Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Can Religion Provide a Source of Political Hope in a Cynical Age?

14 Apr 2015

The furore leading up to the rather underwhelming televised election debate was a new political low. Effusive rhetoric at the last general election about the desirability of open scrutiny of politicians has quickly evaporated into an unseemly row about procedures, which makes our political leaders look shifty. It also leaves the electorate (or at least those who still bother to care) feeling more patronised, cynical and detached from mainstream politics than ever before.

Into this apathetic yet also febrile pre-election atmosphere, a number of interventions by Christian leaders have sought to reconnect the liberal democratic state to its founding values of justice, fairness and the dignity of human life. Among these, the pre-election pastoral letter issued by the Church of England bishops urged UK society to move away from ‘consumerist politics’, to focus instead on ‘the common good, the participation of more people in developing a political vision and constructive ways to talk about communities and how they relate to one another’.

But is this return to religious values and principles merely a pre-election blip or a long-term trend? I think it is the latter because we have reached a decisive moment in the progression of human society, where we urgently need to construct a new consensus that will replace the outdated and increasingly destructive 40 year agreement on the defining role of the market. The final contours of this new consensus are far from clear – we are still in the liminal space between the old world order and a new one. But the direction of travel is, I believe, gathering momentum.

One signpost of this new direction of travel is the return of religion in the public sphere. Eminent social theorist Jurgen Habermas has suggested that we need to shift our understanding of the public sphere from a secular to a postsecular one. In other words, this is uncharted territory in which we need to redefine the terms of engagement between religious and secular practices, insights and beliefs.

Allied to this shift is the growing importance of ‘spiritual capital’. Whilst researching urban regeneration in the early 2000s, I found that faith groups tended to offer the most creative, resilient and effective forms of community engagement, often expressed in radical commitments to live as communities within communities. I discovered that this resilience and effectiveness was down to the dialectic interplay between the ‘why’ and the ‘what’. The many goods and services that faith groups provide as a contribution to social capital, (what I called religious capital) were ‘energised’ and brought into being by spiritual capital (i.e. the why). Spiritual capital is the deeply held values, beliefs and visions for change that are derived from theological ideas, and which are reinforced through the deep social structures that are focussed around prayer and worship. Today, spiritual capital is even more in demand, as public services are slashed by up to 40% by the current policies of austerity localism.

One of the creative challenges thrown up by the shift from a secular to a postsecular understanding of the public sphere is to develop new spaces and institutional forms where the spiritual capital of all citizens can be acknowledged, nurtured and leveraged for renewed political engagement. It is about rehabilitating the generous and non-hubristic traditions of humanitarianism so that all can share in them, religious and non-religious alike.

Mohammed Mamdani, Director Muslim-led community foodbank and kitchen Sufra West London, speaking at our recent conference ‘Building a Politics of Hope’ suggested that his work moves beyond the usual stereotypes and assumptions. For example, he faced challenges from people who assumed that his project would not work with gay people. Not only, however, is a referring agency for his centre a local LGBT group, but he said that his centre aspired to be an organisation where people of different faiths and secular backgrounds could ‘take part in social action together, fundraise together, and share resources together’ to create what he calls a ‘sustainable common purpose’. This is borne out by the fact that 90% of people referred to Sufra are non-Muslims, and the project attracts volunteers from all faiths and none. In performing these roles, faith groups are pivotal hubs and curators of new expressions of postsecular citizenship and a deeper form of politics based on a renewed sense of hope and resilience, rather than the antipolitics of despair.

Key to the success of these new spaces is the open yet also strategic way faith groups nurture the spiritual capital of all those who come and participate. Spiritual capital is about connecting authentic action with authentic desire – a world away from the posturing and cynical self-serving that currently characterises our politics and economics. Who would have envisaged such a state of affairs even 10 years ago – faith groups as catalysts and curators of a new politics of hope in an uncertain age.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.

New bookFaith, Progressive Localism & the Hol(e)y Welfare Safety Net” by Greg Smith is available to download now!


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