The left should embrace religious voters

Contrary to Nelson Jones, Demos's report shows that the faithful are key allies for progressives.

On Easter Sunday, Demos launched the first report in a three part series  on religion in society, community and politics. The first report, Faithful Citizens, looked at the much-discussed relationship between religion and civic engagement. One finding might have been expected: religious people are more likely to be engaged in civic life. Another was not: religious people are more likely to self-identify as left-wing than right.

The report has already caused a stir, running contrary to the expectations of some on the "progressive" left. On the New Statesman website yesterday, blogger Nelson Jones sought to rescue secular politics from the report's findings by pointing to "severe methodological flaws".

One of Jones’s key criticisms was that, contrary to what we claimed, non-religious people were in fact more likely to be left-wing than religious people: 62% of secularists place themselves on the left side of the spectrum compared to 55% of religious respondents.  True enough, but the report didn’t claim otherwise. We argued that a majority of religious people in the UK identify as left-wing or left-of-centre, which is contrary to the common assumption that religious citizens are more likely to be conservative. This misunderstanding on his part does not detract from the report’s central premise (let alone say anything about the methodology): that left-wing progressives should sit up and take notice of the fact that religious citizens in the UK may be their natural allies on more issues than they think.

Behind Jones’s straw man argument, and the misdirection and lazy assumptions that characterise his other two methodological "critiques" (all methodological issues are addressed directly in the report itself and I’d be happy to discuss any questions with readers directly) is a clear desire to airbrush faith out of civic and political life. It is precisely this instinct that risks producing a schism on the progressive left between groups who ought to be allies.

Of course, you cannot put people neatly into a political box and our report does not attempt to. The majority of religious citizens in the UK may be more conservative in some aspects (for example, valuing tradition and institutions), but hold progressive views with respect to those on the vulnerable fringes of society (e.g. immigrants).  They are also more likely than non-religious citizens (as a proportion of the total) to value equality over freedom – a traditional left-wing view. Many on the left have been uncomfortable if not hostile toward the religious.  However, as our research suggests, those on the left can not afford to isolate religious citizens as they are likely to form a core component of any election-winning progressive coalition. 

In a way, our report reveals just as much about the breakdown of traditional political divides in the UK and Europe as it does about religion.  Faithful citizens are more likely than non-religious citizens to prioritise the principle of equality over freedom, but less keen on ‘equalising incomes’ if it means sacrificing work incentives.  They also overwhelmingly – along with non-religious citizens – think that individual responsibility should be privileged over state responsibility, and that competition is good rather than harmful: both of which are traditionally arguments of the political right.  And yet – despite holding specific views that would put them on the political right – the majority consider themselves on the political left.  These are the nuances behind present debates over everything from welfare reform, to creating a "big society". But the last point – that a majority put themselves on the left – should nonetheless galvanise the progressive left into embracing faithful citizens as key allies, much it seems to the dismay of the likes of Nelson Jones.   

The second and third reports, forthcoming this summer, will look at the role of faith groups in delivering public services, and the role of faith in politics more generally. They will, no doubt, provoke similarly strong reactions.

Jonathan Birdwell is Head of the Citizenship Programme at Demos and the author of Faithful Citizens.

Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu baptises a local church goer in a water tank during an Easter Saturday ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.