Government should stop propping up religion

London, UK - July 25, 2006 A UK think tank has said that the present situation where churches seek government support in areas like education, and government uses faith groups to prop up its own social agenda, is unhealthy for all concerned.

In a new discussion paper for both religious and secular opinion formers, Ekklesia argues that the demise of ‘Christendom’ in the West creates a positive new opportunity for faith groups to welcome genuine pluralism in public institutions – and for demonstrating radical alternatives in an “often acquisitive, violent, confused and atomised society”.

The document, ‘Redeeming Religion in the Public Square’, is available on Ekklesia’s website. It summarises and extends arguments from the newly published book by Ekklesia’s co-director Jonathan Bartley; ‘Faith and Politics After Christendom’.

Ekklesia challenges the popular idea that the only kinds of religion possible are either domineering ones or watered down varieties. It says that a renewal of generous faith, not its reduction, is the best way of ‘redeeming religion’ from within – and enabling it to discover a positive, though not always unthreatening, role in society.

Both the paper and the book focus their arguments on Christianity in Britain, but highlight questions and challenges for other faith communities and for humanists or those of no religious affiliation.

‘Redeeming Religion in the Public Square’ says that angry displays of self-assertion from some religious groups (over shows like Jerry Springer:The Opera) are not signs of strength, but of underlying weakness.

This is because, Ekklesia argues, Britain has seen an irreversible cultural and political shift away from “mutually reinforcing relationship between church and government” in recent years. What we are seeing is a backlash against this.

The think tank says that these new attempts by faith groups to use the state to coerce others into accepting their norms and values is wrong and counterproductive – for religious reasons, as well as for political ones.

Ekklesia argues that Christianity has been corrupted by its easy alliance with the status quo, that faith cannot be imposed on a reluctant majority, and that ‘the new deal’ between government and religious groups on education and public services raises serious issues of integrity, justice and human rights.

‘Redeeming Religion in the Public Square’ says that the government needs to adopt a stance of ‘interested neutrality’ to matters of faith – instead of either privileging religion or adopting the negative form of secularity seen in France.

It argues that Christian churches and organisations, in particular, can embrace a more marginal status in society as an opportunity to rediscover the levelling message of Jesus. This approach is one of “witness, not control” (demonstrating alternatives rather than seeking power).

‘Redeeming Religion in the Public Square’ outlines 14 areas where this is possible, including active peacemaking, hospitality towards migrants, restorative justice, involvement in anti-poverty alliances and the development of non-confrontational approaches to controversial bioethical issues.

In the same way, the think tank argues that to free up faith and encourage a genuine level-playing-field in public life the time has come to scrap blasphemy laws, to end the establishment of the Church of England, and to stop using religious affiliation as a means of selection in state schools.

Comments Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow, who wrote the discussion paper: “Politicians cannot ignore religion, and faith cannot be shut away from public life. So what we need is radical new thinking about religion and politics, both by government and all those who want alternatives to ‘toxic religion’ which tries to justify violence and domination in the name of God.”