A landmark review into faith engagement has found the government needs to recognise faith groups as a force for good. Much more must be done to improve religious literacy, as well as tackling harms such as extremism, says it’s author, Colin Bloom
The rumours that faith is dead are very much exaggerated. There are still more people in the UK who have a faith than not. The religious landscape of the UK is much more diverse than it was a generation or two ago - it is more vibrant, it’s more exciting - and places of worship make a huge contribution to society.
The government needs to be much more aware of that and be much more willing to engage with faith, people of faith and places of worship.
You named the report Does Government Do God? after the famous quote from Tony Blair’s team, in which Alistair Campbell is reported to have said “we don’t do God”. Do you think government needs to do God better?
Yes. but not just government. I think journalists do as well. In fact, everyone could improve their faith literacy. Government is a big space. Public services are a big space. In some areas, it is done quite well but, in most areas, it isn’t. There is a lot of work to be done. There’s a big room for improvement.
Government should be much more prepared to engage positively with faith and faith leaders
Take some of the issues that I know Premier Christianity have covered in the recent past, where pastors have been arrested, street preachers have been arrested, and things like that. Without getting into any specific cases, perhaps some of those could have been dealt with a bit better if those public servants - police officers - had some faith literacy training. Maybe if they had been better equipped to know what they were dealing with, rather than just reaching for the arrest card.
One of the headlines in the report is celebrating the great contribution that faith communities of all kinds make, but also tackling some of the problems. This is where it gets quite tricky, isn’t it?
Yeah, that’s a really good example of where an improvement in faith literacy and a much, much braver conversation between policymakers and the public servants who are enacting it would be useful. If I’m honest, I do think there are some people of faith who court controversy. They will try and provoke a response so that they get arrested. But nevertheless, government and public servants do need to be much more alive to some of these issues.
And I do think that government can be more courageous in tackling some of the harm done through faith practices. There are many example, but perhaps the biggest is forced and coercive marriage, which mainly happens within faith settings. We’re talking about thousands of victims every year in the UK, the majority of whom are women and girls.
If we accept that a woman or girl is forced or coerced into marriage then, sadly, we’re accepting that rape - and all kinds of other horrible things – will also be happening. And that’s unacceptable. It’s something that government does need to address.
The rumours that faith is dead are very much exaggerated. There are still more people in the UK who have a faith than not
It’s a similar story within prisons, where we have examples of forced conversion. There’s a similar issue with faith-based financial exploitation. Where these things happen within places of worship, we need to make sure that government just doesn’t ignore it.
But that said, overall, faith is a force for good, the report makes that very, very clear. And that being the case, government should be much more prepared to engage positively with faith and faith leaders.
Part of the conversation we’ve had many times on Premier is that churches need not be afraid of government or local authority, and vice versa. Would you agree?
I’m really glad you said that because it’s human nature to fear what we don’t know, or what we don’t understand. I’ve been in and around Whitehall for 30 years, and government is not as complicated as we might think. And faith isn’t that complicated either.
I’m probably one of the very few people that can speak both politics and faith. Sometimes, both groups are speaking English, but we don’t understand each other very well. People of faith need not fear government as much as they probably think they do. And government certainly need not fear faith. There is a lot of common ground, whether it’s the promotion of human flourishing, or building stronger and safer communities. We all want the same thing, and if we work together, we will have a better, more prosperous and happier society.
Colin Bloom was speaking to Esther Higham on Premier Christian Radio