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Government and faith communities – speech by CLG Secretary John Denham

Government and faith communities – speech by CLG Secretary John Denham

Categories: Latest News

Thursday October 22 2009

  Read the speech by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, John Denham, to Churches Together in Britain and Ireland delivered on Monday, here.

Excerpts from the speech are copied below:

As Secretary of State for Communities, I am responsible for the Government’s formal dialogue with faith communities, and also for co-ordinating that dialogue among government departments.

“I…would see myself as a secular, humanist. Coming into this job, I thought it would be of interest – to me certainly and, I hope, to you – to explore the relationship between faith and government from that perspective.”

“The relationship between faith and government will not always – perhaps not often – be comfortable. Those of us in government will no doubt continue to take decisions which some faith communities disapprove of. But, at root, there are good reasons to maintain a relationship based on respect and understanding.

“Politicians are interested in shaping society for the better. Faith is one of the powerful forces which shape society. Most people of faith are concerned for the human experience today, as well as spiritual welfare in the future. So I think it is natural and inevitable that we should be interested in each other.

“However, the starting point has to be respect for faith itself; for the powerful meaning which faith has for so many individuals.

“For many people, their faith plays a defining role in their lives. It runs to the heart of their character and is a central part of their identity. At different times, it can inspire and give purpose; it is a source of consolation and comfort. It brings duties and responsibilities; often challenge – but it is also an immense source of joy and hope.

“It has inspired a response at times of humanitarian and political crisis. In the way, for example, that faith communities responded to apartheid in the 1980s, to casualties of the Bosnian war in the 1990 s, to victims of the Tsunami more recently.

“And one does not need to have faith to recognise the way people we know have been sustained by their faith through grave illness, through caring and nursing responsibilities, or unemployment.

“Of course, throughout our history, many people have been inspired by these private convictions to enter politics and public life. In Europe, social democracy was often constructed in opposition to religious faith, and could even be actively hostile and militantly anti-religious.

“I am not going to make the crass mistake of claiming faith for my political party. But the influence of faith is well illustrated by its influence on and involvement in Labour history.

“Many early social reformers – like Sir Thomas Buxton, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Charles Wesley, and William Booth – were inspired by their religion to speak out against the social injustice crushing poverty and unspeakable living conditions they saw around them.

“Those of us who politically share that history can hardly fail to respect the importance of faith in the lives of those with whom we work.

“I know some of those who recognise the importance of engagement with government, nonetheless believe that government has an instrumentalist view of faith.

“That we are only interested in you when we have a problem to solve.

“By contrast, they want faith to be respected in its own right; not as a prop to government.

“I agree. I believe that respect has to be the starting point. Government should respect – should value, prize, and celebrate – those things which matter to its citizens. And as I have acknowledged, for many citizens in this country, their faith shapes and defines who they are. Any government which treats that lightly will govern badly.

“Whether we wish to promote greater environmental awareness and sustainable behaviour, reduce obesity, raise parental aspirations, or sustain support for international development, good government frequently returns to the question of what really makes people tick.

“So good government is understandably and sensibly interested in the factors which influence and shape people’s behaviour. What motivates and drives them to behave as they do; and how their behaviour, in turn, has an impact and effect on other people, for good or ill.

“Politicians and policy makers must have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the other factors which motivate people to behave as they do. To understand the forces and institutions which shape people’s attitudes and values – and how that is reflected in their behaviour.

“Now, it would be quite wrong to suggest that faith organisations alone are responsible for defining, shaping and transmitting values in these key areas. It is not necessary to have faith to be deeply moral and profoundly altruistic.

“But the reality is, of course, that for millions of people, faith has an enormous influence in these areas of life. We should acknowledge and welcome the contribution faith makes to shaping these behaviours and transmitting these values. Anyone wanting to change society in a progressive direction would ignore the powerful role of faith at their peril.

“All the great religious faiths share a common commitment to community, social justice and peace – and many members strive tirelessly to achieve those goals. Faith groups have been prominent in international efforts like the Jubilee Campaign, and campaigns for Fair Trade.

“Faith is a strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity – the very values which are essential to politics, to our economy and our society.

“Sometimes, faith groups will express those values in a critique of government policy. Back in the 1970 s, faith groups formed the backbone of the campaign to achieve our first anti-homelessness legislation. In the 1980’s, the Church of England s ‘Faith and the City’ report made a stark assessment of the impact of neo-liberal policy in inner cities, which helped spark a wider social debate about unemployment, inequality, and urban decline. More recently, others have spoken out about the Iraq War and the gap between rich and poor.

“This has not always been comfortable for governments – and nor should it be. A legitimate criticism, grounded in faith and drawing on your experience in practical work in the community is part of the unique perspective that people of faith can bring to the debate.

“The British way suggests that a confident democratic society should not only permit but welcome and celebrate the expression of faith in the public sphere.

“It is clear that we should all be equal citizens under the law. As the principle of the Jewish religious courts says ‘the law of the land is the law’ – the law of the land takes on the same status as a religious obligation; so in Jewish tradition a person of faith is obligated by religious as well as national law to adhere to the law of the land.

“The law can accommodate alternative procedures, voluntarily entered into, for resolving disputes. Sensitivity to religious concerns, such as the introduction of Sharia compliant financial products, can increase choice for all.

“But it would never be acceptable to undermine or weaken people’s rights on religious grounds. No one can lose their rights under the law because they may be of a particular faith.

“Faith groups have a strong and proud tradition of working together without government involvement, driven by a desire to better understand each other and to tackle areas of mutual concern.

“Back in 1942, the ‘Council of Christians and Jews’ was founded to promote ‘religious and cultural understanding’ and combating religious discrimination. More recently, faith commun
ities in the UK have collaborated on the innovative and influential ‘Living Wage’ which could not have operated without the support of churches and mosques in East London. Make Poverty History may have had rock stars at the top but there were an awful lot of unsung believers sustaining the campaign. Faith groups joined together to condemn the atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7. Today, inter-faith activity stretches from social action and campaigns for human rights to education and arts projects.

“Given these traditions has evolved naturally, without Government intervention or involvement, why should it now be more actively involved in supporting inter-faith work?

“Firstly, because, as I have already argued, faith organisations have a huge role to play in the public sphere. Their voices, challenging as they may be at times, have a particular wisdom to share. Faith organisations – particularly by working together – can offer unique insights into contemporary issues. The aging population, the rise of consumerism, global poverty, climate change, social justice – the list goes on.

“Faith organisations are closely involved in tackling those issues at a local level. They have an invaluable role to play in shaping the national – and international – response as well. Government should try to strengthen that joint relationship, without influencing it or compromising the independent perspective that faith groups bring.

“Secondly, inter-faith activity helps bring people together in a dialogue about who we are and what we want our society to be.

“In the week that the BNP will be on Question Time, let’s remember that far more of us are building a British identity for the 21st century.

“One that values history; but one that values diversity, and difference; one that has strong shared values; and one which is proud of our ability to handle issues on which we disagree with respect and without conflict.

“I am in the process of setting up a panel of experts on issues of faith and public policy to act as a sounding board for myself and the Department, as well as recruiting a permanent advisor who specialises in the role faith communities can play not just in community cohesion but in the wider issues I have touched on tonight.

“In principle, I’m willing to make a modest investment in strengthening our ways of working. But I’m also nervous of doing anything which looks like imposing a government way of working on our relationships with faith communities when different ways of working may be better. So your views would be welcome.

“Government has a huge interest in supporting faith communities as they work together – both to promote cohesion and address conflict, but equally importantly: because of the social good that they can create together. These are the principles which I start from and I look forward to a considered discussion about how these should be taken forward in practice.

“If government is prepared to listen and learn, it will benefit immeasurably from the thoughtful, reasoned and principled contribution that faith communities bring to the debate about how to build a just and fair society. I look forward to working with you – and learning from you.” 

You can contact John Denham MP with your thoughts on his speech to the CTBI on faith, government and politics via email on [email protected] or by post to:

Rt. Hon. John Denham MP
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Department for Communities and Local Government
Eland House
Bressenden Place
London SW1E 5DU.


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