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[Image] Dr Luke Bretherton

Faith and Policy - Session 3, the Active Citizen

01 July 10

Listen to extracts of the conference: scroll down the page to access podcasts

Threads bound together Listen here

Doreen Finneron [Executive Director of the Faith-based Regeneration Network] painted a picture of 3 strands loosely twisted together, each made up of separately coloured threads, so that different colours came to the fore in turn. She applied this image to the progress so far by which faith organisations had partnered government, and then looked into the future.

“All the major faiths carry an imperative to act well in the world, and to care for and serve others” – Doreen Finneron

• Faith itself has many facets, and it is a feature in common between all faiths that a thread within religious observance is the fostering of human relationships, reaching out in care to others;

• The ideas that shape social action are threads which make up another strand. Religion has been especially active in movements like the conscientising and liberating education methods of Paolo Freire, post-colonial community development, highly political forms of community organising, critiques of community development in the UK identifying the roots of many local problems as systemic and national, and ideas of communitarianism associated with Etzioni and influential with New Labour under Tony Blair;

• Public policy was a strand made up of separate threads, including goals of regeneration of local areas, building security by preventing extremism, and making society governable, aided by cohesion policies. "Faith and Community" [published 2002] marked the more positive face of the way religion was engaged as a partner; strategies for combating extremism provoked less positive responses.

The language used by government has been going through changes, from instrumentalism [using religion’s resources] to empowerment, and now the new Big Society language of co-production. There’s no blueprint yet, as government acknowledges, so there is an opportunity for faiths to be influential at an early stage:

“We’re now in a very different economic and political situation to any we’ve been in before and this is pretty much bound to result in new social and civil forms” – Doreen Finneron

• Faith-based organisations are getting more savvy about how their own aims can be related to what the government aims to achieve. There are good examples [Sikhs in Birmingham, Hindus in Preston] of how gurdwaras and temples have become community centres relating to their neighbourhoods;

• The idea threads need some disentangling: do faith and government mean the same thing by community organising and community development? The Big Society is something the government has invested in and needs to work; it’s a radical idea which will lead to further innovation, such as talk of a Big Society Bank;

• Public policy is under the shadow of the looming budget deficit. Implementation of the Big Society ideas will not come cheap, and needs time and resources. There is a danger that existing organisations will dominate, and of lack of care in understanding agreements and contracts.

V is for Vow-keeping Listen here

The Big Society is the latest iteration of a long line of calls for active citizenship, said Luke Bretherton [Senior Lecturer in Theology & Politics, King’s College, London]. He brought together two strands in his thinking: Social Enterprise, and Social Organising. Religious groups are significant in both.

At the end of the Cold War there had been a turning by governments to ideas of Communitarianism. Government was seeking to step back from being a provider to being a partner. Faith communities were seen as a resilient part of civil society, and filled the bill as partners. He suggested his talk might be sub-titled “Fun with alliteration” as he spelt out 3 conceptualisations of citizenship:

“The Big Society is not new, it’s the latest version of a set of processes which has been going on for 20 years or more … the status and place of religion is central” – Luke Bretherton

• The citizen as Voter – in this kind of citizenship the activity was to provide legitimacy by voting, lobbying, signing petitions or adding’s one name to a supporters list. Even this has been eroded by the force of the markets. However this is inadequate as it does not connect the citizen with their responsibility for the maintenance of society as a community, and leaves politics to specialists.

• The citizen as Volunteer – the last government had promoted this form of active citizenship. The notion of humanitarian service continues to be central to the proposal of the Big Society. Its weakness is that it is a one-way view, which fails to recognise that relationships are reciprocal. This notion is central because what makes volunteering work is associations.

• He personally proposed an alternative: the citizen as Vow-keeper. Democratic citizenship is a birthright. The citizen’s covenant relationship with society is long-term and mutual. It demands discipline and loyalty, what theologians call Faithfulness. It is the basis for vigilance which can observe and then act on what it sees. Markets seek to dissolve and strip people of these covenantal relationships, such as kinship, profession, neighbourhood and creed.

“Democratic citizenship is a birthright, or a covenant, not a contract” – Luke Bretherton

If we looked to the past, he concluded, we would see this Vow-keeping model of active citizenship in the abolition of slavery and the temperance movements, and the relationships around values fostered in popular forms of religiosity. Politics is in the end about a commitment to the common good, which brings together religious and secular in broad-based coalitions. The power, benefits, risks and sacrifices in a democratic society are to be shared equally.

Debate Listen here

In the debate and questions which followed, Daniel DeHanas [University of Bristol] asked what kind of pledge might accompany the vow-keeping model of citizen. Patrick Shine [Shaftesbury Partnership] was glad to hear the emphasis on associative behaviour as the basis of the Big Society, since it had been misrepresented as community work by teenagers, or getting work done by free labour.

“A lot of misrepresentation of Big Society ideas have either been getting 16-year olds to volunteer … or doing public services on the cheap” – Patrick Shine

Luke Bretherton responded with examples of forms of long-term cooperation like London Citizens or credit unions. He also said two strands of approach were represented in the Cabinet Office and it would be interesting for academics to see how it was played out.

Claire Dwyer [University College London] spoke about the cooperation achieved by London Citizens with others outside religious traditions. Elaine Graham [University of Chester] asked what we could learn from history, now that there was plenty of expertise among faith communities in engaging with government. Doreen Finneron said they could be a good influence and turned to the religious imagery of the “leaven in the lump, and salt of the earth”.

Report and podcasts compiled by Norman Winter. Recordings of conference sessions have been internally edited.

Click here for the full conference summary.

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