David Cameron has been left facing an embarrassing situation today following the launch of the Conservative manifesto, which makes no reference to religion, faith, faith schools or the contribution of church or other religious groups to society.
It comes after an interview on Radio 4’s Today Programme on Saturday, when David Cameron spoke about the importance of his faith. He has also given a number of interviews to church groups and publications in the last few weeks speaking about the importance of religious groups in society. In a video interview for Christians in Politics he spoke of the important role of churches in "fixing broken Britain". In response, the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia warned that the churches risked being co-opted for electoral advantage.
In the run up to the election all three party leaders contributed to a book for churches setting out their beliefs, and were interviewed about the role that churches play in society. In a video interview for Faithworks released at the weekend David Cameron said “I want to see a big growth in faith-based organisations and charities” and said “I think we should celebrate them”. The book published a few weeks ago entitled ‘No Spin, Sleaze or Scandal…Just politics’ was produced by Christian MPs, and featured David Cameron speaking about the important role of churches and faith groups.
In stark contrast to the Tory manifesto Labour’s manifesto launched yesterday, states: “Faith is enormously important to millions of people in Britain, shaping their values and the way they live. We respect the importance of belief and welcome the contribution that people of faith make to our communities and society more widely. We will actively combat extremist groups who promote fear, hatred and violence on the basis of faith or race.”
It also highlighted Labour’s proposals for a new generation of not-for-profit schools. “These will include excellent school leaders from the maintained sector, universities, colleges, faith schools, academy chains and independent schools” it said.
The Conservative Party has previously said it supports the growth of faith schools. However, although today's manifesto mentions ‘schools’ 40 times, it does not refer to the faith variety. Close to a third of primaries in the UK are faith-based.
In February, David Cameron appeared to contradict the Tory education spokesman, Michael Gove, over whether faith could be a basis for the new ‘free schools’ which the Conservatives are proposing. In his speech to the Conservative Spring Conference, David Cameron said that religious groups would be able to run them. However, when asked about it on the BBC’s Politics Show just two hours earlier by Jon Sopel, Gove appeared to say that they could not.
Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia said: "There seems to be a big God-shaped hole in the Conservative manifesto. Churches and other religious groups don't seem to have been extended an 'invitation to the government of Britain' for 'all'. They will now raise serious questions about what seems like empty rhetoric from David Cameron over the importance of faith. The Tory vision of the Big Society does not seem large enough to take account of the work of religious groups - at least by name.
"In particular there seems to be uncertainty and confusion about where the party stands on faith schools. There have been mixed messages which the churches and others will now want to clarify urgently. There may be nervousness about how faith groups will react. But if the Conservatives are proposing that faith can be a basis for new schools, but that these schools should not be able to discriminate in admissions and employment, that is a step in the right direction. However their plans should be clear so churches and others know where they stand on election day."
Ekklesia has long argued that religious people and communities have an important role to play in the public sphere and in politics - but it has critiqued the 'top down', domineering approach of some in the churches, has backed a full embracing of equalities by Christians and others, has helped initiate a coalition to end religious discrimination in faith schools, and has critiqued the way 'God' and 'institutional religion' have been confused and co-opted in the political arena and in some faith communities.