The role of ‘faith’ in multicultural integration

Jonathan Chaplin

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on From multiculturalism to muscular liberalism? Faith and the future of integration

JChaplin 2 (434x640)Successive UK governments have been working to engage with faith communities on issues of ‘integration’ for over a decade. But the most recent significant government statement on the question, the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Creating the Conditions for Integration (2012), replicates familiar ambiguities at the heart of government thinking about ‘faith’ and ‘multiculturalism’.

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The emergence of ‘faith-based multiculturalism’

‘Faith’ is now at the centre of many of the flashpoints in policy debates about multiculturalism and integration.[1] Ralph Grillo has noted that, since the earliest post-war debates about immigration, the focus of attention has shifted successively from ‘race’, through ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’ to ‘faith’, producing, especially since 2000, a ‘faith-based multiculturalism’.[2]

What has changed is not that those earlier terms are no longer central to multicultural debates, but that the various faith commitments or identities of members of racial, ethnic and cultural minorities are now often at the forefront of policy discussion. In the past, these were rendered invisible or deemed irrelevant by the secular-minded gatekeepers of public discourse.  Today, under ‘faith-based multiculturalism’, the suite of policy responses named ‘multiculturalism’ has been widened to allow more explicit attention to ‘faith’ as a factor meriting attention in its own right.[3]

MML JC1The reasons for the emergence of ‘faith-based multiculturalism’ are various. One is the sharp increase in inward migration from traditional religious cultures in the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, central Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America. An important effect of this is that there are now notably more UK residents openly adhering to ‘orthodox’ or ‘conservative’ faith traditions – both Christian and otherwise – than before. Such traditions are likely to generate values and practices counter to what is regarded as ‘mainstream’.

Another reason is the rise of ‘public religion’, manifested in the challenge to public policy thrown up by a range of newly confident faith-based organisations. These are resisting what they experience as discriminatory treatment, marginalisation from important democratic fora or exclusion from public service delivery. Collectively, their efforts have amounted to a significant challenge to the clunky, dated but still remarkably pervasive doctrine of public secularism.[4] This challenge attracts most media attention  when it comes from Muslim organisations but it is also being mounted by other faith groups. For example, Orthodox Jews, Hindus and, especially, conservative Christian organisations have all found themselves in court in recent years, defending their corporate or individual religious freedoms against what they take to be the ‘secularising’ impact of equality laws.

Finally, it probably goes without saying that the threat to public order by potentially violent, fringe extremist Islamist groups remains the source of the greatest challenge to policymakers as they seek to craft a ‘faith-based multiculturalism’.

Policy responses to ‘faith-based multiculturalism’

Since 2000 policymakers have tried to respond in various ways to the new public visibility of faith. Governments have attempted to incorporate faith groups more fully into both the ‘inputs’ and the ‘outputs’ side of the multicultural policy process. On the inputs side, diverse religious voices are now consulted when before they would have been ignored or would have lacked the confidence or the desire to speak up. A prominent example at the national level is the government-initiated Faith Communities Consultative Council (discontinued in 2011). On the outputs side, faith-based organisations have become partners in policy implementation (e.g. Muslim organisations have been enlisted in the controversial Prevent strategy) or service-delivery (e.g. the Church of England Urban Fund’s project Near Neighbours has received Department for Communities and Local Government [DCLG] funding).

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government: has described recent High Court judgments proscribing public expressions of faith as ‘illiberal’

The objective of various government initiatives is to bring faith groups ‘inside the tent’ – to enlist their energies and support behind the larger goals of ‘cohesion’ and ‘integration’ and to weaken the supposed disintegrating tendencies of certain faith groups. Faith groups receive significant mention in the most recent substantial government report on these issues, Creating the Conditions for Integration, issued by DCLG in February 2012.[5] The rest of this essay offers a critical reading of this document.

In many ways the document is continuous with the evolution of integration policy over the last decade.[6] It affirms ‘tolerance’ and ‘dialogue’ over ‘intolerance’ and ‘extremism’; emphasises ‘shared values’ and contributions to a common good over supporting ‘difference’; seeks to promote increased civic participation and social mobility for minority groups and to ward off tendencies towards ‘segregation’; and shifts the policy emphasis towards local and voluntary solutions rather than centrally-directed ones.[7]

One new element is a much more pronounced commitment to the ‘local solutions’ goal, in line with the government’s broader ‘localism’ agenda and emphasis on the Big Society.[8] Relatedly, there is a retreat from an earlier emphasis on utilising equality and anti-discrimination rights to address integration, on the ground that these have encouraged separatism. Government’s role is specified more sharply than before as creating the conditions for, not delivering, integration: ‘Today, integration requires changes to society, not changes to the law’ (6).

Ambiguities over the contribution of faith to integration

As with previous official documents on the theme, while the contribution of faith to the goal of integration is affirmed, the account of its precise role is undeveloped and inconsistent. On the one hand, the potentially positive contribution of faith and faith communities to integration is explicitly supported.[9] The general shift towards local integration initiatives legitimates an active role for faith communities alongside other community groups, and some specific examples are endorsed.[10] Yet ambiguities over three key questions relating to faith can be identified: parity of standing; particularity of expression; and commonality of values.

Parity of standing

Whatever ‘integration’ might mean, it should at least mean that government should as far as possible relate even-handedly to different faith groups, neither lionising the one nor arbitrarily discriminating against the other. It is true that no strict arithmetical equality of treatment is feasible. Nor should it be controversial that, for example, the government should turn to the national church, the Church of England, to deliver its important new Near Neighbours initiative; and in any case the project is intended to include other faiths. There are also welcome new responses to anti-Muslim hate crime and a reaffirmation of measures to address anti-semitism (17, 22-3), both ways of redressing a serious disparity of public esteem on the part of these two minority faiths.
Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford: One of many Christian schools in the UK

However, what is absent is an explicit endorsement of the positive contributions that faith communities other than Christianity are making or could make towards integration. The document names no religious organisations other than the Church of England or inter-faith networks, leaving its attitude to the question of parity for Muslim, Hindu, or other faith groups in the integration agenda quite unclear. If this silence was intended as a coded message that ‘integration’ today assumes the default public primacy of (Anglican) Christianity, then the message is explicitly confirmed by the document’s discussion of the court case over Bideford local council prayers.[11] Eric Pickles misleadingly characterised the court’s judgement as an ‘illiberal’ restriction on religious freedom, whereas in fact it was essentially a judgement about religious parity before political authorities. Permitting a council to hold Christian prayers as part of its formal business permits legal privilege for one faith group over others. One wonders how supporters of Christian prayers would respond to a local council with a Muslim majority invoking the ‘general power of competence’ Pickles championed to justify holding formal Muslim prayers as part of its official business.

MML JC2The parity issue also arises in the case of faith-based schools, on which the document is disappointingly silent. The government is currently significantly expanding the role of Christian, especially Church of England, schools, while holding back the growth of other faith schools. Over the last year, for example, it approved two-thirds of applications for Christian free schools but only one-fifth of those for Muslim and Hindu schools.[12] Set against the larger background that (as of January 2011) there were over 6700 maintained Christian schools and 38 Jewish ones but only 11 Muslim, 1 Hindu and 1 Sikh, it is clear from this document that parity of standing for faith communities in the public sector is not a government priority.[13]

Particularity of expression

The document is ambiguous on whether government wishes to allow space for the expression of particular faith-based contributions to integration. The document only explicitly affirms those faith-based contributions which are made jointly with other faith or community groups (16).  The tacit signal is that initiatives from individual faith groups, offered on their own terms, are somehow suspect. This is not stated explicitly, but the silence seems telling. Given the document’s repeated references  to countering ‘segregation’ and ‘extremism’, the barely-concealed message is that only when faith groups play down their distinctive beliefs and identities can they be fully be trusted to promote ‘integration’.

Now there are indeed wide areas of common ground on which many faith groups can and do cooperate without compromising their distinctiveness. The prominent role of faith communities in the Community Organising movement, notably Citizens UK, demonstrates this clearly.[14] But there may be salutary contributions to public debate that are quite distinctive to specific faith communities and which might throw down unsettling, indeed radical, challenges to what the document calls ‘mainstream British liberal values’ (9): an Islamic campaign against ‘usury’; a Buddhist ecological initiative rejecting western notions of ‘sustainable development’; a Christian school offering a dissenting health care curriculum; and so on. An integration policy which is embarrassed or unnerved by the offering of non-mainstream perspectives on the common good risks closing off what might turn out to be vitally important contributions to public policy. Here, an understandable worry about potentially violent fringe Islamist or other groups nursing separatist or subversive agendas has been allowed to overwhelm the democratic virtue of facilitating the public expression of religious difference.[15]

Commonality of values

MML JC3The document is, like its predecessors, frustratingly ambivalent on how faith communities relate to the common moral and political commitments thought to be necessary to integration. It enthusiastically urges the universal acceptance of ‘shared national values’ or ‘core British values’ (16, 17) – while palpably failing to specify what they are. The question is highly important for faith communities (especially minority ones, and especially ‘orthodox’ ones) because, as noted, at least some of them are committed to moral stances which might turn out to be dissenting and counter-cultural, yet without in any way being less committed to the common good.

This document rehearses the usual candidates –  democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity and treatment, freedom of speech, tolerance and respect, religious freedom – but once again fails to spell them out in the kind of detail that would be necessary if they were to do any real policy work. Such values are of immense importance to British political and civic life. But insofar as they have actual leverage, this is because over time they have acquired, in law or social practice, a degree of operational specificity such that they can guide behaviour.[16] Unless this kind of detail is supplied when such terms are invoked by government, the appeal either evokes purely abstract, cost-free endorsement or, worse, places those who might be deemed not to be entirely ‘British’ under a vague cloud of suspicion.

Moreover, value lists like this are woefully incomplete. Many of the most important moral commitments of citizens (religious or secular) – commitments that bear directly on ‘integration’ – go well beyond them. They concern matters such as family structure, gender relations, the purpose of education, ecological responsibility, war and peace or bio-ethics. But as soon as the attempt is made to specify concretely what values like these, or those named in the document, mean in practice, significant disagreement will quickly surface, and religious citizens will, like everyone else, likely find themselves at the heart of those disagreements.

The document calls for ‘honest and open debate’ about what makes for integration (7) but has not taken the measure of what a worthwhile debate about the role of faith would involve. While it asserts, rightly, that successful integration requires that we affirm both the ‘multiple identities’ we bear and the ‘shared commitments’ we seek (21), it conveys only the slightest grasp of the complexities and the possibilities of faith’s contribution to that elusive balancing act

Jonathan Chaplin is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. He is author of Multiculturalism: A Christian Retrieval (Theos, 2011), and co-editor of God and Global Order: The Power of Religion in American Foreign Policy (Baylor University Press, 2009).

[1] ‘Faith’ and ‘religion’ are not synonyms, but the distinction doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article.

[2] Ralph Grillo, ‘British and others. From “race” to “faith”’, in The Multiculturalism Backlash: European Discourses, Policies and Practices, edited by Steven Vertovec and Susanne Wessendorf (London: Routledge, 2010), 50-71.

[3] Here the term ‘multiculturalism’ will be used narrowly to refer to government policy towards minority ethnic and religious communities. For other meanings, see Ali Rattansi, Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) and Jonathan Chaplin, Multiculturalism: A Christian Retrieval (London: Theos, 2011).

[4] By this I mean the view that religious beliefs should carry no weight in democratic fora, public policy debates or legislation, not necessarily that they should be silenced. See Jonathan Chaplin, Talking God: The Legitimacy of Religious Public Reasoning (London: Theos, 2008).


[accessed 10/07/2013]. All page references in the text are to this document.

[6] However, while the term ‘integration’ is central to this document, ‘cohesion’ seems to have been dropped entirely. The term ‘multiculturalism’, even in a descriptive sense, is also absent, consistent with earlier official documents.

[7] Finally, I can’t resist noticing that it is shot through with the same wearisome platitudes and poorly-defined concepts marking most official documents since 2000!

[8] The importance of local solutions isn’t in itself new but was already prominent in, e.g., Commission on Integration and Cohesion, Our Shared Future (2007) and Department for Communities and Local Government, The Government’s Response to the Commission on Integration and Cohesion (February 2008).

[9] ‘We will…defend the valuable role of faith in public life’ (10).

[10] E.g., support for monthly volunteering days to coincide with religious festivals (12) and Near Neighbours, which utilises the local parish infrastructure of the Church of England (15). National initiatives also receive positive mention, such as the Faith-based Regeneration Network and national Inter Faith Week (15).

[11] ‘Councils win prayer ‘rights’ as Localism Act  powers fast tracked, ministers say’, BBC website 18 /02/2012 [accessed 10/07/2013]. See also my ‘Why the Bideford council ruling on council prayers is a setback for secularism’, Guardian CiF Belief, 13/02/2012. [accessed 10/07/2013].

[12] Richard Adams, ‘Education ministry gives go-ahead to two-thirds of Christian faith schools’, Guardian 28/06/2013. [accessed 10/07/2013].

[13] Chaplin, Multiculturalism, 35.

[14] See Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

[15] For a carefully balanced treatment of the relationship between respecting difference and fostering commonality, see Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury, 2012).

[16] Sunder Katwala’s account of the current ‘integration consensus’ in the UK adds some degree of specificity: The Integration Consensus 1993-2013: How Britain has changed since Stephen Lawrence (London: British Future, 2013).

The image of Eric Pickles is included courtesy of Communities and Local Government Office and is licensed under the Open Government Licence 1.0. The image of Christ Church Cathedral School is included courtesy of Dave Croker and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0.

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