Last week, I sent a text message to a friend in St Louis. I was appalled by what I was seeing on TV, as a super-storm with the innocuous name of Sandy pounded American’s east coast.
I simply asked whether my friend was involved in the relief effort. Immediately, I received a reply: ‘We’re already strategising about responses to the east coast.’
My friend, Jeff, is the founder and director of an NGO called Service International, which has brought practical relief to thousands of people in the wake of several disasters, including Hurricane Katrina. They’ve also invested many thousands of dollars, over a number of years, to help regenerate foreign cities such as Kosovo. As it happens, Jeff is also the pastor of a large and highly respected church. Whilst they don’t constitute a ‘mega-church’ in the manner of some American churches, members of his congregation are hugely supportive of the NGO’s work.
Jeff’s story is typical of the common juxtaposition between religious belief and works of charity. In America, religious groups often lead the way in promoting justice, aid and poverty relief. The same is true in other parts of the world. Word Vision is the world’s largest NGO. It started through the passion of one man who, because of his religious convictions, was determined to make a difference to the problem of poverty. A couple of months ago, I spent several hours advising the senior strategy team of World Vision Australia, on the subject of likely future social change. I was deeply impressed by their knowledge of shifts in technology and cultural attitudes, but even more so by their passion for their cause.
Over the past few days, it came to light that the British Charity Commission has warned the Church of England and other churches that they may be denied charitable status. This, says the quango, is because it does not believe that promoting religion – any religion – necessarily promotes ‘the public good’.
For religious groups in this country, the Commission’s response may provide a valuable opportunity for reflection. Doubtless, there are some religious organisations that, having started with great intentions, are no longer serving their communities in terms of meeting practical or social needs. Over time, some groups turn inward, focusing more on fulfilling the needs of their members than those of the community they were set up to serve. This, of course, is true of groups outside of the religious fold, too. It is something that can easily be remedied, however – perhaps especially among faith groups, whose members will often, in the cause of public service, go beyond the call of duty because they feel ‘called’ to do so.
That said, the Commission’s stance will also provide cause for concern – and not just for the many adherents of Britain’s religions. For a start, it seems to suggest a mindset that sees administration as an end in itself. It appears to be a case of administrators getting above themselves. Yes, the tribunal is charged with defending the law as it relates to the registering of charities; but its mandate does not extend to ignoring long-held conventions when it comes to the definition of ‘the public good’.
Our history suggests that religious organisations often do the work that governments cannot – or will not – do. Prior to the last election and in the early days of his government, David Cameron made a lot of noise about the concept of the Big Society. His avowed intention was to encourage and empower individuals and community groups to initiate solutions to social problems, rather than relying on government to do so.
The idea was lampooned by some political observers at the time, but it is sound. Government is not, nor can it ever be, the answer to every problem. Behaving as if it is will only lead to higher levels of social fragmentation and an attitude in society of ‘every man for himself’. It will also rob people of the rewards that come from taking responsibility for others. Churchill remarked that, ‘The price of greatness is responsibility’. A great society is one in which people feel responsible for their fellows. It is one in which local groups build alliances for the common good, while still being able to retain their particularities of belief.
At its best, government facilitates this type of activity, creating both proscriptive and protective laws to enable these groups to flourish. At its worst, government – and its ancillaries – blocks the way, by removing the links between public service and the personal beliefs that, for many people, provide a motive for action. Religious groups usually do community work because they are religious; they see serving other people as a way of serving God.
The Commission’s stance also seems to suggest a predilection toward secularism as a worldview. In response to an application from the Plymouth Brethren – a relatively small Christian group – a lawyer representing the tribunal wrote: ‘This decision [to deny charitable status] makes it clear that there was no presumption that religion generally … is for the public benefit, even in the case of Christianity...’
In this country, history suggests otherwise. Whether one is religious or not, a cursory look at British history will reveal that the religious groups, particularly the Christian church, have contributed much to the public good. Doubtless, religion has also contributed to social conflicts of various kinds – especially when it has been co-opted by wily political forces, or has allowed itself to become too closely aligned with ultra-nationalism. Nevertheless, historians have long acknowledged the part that churchmen and women have played in fighting for unpopular causes and, in the process, raising public awareness and changing government policy.
Among the most celebrated examples are John Wesley and William Wilberforce. Three minutes walk from where I live, in our village, is a house where Wesley preached. He is best known as the father of Methodism, but was also a keen advocate for social change, particularly among the poor. Some historians have credited him with having kept England from the type of bloody revolution taking place in France at the time, because of his emphasis on personal transformation and self-discipline rather than social revolution.
Wilberforce, the prime mover behind Britain’s anti-slavery movement in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was a committed church member who, at one point, thought seriously about becoming a priest. His courageous moral stand as a member of parliament not only saw the banning of slave trade within the British dominions; it sparked a process that later led to the abolition of slavery in the Americas. Wilberforce was inspired and encouraged by the much older Wesley. Both men saw calling for social reform as a natural extension of their personal religious beliefs.
Less well known, but no less influential, were a group of Wilberforce’s friends known to history as ‘the Clapham Sect’, because of the area of London in which they operated. They gave tireless support to Wilberforce, but also founded the Society for the Protection of Animals (now the RSPCA), the Bettering Society – providing aid for the poor – and other philanthropic works.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Dr. David Livingstone, the famed missionary explorer, helped to open up the heart of Africa to education and healthcare. William and Catherine Booth defied religious and social convention to take their vibrant, athletic brand of Christianity to British streets, founding the highly respected Salvation Army. George Muller, a German-born immigrant evangelist, founded the first orphan houses in Europe. The Muller homes for children, based in Bristol, fed and educated thousands of children and Muller and his wife established 117 schools, which offered education to over 100,000 children.
A multi-talented Florence Nightingale is best remembered for her pioneering work as a nurse during the Crimean War. Yet little is said about her strong religious faith – and the impact a group of German Lutherans had on shaping her sense of vocation.
Were we to go back even further in time, we could fill pages with stories about social improvements instigated by the likes of St. Patrick and the Celtic Christians of communities like that at Iona. And were we to list all the religious individuals and groups that affected significant social change in the UK, whether eminent or less well-known, we would fill volumes. Indeed, some have done just that.
This legacy continues today. A great many religious or faith-based organisations - Christian and otherwise - contribute to the welfare of people in their towns and cities, meeting material as well as emotional or spiritual needs. Some groups have invested heavily, for example, in helping to reduce the blight of modern slavery that is people trafficking. They most often do so without direct government funding or media coverage. As a social commentator and speaker, I have had the privilege of supporting many such groups in the community arm of their work. I never fail to be impressed by how much can be achieved by a group of dedicated people who make up in passion what they lack in official financial support.
Recognising the importance of this grassroots level work, governments of all persuasions have, over the years, supported it by granting charitable status to religious organisations. The Charities Act of 2011 lists the purposes a charity may serve if it is to qualify for this. Of the thirteen items in this list, the first three are: the prevention or relief of poverty; the advancement of education and the advancement of religion (which is broadly defined). By definition, most religious organisations will automatically fulfil the third of these. Many are also involved in the second – and even more are working for the first. (More than a few are also involved with other items on the list, such as providing sporting or recreational facilities for the community.)
If the Charity Commission is of the view that promoting a religious belief is, in itself, deleterious to the public good, it is flying in the face of historical evidence to the contrary – at home and beyond. If, as seems just as likely, its stance is based on promoting political correctness, it is hopelessly ill-advised. Attempts to promote social cohesion, by wiping out all cultural and religious distinctives within a community, represent PC of the worst kind.
At its root, political correctness is an attempt to solve by political means the challenges raised by rapid urbanisation and multiculturalism. It represents a misguided – though, sometimes, well-intentioned – attempt to enhance social inclusion by legislating courtesy and kindness, both of which are products of human decency, not the result of government diktats. Those who advocate political correctness would, if they could, paint the entire community a drab shade of grey, wiping out differences of belief so that no one person’s views will threaten anybody else’s. In so doing, they seek to wipe out the points of tension that, if handled correctly, make urban life interesting and produce the greatest springboards for creativity.
Political correctness has only ever produced frustration, mainly because its petty rules tend to change like the wind, guided only by the subjective whims of those who set them. (A number of the trendy PC ideas of the last 15 years have already been abandoned as a joke. Where now, for example, are the rowdy people who called for Winterval to replace Christmas?) What’s more, political correctness is a recipe for cultural blandness and the ultimate expression of an attitude that says ‘only government knows what’s best’.
If Mr. Cameron is serious about being taken seriously, if he aspires to showing leadership rather than mere political management, he must match his walk to his Big Society talk. He should encourage the Charities Commission to stop leaning on religious organisations.
In Britain, faith-based groups provide the best examples of the Big Society ideal in action – and they have done so for a very long time.