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

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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moment in the progression of human society, where we urgently need to construct a new consensus that will replace the outdated and increasingly destructive 40 year agreement on the defining role of the market.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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Archbishop Sentamu to Present 2015 Annual Lecture


William Temple Foundation is delighted to present our inaugural annual lecture, delivered by the Most Reverend & Right Honourable Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York. This event is the first of its kind for the Foundation, yet it represents a continuation of our work supporting important voices to reach wider audiences. The lecture will be held at Leeds Civic Hall on Wednesday 18th March at 5.30pm. All are welcome to this free public event.

Following the recent publication of his edited volume ‘On Rock or Sand’ Archbishop Sentamu will share insights into how we might build firm foundations for Britain’s future. In particular, the Archbishop will discuss social movements and activism in light of continuing economic pressures. He will argue for the right and duty of the Church to speak out in the face of injustice. The lecture titled, ‘Air, Light, Land and Water: Reclaiming public assets for the common profit’ will also explore notions of citizenship and common ownership.

Professor Chris Baker, Director of William Temple Foundation said, ‘We are extremely pleased that Archbishop Sentamu will deliver our inaugural annual lecture. Rooted in the Temple tradition, Archbishop Sentamu’s concern for inequality and issues of poverty resonates well beyond Anglican circles. In the run-up to the general election, the Church offers an important voice on these issues. As such, we invite those who share similar concerns, from all faiths, as well as those from secular backgrounds, to come and hear the Archbishop’s address.’

For full information and to book free tickets click here.


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A Scottish State Might be Happier but What About the Rest of Us?

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The ‘Scottish’ idea of government would make the whole UK happier – so why do we persist in creating societies that do the opposite?

With the date for the referendum on Scottish Independence now a few frantic days away, voter and media attention has focussed on the different philosophies concerning the role and nature of government said to exist on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall. We are increasingly told by pollsters that Scotland sees itself as a more democratic and communitarian society which upholds the values of equality and progressive reform (i.e. reform that benefits all citizens, not just a few).  The Scottish Government’s Independence White Paper would seem to support this view with its strong commitment to what it calls “social investment”:

A social investment approach starts from the premise that the delivery of welfare services should not be seen as simply a safety net for individuals… Instead they should be seen as an opportunity for positive investment in people throughout their lives … such as learning and development in early years, employment and health gains in adult life, and for older people, increased independence and ability to be active in their communities.

A clear consequence of this idea of ‘social investment’ is the expectation that the government (or the State) is proactive in the way it intervenes to correct social conditions created by market processes that it considers a stumbling to this policy. The White Paper thus pledges central government support for initiatives such as universal child care for 3 and 4 years olds, a ‘triple-lock’ pensions increase by either inflation, earnings, or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest; a guaranteed inflation-linked minimum wage, the abolition of the bedroom tax and the re-nationalisation of the Royal Mail to ‘guarantee a quality of service to all’.

This social democratic idea of political economy appears to be in stark contrast to the ‘English’ market economy model. Here the role of government is perceived as minimal – providing only a safety net rather than social investment welfare model and allowing the market to operate most efficiently. The underlying philosophical idea is that of libertarianism and utilitarianism: namely the right of the autonomous individual to access their own resources for happiness and wellbeing, free from the dictates (and taxes) of the overbearing state.

Into this debate comes recent research from the London School of Economics which strongly suggests that citizens are happier in countries where governments intervene more frequently into the economy. The LSE report presents analysis of data from the World Values Survey across 21 industrialised democracies between 1891 and 2007. The survey asked the question, on a scale of 1 – 10: ‘All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?’

The LSE researchers used four different measures alongside these results: the size of a government’s consumption share of a country’s GDP; a country’s social welfare expenditure as part of its GDP; welfare state generosity (not just spending) that covers ease of access to welfare benefits and expansiveness across different sections of the community; and legislation covering permanent (as opposed to temporary) contracts and provision for those who lose their employment.

The relationship between these four public policies and citizens’ subjective well-being is consistent and arresting. The degree of extra happiness that ‘above average government intervention’ generates has ‘a greater effect on happiness than the difference between someone who is married compared to unmarried, and someone who is employed compared to unemployed (two of the most common predictors of subjective well-being)’. The report also shows that greater happiness is present for all citizens, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.

These are remarkable statistics, but only because we have allowed ourselves to believe that individual wellbeing is somehow a utility that can be detached from the wider political, social and economic conditions in which we find ourselves. Common sense and basic human experience tells us that the more isolated and detached we feel from others, the more fearful and dissatisfied we become. So why do we in the UK and many other economies persist in creating barriers of inequality and stigmatisation in the false pursuit of individual autonomy and freedom based on the simplistic mantra of ‘markets good, state bad’. We need robust and ethically responsible institutions to safeguard the basic conditions of human flourishing – lifelong education, health and social care, reliable and trustworthy banking systems, investment in arts, culture and innovation.

Faith groups, large charities, the community and voluntary sector and generous philanthropy all have a role to play.  But without robust government intervention that ensures a commitment to universal and fair access to these basic goods, based on individual contributions and progressive tax regimes, the right that we have to human and community flourishing becomes a postcode lottery. And in this lottery, ever increasing numbers of citizens are losing out.

Scotland sees its social investment strategy as an extension of the ‘Nordic’ approach where Scandinavian countries pursue an active commitment to both social and financial investment. And surprise, surprise, it is these more economically equal and socially resourced countries that consistently come top of happiness league tables.

Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect society. Even the moderate pragmatism of the Scottish White Paper (lower corporation tax and selective renationalisation) will run foul of global instabilities generated by wilful human hubris. But, should Scotland vote for independence next week, I suspect many citizens in what is left of the UK will instinctively consider emigration to a section of these islands they consider better expresses their desire for a more satisfying form of social polity.

The LSE research strongly suggests that their instincts are right and empirically sound. However, the truly patriotic thing for me to do, as an English person, is to dig deep within my own social democratic traditions and fight for the right to live under the principles of decency, fairness and justice in my part of this ‘green and pleasant land’. Not only does make it ethical, psychological and spiritual sense, it makes economic sense as well.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.

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The Limits of Neighbourliness: Being a Good Neighbour Needs a Political Outcome


A timely and insightful report produced by the Church Urban Fund and Theos was launched in the House of Commons last week. Entitled Good Neighbours – How Churches help Communities Flourish, the report aimed to be a ‘critical appreciation’ of what churches offer their local communities.

There are some great ideas in this report. There is the idea of church-based social engagement providing a ‘stable place’ for both individual and community wellbeing and flourishing. Then there is the concept of church-based community projects as ‘hubs’ and ‘platforms’. In localities where church groups are often the last institution providing any form of community-based welfare, there is a growing trend for their projects to become spaces of gathering and debate which attract other citizens who not only want to become involved in practical help (‘to do something about something’) but also debate what sort of local communities we want to create.

The Church Urban Fund/Theos report helpfully deepens and refreshes what other commentators and researchers have been reporting from the field. A key point of connection with the work of the William Temple Foundation was their finding which showed the importance of worship and shared theological ideas as the motivating and driving force of faith–based civic engagement. This finding resonates with our definition of “spiritual capital” which emerged from research into church-led urban regeneration in Manchester in the early 2000s. We proposed that as a contribution to social capital, churches and other faith groups provide both religious and spiritual capital. Religious capital is ‘the practical contribution to local and national life made by faith groups’. 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’. 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.

Meanwhile Church Urban Fund/Theos’ reference to the local  church as a platform ‘for neighbourliness, relationship and social connection’ whereby others from outside feel able to join in practical action for the sake of the local common good resonates strongly with ideas being developed around ‘progressive localism’ and ‘postsecular rapprochement’.  Progressive localism describes the potential of new political networks comprising of any groups who are prepared to be ‘outward looking and so create positive affinities between places and social groups negotiating global processes’. Postsecular rapprochement meanwhile, describes new spaces of partnership and encounter which involve  ‘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’.

I would have liked to have read more in the Good Neighbours report on the deeper political questions raised by its research. There is a danger that as faith groups become more efficient and indispensable to local welfare and service provision that we lose sight of a more joined up critique of the role of the state and the market, and the growing inequality and power vacuums their policies and practices are creating.

I also think more could have been made of the political potential for local faith-based leadership created by these new spaces of progressive localism and good neighbourliness. I believe the time is right to consider the strategic leveraging of the new political power that is being generated by the authenticity, integrity and knowledge base of the sort of the projects that Good Neighbours identifies, and which are being viewed with increasing admiration by those outside the faith communities themselves.

How might we do this? Well, emerging from our research on religious and spiritual capital, the Foundation identified three dimensions of faith-based engagement at work in the public sphere: being there; mainstream and alternative. The ‘being there’ dimension refers to those mundane spaces of engagement and support that religious groups offer to their local community as a seamless part of their everyday sense of mission and purpose. They contribute in ways that are organic, based on habit and personal contact; and which are distinctly low tech and volunteer-led.

The ‘mainstream’ dimension described the type of engagement where religious groups formally accept that they will partake in state initiatives or partnership schemes; they will bid for government contracts, or apply for government training funds in order to fulfil government-led targets and initiatives as part of a strategy that forms bridges and connections beyond the confines of membership. They will often employ professional workers and managers.

The ‘alternative’ dimension seeks to tap into both volunteer and professionally based knowledge, but puts the views and experience of the stakeholder much more to the fore. It is flexible, responsive, and highly entrepreneurial as well as technically skilled. In terms of social capital theory, its desire to challenge some of the dominant forms of political economy that trap people in cycles of poverty and inequality, means that it exemplifies linking social capital – i.e., brings resources of knowledge and funding and education to those most powerless in society so that their capital assets can be enhanced to bring about deep and more permanent change

Since we first developed these ideas, we now know that austerity will continue as a government policy until 2019. This means that the ‘mainstream’ dimension will more or less disappear, thus making the ‘being there’ and ‘alternative’ dimensions more significant. I would contend that we need to develop much more of an explicit link between the political leverage associated with ‘being there’ and use that political leverage as part of a national debate on the importance of creating an alternative idea of politics and alternative social order. We need to give voice to a critique of neo-liberal capitalism and the idea there is no alternative to the social order currently on offer. But this can only happen if churches and other faith groups grasp the opportunities to capitalise on their new credibility and proactively take a lead in being political hubs around which others can coalesce.

There seems to be a growing consensus that the state simply exits to provide the barest of safety nets and to provide this with as much unpleasantness as possible. I disagree with this profoundly and would argue instead that, in one of the richest global economies, the role of the state is to be much more of an ‘enabling’ one. William Temple envisaged the state not as a safety net but as an active progenitor of intermediate and networked communities of interest and shared concern. Localism doesn’t just happen on its own – it needs nuanced, careful, and strategic investment and support from the state in a rhetoric that moves away from stigmatisation and ‘shirkers vs strivers’ and starts from a stance of recognising the intrinsic value and worth of every human being, made in the image of God. Thank you Theos and Church Urban Fund for highlighting case studies of ‘good neighbour welfare’ and the ‘being there’ that does this. But going about this work quietly, or in ways that assume the current status quo, will never change a punitive and unsustainable vision of society.

Chris Baker is Director of Research for William Temple Foundation

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