Spiritual capital and progressive localism

Chris BakerChris Baker

This article is part of a series on faith-based organisations and local economic development.

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’.  We therefore need to conceive of the relationship between the religious and secular in a more symbiotic way. This means accepting the full religious and secular diversity of British society, publicly recognising the ‘spiritual capital’ of both religious and secular organisations and fostering an outward looking outlook on life that creates positive affinities between places and social groups.

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The current debate about religion in public life sometimes feels like a zero-sum game of tennis where views are simply hit backwards and forwards with increasing ferocity, but with little hope of moving onto the next round. In this article I propose some fresh ways of framing the debate about what it is that faith groups bring to their localities in a way that also introduces some new ideas about local politics and democracy. On the one hand, the rhetoric emerging from official reports is that religion on the ground is a, ‘warm heart and a safe pair of hands’. As the previous Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government reflected, ‘Faith as a strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity – the very values that are essential to politics, to our economy and our society’.[1] On the other hand, religion is assumed as a seedbed for (at worst) terrorism and (at best) anti-social or socially regressive views.[2] The opinions of Lord Justice Laws against legal protection for public displays of religious identity perhaps speak for the unease and suspicion of many:

Law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot … be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.[3]

So here is my recipe for a more nuanced view of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ faith groups contribute to their localities:

1) The diversity of British society within a postsecular rather than secular view of the public sphere.

2) The importance of spiritual capital as a source of social capital.

3) The emergence of the idea of progressive localism which suggests the emergence of new spaces of mutual engagement between outward-facing faith and secular organisations. These spaces, I conclude, represent new opportunities for faith communities to exercise innovative and creative forms of local political leadership.

From a secular to a postsecular public square

The concept of the postsecular public square emerges in the early years of this century. Its chief exponent is the Marxist philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who has radically revised his understanding of the relationship between the religious and the secular. The re-emergence (or new visibility) of religion globally, but especially in Europe at the end of the 20th century following the collapse of communism, confirmed for him the futility of a uncritical secularism and the lazy assumption that religion would simply cease to have any public significance.


“The debate about religion in public life sometimes feels like a game of tennis where views are simply hit back and forth with little hope of moving onto the next round.”


The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who has revised his position on religion’s place in public life considerably in recent years.

So, says Habermas, we need to conceive of the relationship between the religious and secular in a more symbiotic way.[4] He thus suggests that we have moved from a secular public sphere to a postsecular one; namely, ‘a …. self-understanding of society as whole in which the vigorous continuation of religion in a continually secularizing environment must be reckoned with’.[5] 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. Sharing between these different elements Habermas implies, will be a contested process.

But there is also growing evidence to suggest that citizens are welcoming the opportunity to cross over the rigid dividing lines between the religious and the secular to engage with each other in the service of a more ethical, but also pragmatic politics, for the sake of the common good. People seem comfortable being who they are, but not being confined by that identity. Rather, they use that identity (either religious, spiritual, agnostic, atheist) as a springboard to experiment in collaborating with others different to themselves. It’s time to dig a little deeper into this assertion.

The importance of spiritual capital in the postsecular public sphere

Research I carried out for the William Temple Foundation in the early 2000s highlighted the importance of something called ‘spiritual capital’. This research mapped and reflected on the engagement of churches in areas of Manchester undergoing urban regeneration.[6] These churches were often the final civil institutions left in areas of high deprivation. We were interested not only in what they were doing – opening their premises to the poor, running credit unions, complementary health schemes, school mentoring programmes, youth work etc. – but why they did what they did. We asked them what regeneration meant for them. Here are some of the answers. Regeneration:

  • Focuses on transforming people personally and spiritually, as well as improving their area physically;
  • Values personal stories, especially about how individual ‘regeneration’ occurs;
  • Believes implicitly or explicitly that God is at work within regeneration and civil society.[7]

We found that whilst secular agencies were happy to accept the physical contributions of these churches, they were unwilling or uncomfortable engaging with the reasons why these contributions were being offered. The churches in our survey said they felt let down and confused; that they were being asked to leave something essential about themselves outside the metaphorical door. We suggested this policy was unfair but also counterproductive. We said that as a contribution to social capital (which lies at the heart of all government policy) faith groups provide both religious and spiritual capital. Religious capital is, ‘the practical contribution to local and national life made by faith groups’.[8] Spiritual capital meanwhile, ‘energises religious capital by providing a theological identity and worshipping tradition, but also a value system, moral vision and a basis of faith’.[9] Religious capital is the ‘what’: i.e., the concrete actions and resources that faith communities contribute. The ‘why’ is spiritual capital: i.e., the motivating basis of faith, belief and values that shapes these concrete actions. To get the best value from working with faith groups, therefore, it is necessary to work with not only the religious capital, but the spiritual capital as well.


“We found that whilst secular agencies were happy to accept the contributions of churches, they were uncomfortable engaging with the reasons why these contributions were being offered.”


Our research also maintains, however, that spiritual capital is not the sole preserve of citizens attending religious institutions, but is, in terms of its properties as a value system and moral vision, a motivating force for those outside formal religious affiliation.  In other words, (and the Foundation has written about this as well,) there is such a thing as secular spiritual capital.[10]

The emergence of the postsecular debate highlights the importance of leveraging the ethical and political power of everyone’s spiritual capital. In a postsecular public space we must allow ourselves the freedom to experiment with multiple discourses, multiple visions of the truth and multiple expressions of identity.

Spiritual capital and progressive localism

Of course one cannot refer to faith-based engagement in local economies without talking about the Localism agenda. The diagram below[11] encapsulates the last 30 years of UK social policy. It represents the shift from government to governance; namely the idea that the art of managing local communities is too complex for the blunt instruments of state, and that flourishing localities can only be achieved through a convoluted set of arrangements between the market, the state and the third sector. Cynics suggest that the localism and Big Society agendas are little more than attempts to shift responsibility and risk onto local communities in ways that discredit the state and create procurement opportunities for the market. A more balanced reading suggests that the concept of localism is in fact more of a neutral term (like secularisation) that describes inexorable cultural and political shifts. These deep shifts (like the industrial revolution in the 19th century) are shaped by new technologies. On one hand, it appears we are increasingly socially disconnected as we live out more of our lives in the virtual world of the Internet. On the other, we are still compelled to seek out intermediary level social groups that not only express something about our identity, but allow us to express ethical concern in ways that traditional politics seems incapable of doing.


“In a postsecular public space we must allow ourselves the freedom to experiment with multiple discourses, multiple visions of the truth and multiple expressions of identity.”


Chris Baker LG diagram
2011 Localism Act Source: DCLG 2011 (click to enlarge image)

These new affinity groups are being increasingly constituted on pragmatic and ethical lines, including across religious/secular divides. Political human geography is conducting empirical research into what they identify as, ‘spaces of postsecular rapprochement’: namely, ‘a coming together of citizens who might previously have been divided by differences in theological, political or moral principles – a willingness to work together to address crucial social issues in the city, and in doing so put aside other frameworks of difference involving faith and secularism’.[12] Examples of emerging spaces of postsecular rapprochement include one off spaces of outrage and ethical conscience (e.g. anti-deportation protests); more long-term projects that provide welfare services to the socially excluded (e.g. drug addiction rehabilitation programmes and homeless projects); spaces of ethical identity (for example Fair Trade cities and Cities of Sanctuary).

Others on the secular left are taking the energy of these new cross-over groups to identify something they are labelling ‘progressive localism’. By progressive they don’t mean liberal or elitist. They mean something more fundamental than that – namely an attitude of mind or outlook on life that is; ‘outward looking and creates positive affinities between places and social groups negotiating global processes’.[13] They use the term progressive to emphasise that these alliances are not merely defensive. ‘Rather they are expansive in their geographical reach and productive of new relations between places and social groups. Such struggles can … reconfigure existing communities around emergent agendas for social justice, participation and tolerance’.[14]

This is a creative and exciting vision of localism, freed from the narrow dogmas of neo-liberal economics, that clearly resonates with the ambitions and vision of faith groups.

Progressive localism requires progressive leadership

So how are we to nurture these emerging spaces of post-secular rapprochement and progressive localism? I believe that local authorities are well placed to facilitate spaces where issues of social justice, participation and tolerance  can be discussed and implemented. One recommendation from a recently-commissioned report by the Local Government Association into how local authorities might work more effectively with faith groups advocates developing strategies ‘whereby councils, statutory partners, VCS [voluntary and community sector] and other faith groups meet each other with a view to building understanding, trust, relationships, information sharing and collaborative working.’[15]


“We are still compelled to seek out intermediary groups that express something about our identity, and allow us to express ethical concern in ways that traditional politics seems incapable of doing.”


But more informal and fluid spaces in the postsecular public space are also opening up, which means that churches and other faith communities are uniquely placed to play a more explicit and creative role as political powerbrokers on the ground. The ‘cultured despisers of religion’ in certain media and academic circles will continue to complain, but the reality is that increasing numbers of leaders and citizens are more open than ever to allowing space for progressive (i.e. outward–looking) religion to deploy its wisdom, experience and resources. Not only in leading debates, but also acting as political hubs for emergent networks and affinity groups committed to creating flourishing localities. It is a two-way, dialogical model of the public sphere where wisdom, resources, expertise and political leadership is shared – and not a one-size-fits all model where one version of the truth dominates and suppresses any others.

We need more empirical research into practices of post-secular rapprochement and progressive localism. But for now I give Habermas the last word. His openness (as a Marxist social theorist) to changing his ideas on religion in the light of experience showcases what is required in the construction of new spaces of religion/no-religion engagement: ‘… it makes a difference whether we speak with one another or merely about one another’.[16]

Chris Baker is Director for Research for the William Temple Foundation and Senior Lecturer in Public and Urban Theology at the University of Chester. He has published and researched widely on the role of faith in public and urban life. He lives in London and is a member of Hackney Citizens.

[1] John Denham Speech to Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, October 19 2009. http://www.iengage.org.uk/news/592-government-and-faith-communities-speech-by-john-denham-mp (accessed 10/02/14)

[2] Robert Furbey et al. Faith as Social Capital – Connecting or Dividing (Bristo: Policy Press/Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2006).

[3] Quoted in Steve Doughty, ‘Judge rules Christians have no special rights as he throws out case of sex therapist who refused to work with gay couples’, Mail Online, 30 April 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1269791/Christian-Gary-McFarlane-loses-case-refusing-sex-therapy-gay-couples.html#ixzz2sq96DGqC (accessed 10/02/14)

[4] Jürgen Habermas, ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ in (Jürgen Habermas et al.)  An Awareness of What is Missing – Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Polity Press, 2010), 15-24.

[5] Jurgen Habermas, ‘Religion in the public sphere’, European Journal of Philosophy 14 vol.1 (2006): 1–25.

[6] ‘Regenerating Communities – A theological and strategic critique’ (2002-2005) conducted for the Church Urban Fund. These findings are primarily documented in Christopher Baker The Hybrid Church in the City – Third Space Thinking (London: SCM Press 2009) (2nd edition).

[7] Chris Baker and Hannah Skinner, Faith in Action – the Dynamic Connection between Spiritual and Religious Capital (Manchester: William Temple Foundation, 2006), p.12

[8] Faith in Action, p. 12.

[9] Ibid, p.12.

[10] Chris Baker and Jonathan Miles-Watson, ‘Exploring Secular Spiritual Capital; An Engagement in Religious and Secular Dialogue for a Common Future’ in International Journal of Public Theology 2 vol.4 (2008): 442-464.

[11] Decentralisation and the Localism Bill: an essential guide (2011) p.1 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/5951/1793908.pdf (accessed 10/02/14)

[12] Paul Cloke and Justin Beaumont, ‘Geographies of postsecular rapprochement in the city’, Progress in Human Geography 37 no. 1 (2012): 27-51

[13] David Featherstone, Anthony Ince, Danny Mackinnon, Kendra Strauss, and Andrew Cumbers. ‘Progressive Localism and the construction of political alternatives’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers vol.37 (2012); 177-182

[14] Ibid, p.178

[15] Rachael Chapman, Belief and Faith in Partnership- Effective Collaboration with Local Government (London: Local Government Association, 2012) p.68.

[16] Jurgen Habermas, ‘An awareness of what of missing p.16

The image of Jürgen Habermas is included courtesy of Nikolas Backer and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

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