Government faith task force ‘doing God’

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By Catherine Pepinster

: How the Government sees the reach of faith in a diverse Britain

A year ago Britain first went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the world. Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues shut their doors.

Two months later, the government set up a task force to discuss the pandemic’s impact on places of worship. Members said they were pleased to think the government was taking them seriously. 

This was not the first time, though, that government had engaged with faith groups. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said there had been earlier meetings with faith leaders. It said: “We’ve worked closely with faith communities throughout the pandemic. Officials held calls with faith leaders in March, and the Faith Minister met with faith leaders in April. The Places of Worship Taskforce was a natural extension of this engagement, but not the start.”

But the taskforce was a key moment, for it has developed into a powerful means of communication and action between the government and faith organisations.

What was first set up as the Places of Worship Taskforce has become known more colloquially as the Faith Taskforce — and it is being tasked with a lot more than just the opening times and social distancing of churches, temples and mosques. Instead, the taskforce has become a go-to organisation for discussions about vaccinations and ethnic minorities and how to rebuild society during a time of post-Covid recovery.

The evidence now points to a government that has woken up to the reach of faith in a very diverse Britain.

As Jim McManus, public health adviser to the Catholic bishops, who attends the faith taskforce meetings put it: “At first the government was in command and control mode. But they have moved from telling us what to do to seeing us as able to deliver their policy objectives. They are saying you know your communities and we should listen. 

“It was a culture change but it wasn’t a one-way street. They were pushing at an open door because the faith leaders wanted to both challenge the politicians and support them,” he said. 

“Faith organisations have buildings, plant, skills and above all access — to reach refugees, the homeless, people in need and above all ethnic minorities. They started to recognise this in the context of the pandemic.” 

And McManus praised Robert Jenrick, the housing, communities and local government minister, and his officials, for being “quick to adopt a collaborative approach”.

This is not the first time that a government has turned its attention to religion in Britain. It’s as if Alastair Campbell’s infamous remark of the Blair administration — “We don’t do God” — actually marked the moment when politicians started to do God in a pragmatic way.

British politics is, of course, very different from that of the United States where politicians are open about their religious beliefs and some deliberately court the religious vote. They might not wear their heart on their sleeve, but they often display their Bible in their hand — even Bill Clinton was not averse to the power of the Good Book being on show.

But in Britain with its established Anglican church, personal faith among politicians has usually been understated. Yet, as Britain grew more diverse and people could no longer be assumed to be nominal Anglicans, politicians started to become more aware that there were parts of the population that could be reached via religion even if people’s political engagement was limited.

In the past few decades, during the administrations of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, three key reasons for political connections to religion have emerged. They are:

  • Engaging with faith communities because they are adept at providing social welfare at the grass roots 
  • Connecting with people of different religions because it can be a way of securing votes 
  • Demonstrating interest and support for specific communities as a route to securing donors

There are other reasons for contact between politicians and faith groups but these tend to be far more contentious and more often initiated by faith bodies rather than the politicians. These include debates over what might be described as “life” matters or sex and death — abortion, reproductive technologies, and assisted dying — as well as education.

One of the most significant encounters between religion and government came 23 years ago when the new prime minister, Blair, was invited by George Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to address the Lambeth Conference.

In his speech Blair laid out the areas of common concern for politicians and people of faith. They included poverty and debt in the developing world, and at home, work at grassroots level in areas of greatest deprivation — what Blair called “Often unsung work, often work that goes totally unnoticed by the vast majority of people in a country, but it is work that is essential and has its own effect, I believe, in awakening the moral conscience, not just of a particular country, but indeed of the world.”

Blair’s recognition of the contribution that religion could make to society was evident when he said: “We have the chance today … for religion to be seen not as some exclusive sect, which is the worst part of the way that people see religion, but as the possibility of opening up the world to other people and sharing certain common values that bring people together.”

These ideas about faith communities and government having common ground on community, morality — in terms of social justice rather than sexual morality — and international aid were shared by Blair’s chancellor and successor at No 10, Gordon Brown.

One insider who knew both well from his time working at Downing Street 10 said: “With Blair there was a religious literacy borne out of his personal beliefs. This was a man fascinated by religion and who read the Bible every day. Brown, because of his Presbyterian minister father, also had religious literacy but was also very pragmatic. He knew things could work on the ground if ministers engaged with religions. He recognised they could be helpful regarding social cohesion.”

But it was the 9/11 attacks that brought religion even more to the fore in British politics. Before that the religious leaders who would visit No 10 the most were the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster but Muslim leaders less so. After 9/11 politicians wanted to understand Islam more, yet were also fearful of it. 

This fear was apparent in the creation of the Prevent strategy that has led to tensions between the Muslim community and several administrations. It was first developed as Contest by Sir David Omand and the Home Office in 2003 in the aftermath of 9/11 and was revised several times, but with the constant aim of reducing the risk of terrorism.

Contest was made up of the four themes of Prevent, Pursue, Protect, and Prepare: Preventing more people from being radicalised; Pursuing suspects operationally and legally; Protecting the public through security measures, and Preparing to manage the response to mitigate the impact of an inevitable attack. It later became known as Prevent and was criticised by human rights organisations and members of the Islamic community, who complained that it both stigmatised and alienated Muslims.

Among its staunch critics were Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative Party chairman who wrote in 2017 after the London Bridge terrorist attack that Prevent’s implementation had huge flaws. “The only definition of extremism that exists in government is Islamist extremism, even though over a third of the referrals to the Prevent or Channel programmes relate to far-right extremists, “ she said, warning that this definition down to policy being made “not on the basis of evidence or expert opinion but on the ideological whims of individual politicians”.

That same year Baroness Warsi published The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain, in which she criticised her own party’s government for failing to promote social cohesion and criticised an “intolerant secularism” in Britain that affects all people of faith, not just Muslims. 

Warsi had been co-chair of the Conservative Party during David Cameron’s premiership, when, despite her criticisms of how the Tories saw ethnic minorities, there was a growing interest in their voting habits and an understanding that there was a potential for Conservative vote-winning among Hindus and Sikhs.

Cameron also spotted the capacity for faith groups to make a difference in areas of deprivation, developing his ideas about the Big Society. This proposal, which featured in the 2010 Conservative manifesto, focused on the importance of the voluntary sector and building society from the grassroots upwards. There were plans for networks, a bank, and awards, but much of it foundered.

By 2014, Danny Kruger, a former Cameron speechwriter and adviser, complained that the Big Society had been downgraded and become little more than an exercise in picking up rubbish and running tombolas. 

Kruger, an Old Etonian and son of Bake Off presenter Prue Leith, has remerged in the premiership of another Old Etonian, Boris Johnson. A Conservative evangelical, Kruger has long been interested in faith organisations as vehicles for change and in the voluntary sector. After being elected as MP for Devizes, he was asked by Johnson to produce a report on the voluntary sector. It had a lot of input from faith groups, and its recommendations include the more creative use of assets. 

Professor Francis Davis, professor of communities, religion and public policy at Birmingham University, said: “It seems to be sitting in the pending tray at No 10. Kruger talks a lot about relationality and relationships but in the Tory world view, that means non-state relationships that need rich people to fund them.” 

Kruger’s evangelism is matched by others who support the Conservative Party and have links to evangelical churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton and St Helen’s Bishopsgate and keen supporters of the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. Among MPs who are well known for their evangelism are Sir Gary Streeter and Fiona Bruce, appointed by Johnson in January as his special envoy on freedom of religion or belief.

The current Conservative Party has also been astute in developing strong links with other faith groups, such as Hindus and Sikhs in the Midlands, and the Jewish community in north London and elsewhere. Connections with Catholics and government seem much weaker than in the days of Blair — who later converted to Catholicism — and during the premiership of Theresa May, who had made strong links with the Catholic Church during her time as home secretary when she engaged with its anti-trafficking campaign and visited the Pope.

Cultivation has two key aims — getting the vote out and getting the cash in to fund the party — but there is always the recognition of the grassroots work on the ground that faith organisations accomplish.

Recognition of that and a desire to quantify what faith groups do led to the appointment of Colin Bloom as faith engagement adviser at the Ministry of Housing, Local Government and Communities last autumn and his review into how government might best engage with faith groups.

Bloom will be looking at evidence of both the good that faith groups might do — and the harm. And it is also considering whether those in Whitehall and Westminster are faith literate. Faith organisations themselves have proved enthusiastic: Bloom has been inundated with thousands of responses.

But government certainly does seem to have the message already that collaboration is vital, especially in a pandemic. By Wednesday when the government was writing to local health organisations about a potential shortage of vaccines, it was also urging them to keep pressing ahead with targeting the most vulnerable. And once again it advised that not only meant the NHS should work with local authorities and community groups but faith organisations — to reach the people that Whitehall and Westminster struggles to connect with. 

What faith groups will be keen to see is whether the Bloom consultation leads to Johnson doing a Joe Biden and establishing an office of faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships. Then the British Government really will do God. 

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