Religious illiteracy and 'faith phobia' have weakened Government's relationship with faith-based charities - report

(Photo: Unsplash/Joel Muniz)

A report from Danny Kruger MP has called on the Government to pursue a "new deal with faith communities" that embraces their religious values instead of disregarding them.

The Conservative MP for Devizes, who is also a Christian, makes the call in his report, "Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant." 

The report pays tribute to the historic contribution of churches and faith-based organisations in the provision of welfare and social support services.

"Today, faith communities in general remain an enormous resource for society," Kruger writes.

"Every faith has charity, and particularly voluntary financial redistribution, at its heart: the Jewish and Christian tithe, the Sikh dasvandh, the Muslim zakhat, the Hindu dana.

"Every religion has a duty of hospitality to the stranger, and a duty to seek peace; every religion's ugly record of intolerance is the exception to this, far more generally observed, rule." 

While many faith-based organisations have considerable financial assets, Kruger said it was their motivation to help people that made them so valuable. 

"Their values, their concern for the spiritual wellbeing of individuals and society, provide a motivation and commitment that often exceeds that of paid professionals," he said.

"They have deep roots in local communities and are there for the long term. Indeed they often have big buildings in the heart of communities, including the poorest, and they operate both nationally and at the hyperlocal level.

"The networks of a faith community, the relationships within a congregation or faith group, are a source of huge resilience and opportunities for the people they seek to help."

But he went on to say that many faith groups "lack the professionalism, and the willingness to cooperate" with government bodies.

He suggested that religious illiteracy and a "faith phobia" among public servants was partly to blame for the weak relationship with faith-based charities. 

"But in general, the estrangement of faith-based social action and the public sector is a very bad thing," he said.

"Faith groups have an enormous amount to offer society, but too often public servants are reluctant to partner with them, still less to formally contract with faith-based organisations to deliver publicly-funded services.

"This reluctance can arise from ignorance about religion and about the contribution these organisations can make, especially in poor and immigrant communities - what we might call 'faith illiteracy' - but too often it arises from 'faith phobia': an active objection to the principle of faith communities working in partnership with government.

"Public servants frequently assume that religious belief belongs in the private sphere: that the public square is somehow a values-free zone. This is to forget the religious foundations of our politics, and to overlook the fact that there are no values-free zones anywhere."

He went on to say that secular public servants also "bring their philosophy to work" but "unlike religious people they don't always recognise their own religiosity".

"The exclusion of faith, in all but its ceremonial aspects, from our public life means that the orthodoxies of technocrratic secular liberalism have total sway. The public square should be more plural than this," he added. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the report "comprehensive and highly ambitious" and said it contained "many exciting ideas".

Commenting on the report, David Smyth, head of the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, said there were "challenges for faith groups in working with the public sector and both have good reason to be wary at times".

He said it was "encouraging" to see the Government "recognise the role churches play and look for ways to enable more partnership, while allowing churches to remain true to their gospel calling".

"Churches and faith groups here have good relationships with the Northern Ireland Executive and other statutory bodies and are often at the table alongside others in the voluntary and community sector trying to tackle systemic social injustices," he continued.

"We will be asking the Executive to consider commissioning a similar report and adopting this kind of strategic approach to working well alongside faith communities to bring practical support and hope in these new and challenging times."