In the UK, two apparently contradictory claims are regularly made about faith organisations. Secular groups such as the National Secular Society can often be heard claiming that, in Britain, religion enjoys several privileges that are not available to those who do not identify with an organised belief system or attend a place of worship. Religious groups themselves, on the other hand, frequently complain of being marginalised or treated unfairly. FaithAction’s motto that faith is ‘too significant to ignore’ (a claim that implies that neglect of faith groups is common) seems to place them in this second camp.
In truth, both these claims are valid. Organised religion – in particular the national churches of England and Scotland – does enjoy certain benefits, whether that is representation in the House or Lords or interaction with government ministers through state-supported inter-faith initiatives. Yet at the same time, it is not uncommon for both public and private bodies to misunderstand faith-based organisations, or worse, to treat them with suspicion. At times, faith groups seem to be wooed for dubious reasons too, with public servants praising them because they take on services when the state is cut back.
It is easy to assume that the Faith Manifesto‘s goal is secure a more prominent place (or more ‘privileges’) for faith-based organisations, but that is, by and large, to misunderstand it. At its core are two aims. The first is to set some ‘ground rules’ for interaction between public and faith-based organisations: the former should be willing to talk and work with faith communities, but the latter, in turn, should be happy to eschew proselytism when involved in public work, and treat everyone equally, regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation and so on. This is the purpose of the APPG for Faith and Society’s Covenant, which FaithAction rightly wants to see more widely adopted. The second aim is for faith-based organisations to be better understood. This is central to the Manifesto’s argument for better mapping of the work that faith-based organisations do and its call for wider recognition that faith groups do not just form an eccentric branch of the voluntary sector.
So the Faith Manifesto is worthy of attention, both among politicians and the wider public. Its proposals, such as its call to implement the Social Value Act, could help faith-based organisations to work more effectively for the public good, and for confusion about the proper role of religious traditions to be reduced. My only reservation is over the Manifesto’s fourth contention, that a Cabinet-level Minister for Faith-Based Organisations should be created. Such a move could potentially improve understanding of faith-based organisations at the highest level, but I suspect it would more likely contribute to a broad-brush approach to faith-based organisations marked by simplistic symbolic gestures. Those not involved in a religious community might also wonder why their interests and work do not get this kind of representation. Given the persistent feeling among the non-religious that faith-based organisations are privileged, would it not be more useful to think about ways in which faith groups can work with secular non-governmental organisations?