Prime Minister David Cameron's comments about Christianity and politics at a Downing Street reception this week have led to strong criticism about the impact of his policies on the most vulnerable in society.
According to the Daily Mirror newspaper, Mr Cameron claimed told church leaders they would be “absolutely right” to claim Jesus founded the Big Society 2,000 years ago, adding in a jokey fashion: “I’m not saying we’ve invented some great new idea here.”
He re-iterated his theme that people should "step forward as individuals, as families, as communities, as organisations, as churches" to provide care for neighbourhoods and the vulnerable.
But critics of all faiths and none say that this appeal to generosity masks the reality that poor and marginalised people are being hit by swingeing public spending cuts - while wealthy people, including the eighteen millionaires in Mr Cameron's cabinet, continue to live a life of ease in spite of the austerity being imposed on the majority.
Likewise, political economists such as Ann Pettifor have argued that justifying cuts that hit the worst off as necessary to reduce the national deficit is economically illiterate (http://tinyurl.com/3nr33gb ) - because the debate is not between deficit-cutting and stimulus but between expenditure-cutting and stimulus.
In relation to Mr Cameron's claim that Jesus is an inspiration to his strategy, Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia told the Daily Mirror yesterday (23 May 2011) that policies that hit the poorest cannot be justified in Christian terms.
On the contrary, he declared: “Jesus’s harshest words were reserved for those who had wealth and power and who failed to protect the most vulnerable."
Former Anglican priest, now Labour MP, Chris Bryant commented: “It’s ludicrous and offensive for Mr Cameron to try to recruit Jesus to the Tory cause. He is just using decent people in the church and charities to mask the unfair way he’s cutting services for the vulnerable.”
The Prime Minister is keen to court the churches and faith bodies into contracting to run social and public services that his party does not want the state to have to pay for, or where it has, or intends to make, big cuts.
He told the Downing Street reception: “Britain is a Christian country. Christianity has given a huge amount to our country, and continues to do so”.
But the Common Wealth network of Christian theologians, clergy and community activists is calling for Christians to work with others in the movement to resist the cuts in public and welfare provision (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/CommonWealthStatement ).
It urges the churches to be wary about being co-opted into the Big Society initiative - which it calls 'a big lie' in economic terms, and sets out a strong theological case against what Mr Cameron is doing.
Ekklesia has also recently surveyed a range of research indicating that government policies are making sick and disabled people suffer (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14675 ).
"The changes and cuts the UK government is making – disguised by a superficial rhetoric of compassion and empowerment, and eased by ungrounded prejudices stoked in sections of the media – are causing real harm and destroying the fabric of national care and genuine opportunity." says the report.