not utopian or naïve. It acknowledges that we all have visions of the way the world should be–indeed it draws on them in all their moral particularity–but it tackles the world as it is, looking for tangible change to improve peoples’ lives.

Second, solidarity is the essence of the Labour movement. However, it’s more than just a feeling, more than ideological agreement and certainly more than a retweet. Solidarity takes practice. Being part of religious institutions is one of the ways people gather, get to know each other, sympathise and support one another. This is where the old canard about Labour, Methodism and Marx comes in. Even Beatrice Webb, during a period of time living in Bacup in Lancashire, remarked on the way in which the chapel and its forms prepared the community for democracy and self-government. It was not Methodism’s theology that flowed into the Labour Party, but the "fluency of its social life, plain common sense, the obstinate vitality of older community traditions".

In a New Yorker essay on the potential for social media to instigate political change, Malcolm Gladwell told the story of the emerging civil rights movement. The strength of the movement, he argued, was not in its ideological clarity but the quality of its ordinary, everyday relationships. What mattered more than ideological commitment was an applicant’s degree of personal connection–in short, the number of friends they had in the civil-rights movement. High-risk activism, concluded Gladwell, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

Thankfully, we are not in the position of civil rights campaigners in the American South, but the lesson holds. Individualism and progressive change are poor bedfellows. Progressive wins will be the result of strong ties.

Third, progressive politics requires patience and persistence, and willingness to plug away even when the prospects don’t seem too bright. That requires hope, but it must be a hope grounded in reality. Progressive politics can sometimes be seen as almost millenarian: we think that we’re working towards a "New Jerusalem". This sounds almost theological–but its bad theology. It’s a mistake to invest politics with ultimacy. Politics is penultimate. The state isn’t our saviour. Hope in God is much more sustainable in the long term than hope merely in politics. The present age, as political theorist and theologian Luke Bretherton has put it, is a place where people of faith work for a limited but meaningful peacefulness, whereas full peace belongs to the City of God.

Promising too much can be the quickest route to disillusion. To stick at politics, you need to know what it is not capable of achieving as well. As Matthew Flinders argues at length in his recent book, Defending Politics, it will never make every sad heart glad. That doesn’t mean we have to settle for some make do and mend pragmatism which accommodates every injustice. Rather, it recasts politics as a realistic and moral endeavour. This is the only viable ground on which progressives can stand in the era of austerity. If the cloud of the deficit has a silver lining, it’s that we must think very hard about priorities, and focus energy and attention in the places where the state can make the most difference, and then empower civil society to work in the places the state can’t–and just because the state can’t act, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done.

Fourth, progressive politics is grounded in compassion. It was the moral imagination and energy of the churches, deployed in Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History, which provided the crucial support for Labour's successful renewal of Britain's international aid policy. And those origins have helped ensure that the key commitments signed up to by Labour in Government, like the target that 0.7% of our GDP should be given in international aid, have been maintained by the current Government.

Again though, we shouldn’t be complacent. If compassion is to suffer alongside, then we need to make sure we really do share space and time with those that do suffer, or in some way capture their experience. Faith institutions are almost wholly unique in bonding people across social and class cleavages, and we need to take advantage of that. They see things from the ground up. Social democratic movements across Europe are suffering from a split base–the employed, well educated, public servants versus the classic blue collar constituency. We’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit we are at least at risk of this.

Finally, trust in politics is at an all-time low ebb–we have already seen that it is one of the barriers to becoming a member of political parties. But is the deficit one of trust or trustworthiness? American theologian Stanley Hauerwas, speaking in Parliament a couple of years ago, was asked what practical piece of advice he would offer to someone working in politics. His simple but disarming answer was that they should tell the truth. For someone seeking election, this will not always be easy, but members of faith groups have reasons others don’t have to try. Having faith entails acknowledging accountability.

No party can co-opt a faith group as its supporter, and none should attempt to. But a progressive party in Britain, like Labour, looking for new supporters, new ideas and new energy needs to include faith groups in its work. It needs to be respectful, and careful to avoid needlessly alienating them, as has sometimes happened in the past. Working with faith groups can make a vital contribution to developing an effective programme, and to building support for it, between now and 2015.