‘Doing God is often messy and controversial, but the social benefits far outweigh the negatives’ would seem to be the gist of this much-anticipated review by Colin Bloom into how Government engages with faith which was published this week. The delay (three years in the writing) is partly explained by COVID but also in fairness, to the sheer amount of data the report received. Over 22,000 submissions and a million pieces of data later suggests that the issues surrounding religion and belief and its practice is still incredibly live and important. As the review correctly observes:
Faith in England and Wales is alive and well, and the abundance of detailed and passionate responses to this review across many faith and belief communities highlights the importance of the topic to many in contemporary British society. Faith is a diverse and evolving force which government cannot afford to ignore. (p. 30)
It is also the first review of its kind ever undertaken and is linked to the government’s Levelling Up agenda. The connection between religion and levelling up is not developed in report (perhaps because there is little consensus on what is meant by Levelling Up in the first place). But it perhaps betrays a sublimated wish on the part of Government for religion to act as both a moral legitimator for a rudderless policy term, and the hope that the activities and motivation of faith groups in upholding and developing their local communities (often the poorest and the most deprived) will give much needed meaningful content to the idea.
The report frames its understanding with a typology of true-believers, no-believers and make-believers. Increasing numbers of people in this society may baulk at such a simplistic binary narrative as true believer or no believer on the grounds that their religious and spiritual beliefs are deeply felt but complex and nuanced in their public expression. Make-believers refers to those who distort religious ideas into fundamentalist national and identity politics. The report is at pains to stress that these are a minority but that their activity needs to be more tightly regulated by government for the sake of safeguarding and freedom of speech.
This typology is necessary for understanding the rest of the report; i.e. that government needs to support and understand religion and belief in the round, and strategically support good religion and belief as a vital resource for promoting social wellbeing, equality and participation. To this end the report advocates firm policies on religious literacy for all public sector bodies, increased resourcing for RE in education and for those key areas where religion intersects with public provision in prison and health care, and the appointment of a national independent Faiths Champion.
But the report is equally clear that it is the role of the state to crack down on bad (or make-believe) religions linked to forms of nationalist and religious extremism. All the main religious faith traditions in the UK (including Christianity and its co-option by some far-right groups) have clear links with banned international and domestic terrorist organisations. Bad religion also rightly includes the practices of forced marriage and spiritual abuse in its list of things that Government needs to actively prescribe. However, the uneven and disproportionate way these sections are treated – issues outlining Sikh extremism occupies twice the length of discussion than all the other faith groups out together – is likely to raise accusations of potential tarring whole communities in ways that the Prevent programme has done for the Muslim community. The repeated observation that freedom to practice Christianity in the UK is now perceived to be under threat (perhaps the point could have been made just once or twice) is likely to fuel the toxic culture wars rhetoric of right-wing media and far-right groups.
Ultimately, the Bloom Review, is something of a missed opportunity to move the debate on religion and belief in England in a ground-breaking way. The research I undertook for the APPG on Faith and Society analysed the pandemic as a ‘permission space’ that allowed us to talk about religion and belief in a new way that also led to innovative and effective partnerships with secular agencies. The anxieties that secular groups usually feel about working with faith groups (for example, proselytization safeguarding, a lack of accountability etc) were suspended for the sake of effective working together. Stereotypes were largely disproved in the relationships forged in the crucible of the pandemic. Instead of difference this crucible highlighted shared values and therefore the possibility of achieving shared outcomes through co-creation of policies rather than co-production.
I hope the Bloom Review will be a landmark document that brings about lasting and positive change to faith and secular relations. What is missing is a step-change in re-imagining the role of religion and belief in British society that is commensurate with the unprecedented nature of the challenges facing this country. Most of the report’s recommendations see religion more as a problem to be managed, rather than highlighting, for example, the potential of religious ideas to profoundly shape the overall policy framework that delivers the sort of society we want to create. There is a reference to round tables. Where, however, are the structural opportunities to devise and shape policy, as well as deliver policy? William Temple did that 80 years ago from a Judeo-Christian perspective in his book report – Christianity and Social Order, which was published in1942 and paved the way for the post-war Welfare State. Levelling Up is a policy in desperate need of that sort of envisioning now, and it would be a multifaith and postsecular endeavour, not purely a Christian one.
As we negotiate the legacy of the pandemic, the ongoing cost of living crisis and the horror of climate disaster, religion and belief could – indeed should – be a real force for social renewal through this re-envisioning of levelling up, rather than applying sticking plasters and bandages to systems and policy plans that are already deeply broken.