Having faith in Faith

Dr Andrew Davies explains why politicians and policy-makers must bring religious groups into the fold in an article for Bright Blue, an independent UK liberal conservative think tank and pressure group.

This article was originally published in Bright Blue's Centre Write magazine on 'Staying Faithful?' (Autumn 2018). Reproduced with permission.

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Faith communities are among the UK’s most underappreciated providers. Week in week out, they educate our children, feed the hungry, tend the sick and dying, and generally provide an anchor for their communities. And yet their contribution is still viewed in many quarters with scepticism and unease. They have never quite been brought into the fold when it comes to policy decisions.

Politicians and policymakers consistently struggle to engage with all but the most progressive faith groups – fearing, perhaps, that collaboration with more conservative religious organisations may be misconstrued as establishment endorsement of orthodox religion. Conservative faith groups, for their part, can come across as unwilling to engage. They often like to ‘plough their own furrow’ and can be fearful of partnership with those who they believe may wish to restrict their religious expression.

But failing to acknowledge the contribution conservative faith groups make to public life risks pushing them to isolation and exclusion, and deprives the needy of valuable support. Part of the challenge of engaging with the more conservative faith groups is that many of us struggle to understand communities who take their faith so seriously. The English attitude to Christianity has, on the whole, been that it is a pleasant excuse for some lovely choral music and scones on the vicarage lawn. But that isn’t the kind of Christianity that is most prominently on display in the UK today.

Evangelicals now account for over a million Christians, and they take their faith incredibly seriously. They really believe in what they preach and sing, and are absolutely convinced that their religion should make a difference to everyday life. Christian Evangelicals aren’t alone in this, either: for Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims, traditionalist Sikhs, religion is central to their lives and guides every detail of their existence.

Interestingly, all of these religious traditions imbue in their followers beliefs which align very neatly with a centre-right worldview. Christian Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims and traditionalist Sikhs all believe in personal responsibility, opportunity, aspiration, social mobility and care about their communities and their world.

Given that religious believers are their natural allies, perhaps it’s time to ask centre-right policymakers, networks and organisations to recognise the needs and interests of faith communities when developing policy. I’m certainly not advocating an empty instrumentalisation of faith, or calling for a half-hearted series of mosque, gurdwara or cathedral drop-ins from the Cabinet. We shouldn’t prioritise religious ideologies or agendas — but we must acknowledge their existence and ask for their interests to be taken seriously.

Faith communities should never dominate any policy debate or determine its outcome, but we have to encourage the presence of religious voices at the table and ask faith leaders to work with us to deliver change for their communities. The policy community needs to think about the impact of their decisions and choices upon people of faith and, where possible, work with diverse faith communities to broaden mutual understanding.

If more people acknowledged the motivating power of religion and realised the positive role that faith can play in the transformation of society – including by enabling social mobility and deepening and broadening a sense of community – it would, surely, be good for society at large.

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This article was originally published in Bright Blue's Centre Write magazine on 'Staying Faithful?' (Autumn 2018). Reproduced with permission.