God is more than a vote winner

By Elizabeth Hunter, February 10, 2012

Sixty years have passed since Gandhi said: "those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is". Yet many of those most interested in politics still do not know. Much has changed since Alastair Campbell stated: "we don't do God" but politicians still don't "do God" very well.

The three main parties have patchy records in dealing with religious groups. Part of this comes from the misconception that all religious traditions should be treated as essentially the same thing. They emphasise the social utility of religion. What matters is that religious people have "values".

Mitzvah Day is the most recent example, taking the Prime Minister's Big Society award in 2011. Tony Blair said of Jewish Care that it "is not just Jewish values in action; it is actually the best of British values in action."

Praising "values" isn't quite the equivalent of a politician having a photo taken with a baby but it's safe territory - politicians can speak warmly of a faith community without the risk of being associated with contentious views.

"Values" are all well and good but the emphasis on them can become a way of papering over cracks between government and faith groups. The state does not fit the liberal dream of a neutral referee; over time, some views prevail. The social liberalism that reached its zenith under New Labour in many ways acted against the sense of community, solidarity and values that constitute religious traditions.

Praising 'values' is safe political territory

Whatever one thinks of equalities legislation, there is no doubt that religious communities fear it undermines the extent to which they can act in keeping with their "ethos".

It is an irony that, after 14 years under a party whose history is deeply enmeshed with religious traditions, some religious people are no longer sure that they are permitted to "be themselves" in public.

Ostensibly, the Liberal Democrats are the most openly secular party, due in part to the alliance between the Liberal Party and non-conformist Christian groups.

Yet this has changed over time, and there is a difference between, say, the desire to banish bishops from the House of Lords because one religious tradition shouldn't be privileged, and demanding their removal because religious voices are inherently illegitimate.

Some would argue that the Conservatives retain a more intuitive understanding of faith communities, because they see civil society more clearly.

Leaders like the Chief Rabbi have offered qualified support for the Big Society, emphasising that it already exists in churches, synagogues and mosques. But the Archbishop of Canterbury has refrained from giving it a full three cheers, and it's too early to see whether the warm rhetoric of the Big Society will result in warm relationships.

The future of the relationships between religious groups and the government remains to be seen. The social utility of people of faith will continue to be key for policy makers. Occasionally, politicians with a deeper understanding come along, but they are rare.

All the more reason, then, for politicians to be presented with the facts around important issues such as faith in schools, faith-based welfare provision, and religious freedom in a way that they can understand. Religious people are a significant force in society. It's key to help our leaders "do God" better.

Elizabeth Hunter is the director of Theos think tank, which is co-hosting the Westminster Faith Debates, which are running until May beginning next week, involving politicians, civil servants, NGOs and media. (www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates)

    Last updated: 1:57pm, February 10 2012