Let’s call the whole thing off

Kettell imageSteven Kettell, University of Warwick

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Faith and the coalition: a new confidence to ‘do God’?

Get a pdf of this article here

The view of religion as a source of values that are uniquely well suited to the provision of voluntary civic activity is a core feature of the government’s Big Society project. Participation in the Big Society has been welcomed by the majority of religious organisations as a means of promoting a greater role for faith in the public sphere. Such an outcome, however, appears to be unlikely. Assumptions of a link between faith and volunteering are flawed, and processes of secularisation pose serious challenges.

The idea that religion provides a framework of values and an ethos uniquely attuned to the production of social capital is a prominent theme in debates about faith. The assumption also underpins aspects of public policy, and features strongly in the Big Society agenda being pursued by the coalition government. Based on the watchwords of decentralisation and empowerment, this calls for a drastic reduction in the size and scope of government activity and envisions an expanded role for the voluntary sector in the delivery of welfare and public services. Central to this is the role of faith-based organisations (FBOs), whose distinctly religious perspective is seen as a key impetus for the undertaking of charitable works. The government’s aim, according to Baroness Warsi, the then Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party (and now Minister for Faith and Communities), was to ‘unleash the positive power of faith’.[1] Or as Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, explained, the goal was for ‘religion to play a leading part in the Big Society’, and faith groups were ‘part of the solution’.[2]

FC SK 1The reaction to these plans from religious groups has been overwhelmingly (albeit not universally) positive. Concerns about the risk of co-option and the potentially detrimental impact on operational autonomy notwithstanding, the large majority of organisations have welcomed the Big Society agenda as a means of promoting a greater and a more active role for faith in the public sphere. According to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the plans represented ‘an extraordinary opportunity’ for the Church of England to advance a distinct Christian political and moral agenda, a view mirrored by the Church’s Mission and Public Affairs Council, which hailed it as nothing less than ‘a chance to “shift the dominant narrative” about the role of religion in public life’ and to ‘reinforce the church’s place in a healthy social order’.[3] Likewise, the then Archbishop of Westminster, and Head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Vincent Nichols, described the Big Society as ‘an opportunity to move away from seeing faith as a problem’ and towards seeing it ‘as a resource to be discovered afresh’.[4] Other Christian groups have expressed similar views. The Evangelical Alliance, for instance, has described the Big Society as ‘an immense opportunity’ to promote ‘a vision where biblical values … become, once again, part of the fabric of society’.[5] The Jubilee Centre maintains that the project offers ‘huge opportunities’ for church activities to be ‘expanded into new areas’.[6]

The involvement of faith groups in the Big Society, though, faces serious challenges. One is that the assumption that faith-based organisations possess a unique disposition towards socially gainful activities is far from uncontentious. While many studies have indicated a link between volunteering and levels of church membership and attendance, the causal influences involved in this are unclear.

Michael Gove, an advocate of the agenda, speaking at the Conservative Party Big Society policy launch in March 2010

It is far from certain, for instance, as to whether church attendance drives volunteering (perhaps by fostering social networks) or whether individuals that are more predisposed to volunteering are more likely to attend church.[7] Cross-national research also shows wide variations in links between religion and civic activity that belie any notion of a unilinear causal relationship, and government figures themselves call the proposition into question.[8] The results of the 2010/11 Citizenship Survey conducted by the Department for Communities and Local Government (the survey has since been cancelled) found that levels of civic participation for people self identifying as ‘Christian’ stood at 34 per cent, compared to 37 per cent for people identifying with ‘no religion’. The respective figures for formal volunteering showed no real difference, at 41 per cent and 40 per cent.[9]

FC SK 2Besides this, the benefits of social capital cannot simply be measured in a quantitative fashion; as the raw amount of engagement and participation involved. More pertinent is the form that such activities take. In this  respect, another problem for the assumption that religion yields socially advantageous behaviour is that while group membership may well encourage civil participation, it can also foster in-group mentalities and intolerance. This problem is a pressing one for religious groups, particularly those that are doctrinally based, with claims to possess a universal truth being especially prone to the creation of group boundaries and the fostering of negative attitudes towards non-group members.[10]

A related problem here is that many of the views held by religious groups diverge significantly from the mainstream norms of British society. On a range of social issues, including abortion, right-to-die, homosexual rights and gender equality, religious attitudes are often at variance. While differences within religions exist, and though one should avoid making blanket assertions, the fact remains that, in a variety of areas likely to be significant to Big Society activities, religious engagement could prove to be problematic. Governmental assent to religiously motivated demands that support reactionary or discriminatory views, and/or that involve exemptions from certain aspects of equalities legislation, would do little to promote social cohesion and would do much to undermine the credibility of the Big Society programme itself. Refusal to assent, on the other hand, would do little to persuade religious organisations that their participation in the Big Society was truly desired, and thereby antagonise one of the core constituencies on whom greater voluntary activity, and with it the very success of the Big Society project, is said to depend. As the on-going debate around same-sex marriage shows, such tensions between a commitment to equalities and the ostensibly non-negotiable rights of religious freedom may prove to be irreconcilable.

Rowan Williams
Rowan Williams: the Big Society agenda represents ‘an extraordinary opportunity’ for the Church of England

Hopes that the Big Society will open up a greater role for faith in the public sphere also face serious challenges from long-running processes of secularisation. Official census statistics show that the proportion of the adult population in England and Wales describing themselves as Christian fell from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011, while the proportion describing themselves as having no religion increased from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent over the same period.[11] The latest figures from British Social Attitudes showed that just 14 per cent of the adult population reported attending a place of worship at least once a week, just 9 per cent attended at least once a month, and 56 per cent never attended at all.[12] According to Ipsos-Mori almost two-fifths (38 per cent) of people identifying as Christian in the 2001 census considered Christianity to be ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ influential in their lives.[13] Alongside this, negative public sentiments about an enhanced role for religion in public life are also prevalent. According to poll research conducted by YouGov-Cambridge, more than four-fifths (81 per cent) of respondents felt that religious beliefs should remain a private affair (with 6 per cent against), and 30 per cent wanted Christianity to have less political influence than it currently wields (16 per cent wanted more and 40 per cent thought the existing balance was about right). Research by Ipsos-MORI found that almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of self-identified Christians felt that religion should be a private affair and should have no special influence on public policy (with just 12 per cent opposed).[14] These figures have serious implications. The share of the population identifying as religious, and who might therefore provide the human resources for religiously-inspired acts of civil engagement, is shrinking, while public attitudes towards religion in public life remains negative.

These points highlight some of the key problems surrounding the government’s call to put religious groups at the centre of the Big Society agenda. The core assumptions regarding religion and civic engagement are flawed, and processes of secularisation pose serious challenges to the viability of the project. In these circumstances, hopes that the Big Society will facilitate an enhanced role for religion in the public sphere do not appear to be well-founded. When hopes run contrary to the evidence, the best idea is usually to have less faith, rather than more.[15]

Steven Kettell is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and a founder and Co-Executive Editor of British Politics.

[1] Sayeeda Warsi, ‘Christianity and Public Life: a New Beginning for Relations Between Society, Faith, and the State’, Speech to Bishops of the Church of England, 5 September 2010.

[2] Eric Pickles, ‘Ministers Talk Big Society with Faith Leaders’, Communities and Local Government News, 19 July 2010; Eric Pickles, ‘Why This Government Wants Faith Groups to Play a Leading Part in the Big Society’, Conservative Home, 27 November 2010.

[3] Rowan Williams, ‘Big Society – Small World?’, Commemoration Oration, King’s College London, 21 March 2011; Mission and Public Affairs Council, The “Big Society” and the Church of England (Church of England, 2010), http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1150450/gs1804.pdf.

[4] Jonathan Wynne-Jones, ‘Archbishop Vincent Nichols Interview’, The Daily Telegraph, 1 August 2010.

[5] Evangelical Alliance, The Evangelical Alliance and the Big Society (London: Evangelical Alliance, 2010).

[6] Guy Brandon, The Big Society in Context: A Means to What End? (Cambridge: Jubilee Centre, 2011).

[7] Christopher J. Einolf, ‘The Link Between Religion and Helping Others: The Role of Values, Ideas, and Language’, Sociology of Religion (6 April 2011).

[8] Stijn Ruiter and Nan Dirk De Graaf, ‘National Context, Religiosity, and Volunteering: Results from 53 Countries’, American Sociological Review 71, no. 2 (1 April 2006): 191–210.

[9] Department for Communities and Local Government, Citizenship Survey: April–June 2010 (London: DCLG, 2010).

[10] Michael R. Welch et al., ‘Trust in God and Trust in Man: The Ambivalent Role of Religion in Shaping Dimensions of Social Trust’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43, no. 3 (2004): 317–343; Renate Ysseldyk and Kimberly Matheson, ‘Religiosity as Identity: Toward an Understanding of Religion from a Social Identity Perspective.’, Personality and Social Psychology Review 14, no. 1 (2010): 60–71.

[11] Office for National Statistics, ‘Religion in England and Wales 2011’, December 2011.

[12] British Social Attitudes, British Social Attitudes Survey (British Social Attitudes, 2012).

[13] Ipsos-MORI, Poll for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science: Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011 (London: Ipsos-MORI, 2011).

[14] Ibid.

[15] An extended version of this article can be found in Policy & Politics under the title ‘Religion and the Big Society: a match made in heaven?’

Leave a Reply