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The Decline of the Secular State: Merging Faith and Politics in Britain

Paper ID: 72 Last updated: 18/05/2011 14:07:56
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Domestic/National When: 11-20yrs How Fast: Years
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Keywords: bullet religion, values, society, domestic, church, secular, community, education, creationism, state

Summary bullet

While political leaders are often privately religious, it is controversial in the United Kingdom to invoke religion for political gain. However, a widespread rise in religious sentiment could shift the balance and make explicitly spiritual politics popular at the ballot box. A blurring of faith and politics could have far-reaching implications for policy, notably, in the areas of social care and welfare, social cohesion and education.

Discussion bullet

Religion has played a significant influence on politics throughout history; internationallly, throughout the 21st century, this influence seems to have continued to a noticeable degree. [1] A variety of political conflicts in the 21st century have been shaped by both religion and politics, [2] for instance, as seen in the political developments in Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, among others.

In the UK, religion has not disappeared from political discourse. Former Scottish Labour Secretary Jim Murphy stated that faith values were at the heart of the Labour party, [2] contrasting with former Labour party communications chief Alastair Campbell who stated, ‘We don’t do God’. [3] [4] David Cameron has discussed his personal Christian faith publicly, [3] [4] and Liberal-democratic leader Nick Clegg stated he did not believe in God, but retained respect for those with faith. [3] Faith groups also gained political attention in climate change discussions. Prior to Copenhagen, Prince Philip formally approved religious groups’ plans to cut emissions and promote a green agenda. [5]
The above instances reveal that there is space for religion to be discussed in British politics. If there were a widespread renewal in feelings of religiosity and piety in wider society, faith could come to influence the politics of society as a whole. [6] Religious leaders could become more politically focused and entrench a meaningful influence over policy by setting the political agenda. [7] In the UK, the British Social Attitudes 26th Report finds that people in the UK who are religious also tend to have more conservative social attitudes than the non-religious, such as towards homosexual sex or women’s and men’s roles in the household. [8] Depending on the nature of the religion embraced, their input could lead to the government adopting more socially conservative policies. [9]

Depending on the balance and nature of religious affiliations of those in political power, the blurring of religion and politics could affect social cohesion. On one hand, social cohesion could be consolidated around shared values [10] of tolerance or ‘brotherly love’, as found in religious texts. In this case, religion in politics could be a uniting factor, as differences such as in culture or socioeconomic status could become less divisive. However, on the other hand, religious groups could instead pursue policies that increase differences. Competition between religious communities could increase as they seek more followers, influence and money could result in segregation and division. [11] Voting patterns could change as people increasingly vote based on religious affiliations and recommendations. Rather than be dominated by secular values, religious value systems could gain a foothold in policy disputes.

Implications bullet

A greater influence of religion in UK politics could have several implications for domestic and international political relations, social welfare provision and education policy, among other areas. Those with religious identifications could seek political representation that explicitly endorses their religious values, [12] resulting in a shift among politicians to more obviously supporting religious viewpoints on policy issues. The nature of the resulting political platforms could then depend on the relative influence of different religious viewpoints. For instance, religious viewpoints could motivate politicians to promote tolerance of differences, such as through multi-faith groups, or they could feel threatened by difference and seek to maintain strict control over social, political and/or religious behaviour.

In foreign policy, an increasingly religious state in the UK could affect decisions about involvement in foreign conflicts, and could affect the nature of relations with both religious and secular states. States linked to other religious groups could change their attitudes towards Britain, either seeing faith as a common ground or becoming hostile on the basis of religious differences.

Religion in politics also could strengthen or threaten social cohesion. Christian and Muslim faith communities are becoming increasingly diverse in the UK, particularly in urban centres, with growing numbers of ethnically diverse congregations. [13] As people find common ground in religion, ethnic differences may become less important, changing how people relate to each other and understand difference.

However, religion could also become a source of political and social contention. There could be an increase in disillusionment and tensions as atheists or minority religious groups feel disempowered against the religious bodies with more direct influence over policy. The UK National Office for Statistics has found that levels of unemployment and perceptions of ill-health follow some religious demarcation lines. For instance, in 2004 unemployment was three times higher among Muslim men than Christian men. If these differences become more pronounced and correspond with perceived political inequalities, they could lead to conflict. [14] As well, as religious leaders gain greater influence in politics, they could increasingly seek to maintain control over society, becoming less concerned with social well-being and more concerned with maintaining influence, as can be seen to have occurred historically in Britain following the civil war.

Social welfare policy could be affected if the state relies more completely on religious networks to provide social care and welfare services. If budgetary pressures increase or there is continued economic recession, religious groups could take over state responsibility for social welfare provisions from the public sector. This could ensure continued provisions amidst budgetary and economic pressures, while also posing a risk that social care could become more concentrated within religious groups or within the communities surrounding religious institutions. Religious groups providing social welfare could result in new inequalities in the distribution of social care, in line with religious affiliations.

Finally, religion has already entered into debates about education policy and faith schools in the UK. [15] In February 2010, the House of Commons passed a bill allowing faith schools to teach personal, social, health and economic lessons in ways reflecting religious beliefs and values. [16] In 2009, faith schools were estimated to constitute one-third of schools in the UK. [8] If religion and politics become increasingly intertwined, practicing faith schools could obtain increased financial and political support to the disadvantage of other schools, thus playing a more direct role in shaping the curriculum and teaching.

Early indicators bullet

Increased religious observance, particularly among different ethnic groups.
A more vocal and prominent role of strongly associated religious lobby groups and political parties.
Growing strength of faith-based initiatives in the United States (US) and increasing international outreach activities .
Increase in number of/support for faith schools.
Increased British involvement in international conflicts with religious dimensions.
Increased frequency of references to personal religious values and beliefs among UK political party leaders.

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet

Growing economic instability and frustration of opportunity.
Search for community and social belonging.
Individual and religious institutional resistance to secularism.
The use of religion to make sense of environmental and economic uncertainties.
Increased societal awareness of the role of religion in politics internationally.
Increased support for religious groups through immigration and transnational faith networks.

Entrenched secularism stemming from the enlightenment.
Declining church attendance in the UK.
Multiculturalism and beliefs in the value of a pluralist society.
Popular trust in science and rational reasoning.
Growing separation of religion and politics in other western countries.
Rising perceptions in the UK of religion as a cause of political conflict.

Parallels & Precedents bullet

Large established evangelical movements and centres, such as in the US. [17] [18]
The long standing association of religion with political parties in other countries, such as in American domestic politics, and with Christian Democrat parties across Europe. [19] [20]
The binding of religion and the state throughout history, and in modern Muslim dominated and Islamic states (e.g. The Islamic Republic of Iran).
The Christian Peoples Alliance in the UK. [21]
Creation of The Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (CFBCI) at the US Department of Labor. [15]
Christian parties in mainland Europe.

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Sources bullet

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5The Economist07/11/2009Unknown author (2009). Sounding the trumpet: Religion and climate change. The Economist, 7 November.Soc
6Futures11/2004Multiple authors (2004). Futures of Religions. Futures (Special Issue); 36(9).Soc
7The Atlantic Monthly10/2002Jenkins, P. (2002). The Next Christianity. The Atlantic Monthly; 290(3): 53-68. [online]Visit siteSoc
8National Centre for Social Research01/2010Multiple researchers (2010). British Social Attitudes 26th Report findings. National Centre for Social Research [online]Visit siteSoc
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11Other2003Brown, D. (2003) Religion and Public Policy. [online]Visit siteSoc
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14UK Office for National Statistics2004Office for National Statistics (2004). Focus on Religion. [online]Visit siteSoc
15The Guardian24/02/2010Unknown author (2010). Faith schools opt-out gets approval. The Guardian [online], 24th February.Visit siteSoc
16BBC07/03/2009Unknown author (2009). Lib Dems back state faith schools. BBC News [online], 7th March.Visit siteSoc
17OtherSmith, H. (no date). Religion in the Twenty-First Century. [Online essay at]Visit siteEcon
18The Pro-Family NetworkThe Pro-Family Network Website. (no date) [online]Visit siteSoc
19Other10/11/2004Falwell, J. (2004). Faith and Values Coalition: The 21st Century Moral Majority. Newsmax [online], 10th NovemberVisit siteSoc
20OtherCentrist Democrat International Website (no date). [online]Visit siteSoc
21OtherChristian Peoples Alliance Website (no date). [online]Visit siteSoc
The contents of this paper were provided by the Outsights-Ipsos MORI Partnership. Any views expressed are independent of government and do not constitute government policy.