Are we worshipping welfare?

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The great welfare debate of February 2014 has failed to ask or answer any substantive questions. I add just one caveat to that strong statement, from the looks of Theos’ report The Future of Welfare I suspect it does address many such questions – however, I have only read the introduction, and unfortunately coverage has not penetrated beyond it being another intervention by Christians on welfare.

It is less of a debate and more of a farce. With many who see poverty taking its toll railing against a government accused of worsening the situation. And those taking decisions thanking the commentators kindly for their advice, but also reminding them that they are the ones taking the necessary hard decisions.

There is an almost axiomatic response that a family in poverty requires government action, and specifically legislation.

I think there is a responsibility on us, as a society, to look after each other. But maybe we need to take a deeper look at the solutions that are frequently called for without a pause to consider if they are the best.

We have not asked what kind of welfare system we want.

The automatic response to more people needing food from foodbanks seems to be: the government should offer more generous benefits so this problem doesn’t occur. I care about as little for that logic as I do for the response that: it’s austerity, these are unavoidable choices. All choices are avoidable, it’s just that some options are unpalatable.

Too much of the furore in recent weeks has been focused on who said what, and whether they have the right to say it. By keeping the debate at this level the real questions do not get asked. It’s all about the bishops who intervened and the politicians who slapped them down.

I believe it is vital for church leaders to speak out on political issues, I believe it is vital for them to give testimony to what they see in their ministry. Churches often have the closest contact to communities, they are trusted and they are present where politicians often are not. I also believe politicians shouldn’t be afraid to respond. I think the bishops and fellow church leaders were unwise to give their letter to the Mirror: it was used as a very blunt political tool. I also think David Cameron’s response to Vincent Nichols, whose interview got this ball rolling, was high handed and failed to engage with the concern expressed.

The dynamics of the debate lead to frustration. Where we want something to happen but we don’t get beyond complaining. And part of the problem is it is very complicated. Take banker’s pay, they are often paid inordinate sums, amounts that make the eyes water. Should their pay be capped? In which case they will pay less tax into the Treasury reducing the amount to spread around. Should they be taxed more? They already are, and there is a point at which higher rates of taxation provide a disincentive to earn more. One can argue this shouldn’t be the case, that they are earning more than enough already so the government taking a higher proportion of their pay shouldn’t worry them. But alas, it does.

This week we heard of HSBC paying their chief executive £9 million, changing the structure of his pay to get around rules restricting bank bonuses. And there was outcry. But the restrictions on bonuses came about to address the incentive toward risky activities which set pay would mitigate against. Now that the pay is set and not made up of bonuses the issue seems more with the amount he is paid not how it is structured.

Wayne Rooney also made headlines for his £300,000 a week pay packet, that’s over £15 million a year. This is far more than most people will earn in their lifetime. The tragedy in this case is that Manchester United don’t pay their cleaners the living wage. Maybe the argument would be posited that unless stars like Rooney are retained the fans won’t come and watch, and then the cleaners wouldn’t have jobs at all. I think Manchester United have more pressing concerns when it comes to keeping their fans happy.

These raise the question of what we want the taxation and benefit system to do. Do we want it to provide essential services for all and a safety net for those in particular difficulty, or do we want it to be a mechanism for equalising the distribution of resources? A completely redistributive welfare system removes the incentive for work and effort – the ultimate manifestation of this train of though is toward a common wage for all regardless of the work carried out or whether any work is carried out (I’m sure I read something about this in a university political philosophy class).

On many occasions those relying on benefits are stigmatised, and opinion polls show gross misunderstanding of the cost of out of work benefits and the level of fraud. Most benefits go to the elderly and far too much goes to those in work. Far too much because work should not leave families dependent on the state, when we have business structures dependent on low incomes propped up by the state while money is made for those at the top: this is injustice.

And yet. And yet I think we ask too much of welfare, and our attachment to it as a vital protection can blind us to its limitations and where it over reaches its efficacy. While many accept something has to change, the welfare state has become an idol we dare not deface. So it remains as it is, unsuited to its task, unable to deliver, and inviolable to change. 

The way we as a society, and as a state, look after the poor, the vulnerable and the elderly is a testament to the health of a society. But what says more is the way we help each other beyond immediate care. If helping the Good Samaritan by the road side is only the first step toward countering injustice, campaigning for better street lighting and security is only the second. The ongoing steps of working to remove the danger and the threat that made those first steps necessary is the longer and harder task. In relation to welfare this means strengthening education, promoting work, ensuring there is work to be done and work that is paid sufficiently. And more than the safety net the state can provide it means working to strengthen the bonds of society, the place of family and community, that build resilience and protect against the shocks that will undoubtedly come from time to time. 

I wonder whether our use of the Good Samaritan as a parable for good welfare is a poor one. I wonder if it is an easy tale to latch onto to promote a political point. Do we use it as a catch all for helping other people, almost guilt tripping support for something without considering the alternatives? Because sometimes the alternatives are not unpalatable, they are just harder, and we sometimes like to avoid the hard things. It’s easier when the state does it for us.

Has our faith in the goodness of the welfare system turned it into a god that we worship?

Where are all the Anglican Tories?

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Theos have published a fascinating report analysing the role of religion in voting behaviour and political attitudes. I’ve provided an overview of the main findings elsewhere, and following a briefing last week when I, along with others, got the chance to question the authors I’ve now consumed the full report.

The headlines of the report are that Anglicans are more likely to back the Conservative Party and Catholics support Labour, minority religions generally vote Labour except for Jews who support the Conservatives and Buddhists who back the Liberal Democrats.

Firstly, this is a report full of really interesting data and there are literally hundreds of findings worth pulling out, weighing and considering. Secondly, there is a lot the report doesn’t do. Repeatedly during the briefing Nick Spencer and Ben Clements, who wrote the report, had to apologise that they didn’t have the answers to the plethora of fascinating supplementary questions many wanted answering. Thirdly, this is not a report that considers causality, it doesn’t tell you why someone voted one way or an other, or why they might take a particular view on welfare, censorship or the death penalty.

What it does provide is an indication of association, so for example, among the most interesting findings is that attendance at services matters a lot, but even if you don’t attend it matters what label you give yourself. Those who nominally hold a religious identity (any) but never attend services are likely to be more authoritarian in their outlook than any other group. Likewise, those who do attend services are likely to be more proud of the welfare state and support higher benefits even if their taxes go up.

There are findings that are surprising and those that are patently obvious. The look on an Anglican official’s face when the graph showing support for the death penalty revealed as Anglicans consistently the most supportive was priceless. When the data is subject to more detailed scrutiny it sometimes allows our shock to recede, as in this case where nominal Anglicans distort the figure with their high support while frequent attenders are much less likely to back capital punishment. On other occasions it reinforces the picture presented at first sight. For example, the support for the Conservative Party among Anglicans is not undermined when it is looked at by age groups, 42 per cent of voters under 30 voted Conservative and only 26 per cent Labour.

Other findings that are understandable but surprising all the same include the very high level of support for the Labour party among minority ethnic groups. In 2005 the lowest supporting group were Hindus with 68 per cent, and all though this dropped to 49 per cent in 2010 all other groups still exhibited high levels of support with over four out of five black Pentecostal Christians supporting Labour.

What struck me with greatest force when the report was released was not any of these findings, it was not the very small number of Christians who considered morals or a lack of family values as the most important issue at the 2010 election. Instead it was the reaction to the findings, and in particular the idea that Anglicans tend to support the Conservative party.

There was a wave of astonishment across twitter, ‘what!’ they cried, ‘that can’t be true, I’m a Christian and I vote Labour. And so do all my friends’. Of course the immediate response is that in the Anglican church there are many who voted for the Labour and Liberal Democrats, as too are there Catholics who voted Tory (especially those over 65). The second response is to wonder why this provoked such a shock.

Is it because the Church of England, and particularly through their Bishops in the House of Lords and their public statements make it seem that the official position of the church is on the left of politics? Is it the echo of dissent from Margaret Thatcher’s policies of the 1980s heard through those now in lofty positions detached from the views of the congregations in their pews? Is there actually a silent majority of right wing Anglicans failed by their leadership?

The support for welfare policies among those who attend frequently paints a more complex picture, and the individual statements which are used to plot the position a group on the three axes (left-right, libertarian-authoritarian and welfarist-individualist) also support this more complex picture but Anglicans still often come out with what would be considered positions more aligned with the Conservatives.

The report doesn’t provide evidence for the Conservative party to target their next election at the Church of England to lock up their chances of election. The support is simply not that significant, there are still plenty who vote otherwise. But perhaps it is slightly more salutary sign to the church to listen a little harder to what the views of their congregations are.

One aspect of this debate over political affiliation of Christians has struck me recently and been reinforced by the response to this report, why do left wing Christians feel more able to be public about their views while right wing Christians keep quiet? Could it be a response to the reputation of Republican Christians in the States, and a fear that if they come out as Conservatives they will be branded likewise? Is their a norm of acceptable views among Christians that leave some feeling as though their support for one political party is something they should hide?

These are only questions, but the silence of Christians on the right and the protest from those on the left was the most notable feature of this report’s publication. With a General Election a little over a year away Christians will be thinking more and more about politics, and across the church there needs to be a space for Christians to explore how they will vote and consider the way their faith impacts their politics. It’s a task for the church to set itself to, it’s a task that requires maturity and respect for a range of political opinions. And a task that requires sight on the bigger vision of a kingdom.

Is there a religious right emerging in Britain?

religious-right-flagBefore the US election last autumn several high profile Christian leaders offered their support for the Republican party and I wrote about it. Billy Graham said everything he possibly could short of endorsing Mitt Romney and Wayne Grudem produced a crib sheet comparing party A to party B – there were no prizes for guessing which was which and who a good Christian would vote for.

Taken against the previous 40 years of American politics such interventions are not unusual or unexpected: a cohesive bloc of voters encompassing both evangelicals and Catholics has disproportionately sided with the Republican Party. The political theology behind this is questioned, and rejected by a large minority of evangelicals in the US but the trend still exists, in contrast such a move is currently unthinkable in a British context.

Religious right front coverOr is it? That’s the question at the heart of a new Theos report out today. Because something in Britain has been labelled as the religious right by journalists, commentators and even an Anglican bishop. The activities of Christian groups have been investigated and ‘exposed’ to show the apparent dangerous power of right wing religious lobby groups. Most memorably this took the form of a dispatches documentary in 2008 but perhaps most graphically illustrated through an organogram which accompanying Ben Quinn’s article in 2011.

Andy Walton’s research draws a helpful distinction between Christians with socially conservative values and a religious right. The report develops a criteria for measuring this but at simplified level equates to a clear cohesion of different groups centred around specific policy aims and political affiliation and having the size and influence to leverage political action. This is evident in the US, although perhaps not as stark now as in the mid 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America which saw considerable mid term gains in 1994. A movement of this nature is not in existence in the UK, although some of the social conservative policy goals are similar to across the Atlantic.

A more pertinent question than whether a religious right exists is whether one is emerging, or could come to exist. Taking appropriate caution the report does not completely rule out the development of such a trend but considers it unlikely. Three areas of difference back up this argument: size, policy focus and political affiliation. Firstly, the UK religious population is far smaller than the US, the number of evangelical and Catholic voters make up a far smaller percentage of the population and therefore there is less political power to leverage.

Secondly, evangelical organisations that engage in lobbying do so on a far broader range of topics than those characterised as ‘right-wing’, these include adoption, alcohol and aid. Issues around sexual ethics and abortion do feature, but not to the exclusion of other policy goals, and have not become the touchstone for evangelical engagement. Research from the Evangelical Alliance showed the diversity of issues Christians contacted their MPs about (page 12 of this research booklet).

Finally, and perhaps related to the previous point, evangelical Christians in the UK support political parties along broadly the same lines as the wider population. While they are more socially conservative than average they are also more likely to support traditionally left-wing economic policies (see page 11 of this booklet). There is also minimal evidence of key Christian leaders encouraging their congregations or supporters to vote for or against certain parties or candidates. One point that is relevant here which is not noted in the report is the role of charitable status: a church could not retain its charitable status and support one party or candidate over another. While this should not be the principle reason for remaining a(party) political, it could be a factor which discourages campaigning organisations from taking this position.

The report shows good reasons why the UK has not seen the development of a religious right along the lines of the US and offers strong evidence for why the development of such is unlikely. But the question that recurred earlier this week at a discussion around the report was whether the definition had been drawn too narrowly and even the US religious right would fail to meet the criteria. The defence offered was that when the comparison is used it is used to suggest a certain thing, and certainly not a good thing, is happening within UK politics, and the report strives to point out this is not the case. But something is happening, several commentators suggested that the way Christian groups engage has changed and become more sophisticated and the current focus on government plans to introduce same-sex marriage perhaps invite the US comparison.

If something is emerging that represents a new turn in Christian political engagement in the UK then it is definitely different to what occurred in the US over the past 40 years. The challenge for commentators, researchers and Christian organisations is to identify what it is and discuss it without recourse to simplistic comparisons. It is also incumbent upon Christian organisations involved in political activity to understand the direction they might be travelling in and the potential consequences both of such a shift and the perceptions of this move.

As the report makes clear, organised political activity, or lobbying to give it its sometimes more grubby title which I’ve defended before, is a legitimate part of our democratic system. It shouldn’t be pejoratively labelled just because you might disagree with the goals. At the same time, perhaps there is a space for Christians to imagine a better way of engaging in politics: one that is more akin to playing on the pitch than shouting from the sidelines.