This week Faith Minister Baroness Warsi resigned from Government. She was a keen advocate for David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative and in particular played an impressive role in encouraging faith communities to be more involved in the policy making process. These days there is, quite understandably, a surge of interest in religion when those purporting to act in its name do bad things. Much of the criticism of religion’s role in society derives from unfamiliar tenets, the real or imagined divisions it creates in society, and abuses carried out in its name. Indeed, for many it is regarded as an outdated and even dangerous impediment to the advancement of a civilised and mature society, replaced and made redundant by science and a secular humanism.
But this tells only one side of a very complex story, since huge swathes of the world’s population hold religious belief as a powerful source of motivation and moral vision, and answers to the basic questions of human existence. Generations have passed on wisdom, justified values, and binded society through religion, creating harmonious and vibrant communities (if politicised variants of religion are avoided).
Indeed, as our public discourse becomes increasingly narrowed by strictly market or utilitarian analysis, it’s worth considering religious voices for fresh insights on the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of a wide variety of public issues ranging from climate change and education to poverty and urban violence.
You will find that religious actors are not reticent in coming forward with ideas, resources and proposals aimed at public policy change. Citizens of a religious background not only have a right to participate in the policy-making process but have valuable contributions to make to the common good when they do so. In recent years has been a surge in interfaith policy activism on both sides of the Atlantic across diverse policy domains, influencing visionary decisions by urban policymakers.
In the US, interfaith groups in states including Georgia, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have already made impactful contributions to the policy process. For example, in the most populous Hawaiian island of Oahu, Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) has worked hard since its creation in 1996 to improve access to public services. FACE, a non-profit interfaith group that includes 38 churches, a Buddhist temple, and two Jewish congregations, helped end discrimination against non-English speakers who were unable to sit the driver’s licence exam. The exam is now offered in 12 languages in addition to English, a welcome development that will help counter reduced access to employment and an increase in uninsured drivers.
In Europe, the traditionally Catholic Nordrhein Westfalia region of Germany has seen faith based social service agencies grow into a national advisory council that advises the government on social service policies. Interfaith activists in London have joined with community leaders, social activists and businesses to alleviate poverty by campaigning for a more equitable living wage. Since its inauguration in 2001, the Living Wage Campaign has boosted the wages of tens of thousands of low-income employees by over £210 million.
These examples contradict the view of religious actors as merely promoting forums for bland conversational niceties while ignoring the more difficult aspects civic life. Indeed, the process of arriving at a shared understanding of the common good and the approaches, methods and instruments by which this can be realised may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust and collective action among a diverse citizenry, a vital pre-requisite for a more cohesive, flourishing society.
Interfaith leaders engaged in this process deserve credit for their persistent and results-oriented work in the policy field and their capacity for innovative solutions. In spite of this, engagement with religious actors remains contentious among those who fear the illiberal consequences of a resurgent religion in the public square.
There are conceptual and practical challenges as well. There is no common denominator about the nature of religion and its potentially transformative role in the life of society. Policymakers need to set aside the common assumption that any role for religion in society is a Trojan Horse for conversion. Similarly, religious actors will need to reassure their secular partners that their efforts to contribute to the social good are free from any hidden agenda to coerce their views on others.
If this engagement between religious actors and policy makers can be optimised, the benefit to wider society, particularly in urban and deprived areas, would be enormous. It will require courage and tolerance from all of us.
Muddassar Ahmed is a Patron of the Faiths Forum for London and Kishan Manocha is a Vice-Chair of the Inter Faith for the UK.