This article is part of Public Spirit series on Faith and Social Action.
Often, politicians’ interest in faith-based social action stems from the perception that faith-based organisations do the care work others don’t or won’t. However, faith-based social action can also be a valuable mechanism for building lasting friendships across religious and cultural difference. These friendships can only begin to flourish, though, in an environment that is open to public expression of religious perspectives.
The debate around multiculturalism has taken a rather negative turn in recent years, with David Cameron just one of a number of voices denouncing ‘state multiculturalism’ for having ‘encouraged different cultures to live separate lives’. In light of this, the work of faith groups in bringing together diverse alliances at a grass roots level provides an interesting lens through which to approach the fraught question of how to build unity in a society increasingly marked by difference. As my recent report for the think tank Theos argued, these projects point to the key role that sharing faith motivations can play, alongside common action, if we want to develop a more practical vision of what multiculturalism could mean.
The American scholar Danielle Allen has coined the phrase ‘political friendships’ to describe the kind of grass roots relationships across difference that are needed to cross barriers of faith and ethnicity. These relationships are not quite the same as traditional friendships, for as Allen says, ‘I do not argue that we should all just be friends…. [Political] friendship is not an emotion, but a practice: a set of hard-won, complicated habits used to bridge differences of personality, experience and aspiration’.
This focus on localised relationships and the skills needed to build them is welcome in the often abstract realm of multicultural discussion dominated by self-appointed ‘experts’. As debates rage in ivory towers about whether to replace ‘multiculturalism’ with ‘interculturalism’ or how to define ‘Britishness’, on the streets tensions are rarely far from the surface – as seen in the English Defence League marches following the recent Woolwich attack. That’s why my research focussed on two projects which are already proving successful in building political friendships in diverse areas – the government-funded Near Neighbours programme and the civil society campaigning of community organising as practiced by Citizens UK.
“‘Dialogue’ is all very well, but experience has shown that if there is no tangible common action then it is hard to create any sense of shared destiny.”
So how, practically, do these projects do it? One of the most noticeable features of both is their focus on working together. ‘Dialogue’ is all very well, but experience has shown that if there is no tangible common action then it is hard to create any sense of shared destiny. Near Neighbours is a good example of how governments can help in this – giving small grants with the sole criteria that projects bring people together from different faiths or ethnicities. This allows people to engage in the ways that make sense to them, with nobody telling them what they should be doing or how.
The results can be quite remarkable. Having just finished writing the report, I heard the very sad news that the wife of one of the people I’d come across through my research had had a stroke. This man was part of a father and sons group in East London who had used a small grant to organise monthly trips with activities like camping and archery. But the amazing thing about this situation was that this very diverse group had rallied around the family in the most incredible and practical way – from cooking meals to offering lifts to and from the hospital. In fact the wives of the dads were even getting together – Hindus, Catholics and Muslims – to pray for this woman and her family. If one simple project can generate this level of what academics would call social capital, just imagine the potential impact of Near Neighbours being rolled out across the nation rather than restricted to its current four areas of focus in East London, Leicester, Birmingham and Bradford.
The other key learning point from the projects I studied was that if people are going to get beyond surface level co-operation they need to be free to share their deepest motivations, and this often means being more open in talking about faith in public life. Citizens UK has been quick to recognise this, giving its participants chances to share ‘testimony’ in public meetings. This often involves very personal stories, where themes like faith and family life are particularly in evidence. The result is that campaigners can trust each other to stick together when challenges arise because they know exactly what their collective efforts represent to each person involved. Again, the results can be impressive, as witnessed by the over £200 million won for the lowest paid workers in the country by Citizens UK’s Living Wage campaign.
This focus on a renewed openness to faith and a commitment to practical action will not be universally popular. For too long political parties have been paranoid about who counts as ‘acceptable’ to work alongside, with those that don’t pass a ‘progressive test’ barred from serious engagement. This has often led to a suspicion about working with faith groups, summed up perfectly by one contributor on the LabourList website, Kirstin Hay, who argued that ‘…the question for me is, would I be a friend with someone who thinks my sexuality, or right of access to contraception or abortion is inherently wrong? I would not. Why are making these exceptions seen as not a problem when we deal with faith groups?’
Of course the reality is that refusing to work with people is hardly likely to result in the softening of extreme views, and the experience of Near Neighbours and community organising is that unlikely alliances can have a transformative effect on all involved. They have pioneered a different approach by using ‘relational’ rather than ‘progressive’ tests – picking partners on whether they can work with others rather than whether they tick the right ideological boxes. Such an attitude is not without its challenges, and in diverse alliances some issues may have to be set aside as too divisive to tackle together. But these ‘relational tests’ keep alive the possibility of common action at a time when many communities feel powerless to shape their common life in the face of the overwhelming force of the market or state.
“The reality is that refusing to work with people is hardly likely to result in the softening of extreme views.”
In the same way that these practical alliances may offend exclusive progressives, a renewed openness to core motivations will challenge the secularists who claim that discussion of religion in public is inherently divisive. Again the lived experiences of Near Neighbours and Citizens UK largely debunk this idea, finding instead that people tend to be more than capable of handling fundamental disagreements without having to stop working together. Political friendship is not tested by how well we can avoid areas of dispute, but how we deal with them when they come up. This practical experience is now backed up by a growing body of academic thought which argues that the search for public secular neutrality is ultimately an elusive one, and that we need instead to forge a ‘postsecular’ public sphere which allows different worldviews to be aired and channelled towards the common good.
Near Neighbours and community organising then seem to be pioneering a more practical multiculturalism which puts political friendships above new paradigms and clever one-liners. With their openness to core motivations like faith, and their focus on common action rather than ‘wedge issues’ that divide, they are pointing the way to a ‘postsecular’ politics of the common good which acknowledges difference without fetishising it, and seeks local alliances as the building blocks of a national political renewal. At a time when public disillusionment with its governance has rarely been higher, it seems this practical multiculturalism can’t come quickly enough.
David Barclay is the Faith in Public Life Officer at the Contextual Theology Centre. His role includes leading the Just Money campaign on issues of debt and credit, and managing the Buxton Leadership Programme which gives Christian graduates an experience of both Westminster and local Church-based community organising. He is a former President of the Oxford University Student Union.
 David Cameron, Speech at Munich Security Conference, 5th February 2011, http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference/
 David Barclay, Making Multiculturalism Work (Theos, 2013)
 Danielle Allen, Turning Strangers into Political Friends, In These Times, December 2004, http://inthesetimes.com/article/1777/
 Kirstin Hay, ‘Labour needs to stand up to some faith groups on equality issues’, LabourList website, November 2012, http://labourlist.org/2012/11/labour-needs-to-stand-up-to-some-faith-groups-onequality-issues/