Faith in Politics?
Updated 23/8/12 Written by Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP
A lot of people say you shouldn’t mix up faith and politics. Its not hard to make a persuasive case. Point out problems in some part of the world where the protagonists have clear faith positions – Belfast, Baghdad or Bombay, for example – and the argument is made.
But I don’t agree with the argument. On the contrary, my argument is the reverse. It seems to me that faith is a great starting point for politics, one of the best starting points there is. Because faith is a source of exactly the values we need to make politics work.
Faith and politics are both about hope. Faith provides a basis for hope that things will be put right in the future. Politicians also, if they are to gain support, have to inspire hope for a better future. To some extent, because both are dealing with hope – albeit in rather different terms – they may sometimes step on each other’s toes. But their shared pre-occupation with hope also gives them something important in common. Language and ways of speaking developed in a context of faith can often prove effective in political communication too. It is striking how often, for example, in supposedly secular Britain, that language used successfully by New Labour to explain its political message had its roots in the New Testament.
A multi-cultural constituency
I had always been interested in politics, but, as a student in the 1970s, all my spare time was spent in my college Christian Union. One summer, we went to help out on a church mission in Forest Gate, in the east London Borough of Newham which I now represent in the House of Commons. It was only a fortnight, but when it finished I was hooked. I left college in late 1978, started a job in London with a software company, and went to live in Newham. I joined the church which had by then been planted by the mission team, and I am still a member. And I joined the Labour Party.
Newham was already then clearly a multi-racial borough. It had hosted a Jewish community for a century, and West Indians had made their homes in Newham since the 1950s. In 1972, when Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda, many came to Newham. Others, with roots in South India and employed by the British forces in Singapore, came to East London when the British military left. Our mission team, in 1976, used Patrick Sookhdeo’s booklet “Asians in Britain”.
I was unsure how an enthusiastic Christian Union member like me would be viewed in this multi-racial, and multi-religious, area. I became a local Councillor in 1984, and started to find that I related well to people with faith commitments that were firm, but different to mine. I became Chair of the Council’s planning committee in 1987. I was on the receiving end of a march to the Town Hall by demonstrators from the Alliance of Newham Muslim Associations, led by Ahmed Din, Chair of the Alliance and local businessman, andYusuf Islam, the former pop star Cat Stevens. They were carrying a coffin and demanding space in the area where Muslim burials could be carried out. At the time, bodies were often flown back to Pakistan for burial.
It struck me that it was in fact in the interests of everyone that people who had lived in our community should be able to be buried decently in our community. And we agreed that an area of the Council’s own cemetery would be laid out for Muslim burials, the graves pointing towards Mecca.
In 1990 I was elected Leader of Newham Council. In 1994, our MP, Ron Leighton, died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. We needed to select a candidate to replace him. Ahmed Din rang me up. He said they felt I should seek the nomination. “You believe in God. We believe in God.” was his argument. I was selected, and won the by-election which followed. Being a person of faith was an important part of the reason for my selection by the Labour Party as its candidate. And I have had a very strong vested interest ever since in arguing that people with firm, but different, faith commitments can work together successfully in politics.
I joined the opposition backbenches in June 1994. In May 1997, when Labour won a landslide victory under Tony Blair, I was appointed a Parliamentary Private Secretary. A year later I became a Minister in the Department for Social Security, and held ministerial office for the next twelve years. I was a Minister in the Treasury on four separate occasions, which I believe is probably some kind of record. In 2006-7, I served in Tony Blair’s last Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I was pensions minister twice, business minister three times and schools minister for a year. I was employment minister in 2008, a role which I currently shadow on the Opposition front bench.
I am sometimes asked whether faith has helped or hindered my political career. I have explained that it helped me be selected as a parliamentary candidate in the first place. I cannot recall any occasion when I felt that I was being held back because someone objected to my faith. On the other hand, being an active Christian probably meant that I spent my time in ways not best designed to secure a high-flying political career. I have never been particularly clubbable. My Cabinet career was short – I was not reappointed when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair, although Gordon was careful to appoint me to a junior ministerial role I was interested in.
On balance, my view is that being a person of faith has contributed more to advancing my political career than to holding it back. I will leave the reader to decide whether that is a good or a bad thing.
Renewing the values that can make politics work
Faith is a great source of values: responsibility, solidarity, persistence, patience, compassion, truthfulness. They are exactly the values which can make democratic politics work. If those values are eroded than politics no longer works as well – and that is one of the reasons, in my view, for current disenchantment with politics. We need new sources for reinvigorating adherence to those values, and the faith communities can help us. It is not clear that other institutions or movements have as much to offer.
The think tank Demos produced a report called Faithful Citizens: why those who do God, do good. They looked at evidence from the respected European Values Survey, and found that one in eight of the UK population say they belong to a religious organisation. And then they looked at evidence from the survey about who the active citizens are.
They found that the proportion who have volunteered for local community action is 6% among those who belong to a religious organisation, compared with 1% among those who don’t. That is, committed religious people are six times more likely to be active citizens in their community than those who don’t belong to a religious organisation.
The number who have volunteered in youth work is 11% among those who belong to a religious organisation, compared with just 3% among those who don’t. The proportion who have volunteered on development or human rights issues is 4% among those who belong to a religious organisation, compared with half a percent among those who don’t. In fact, on this, and on the number working on women’s issues or for a trade union, the one in eight who belong to a religious organisation account for more volunteers than the seven in eight who don’t.
The evidence indicates that people who belong to religious organisations are more likely than others to be good citizens. And, when they come together to argue for political change, we get exactly the kind of idealistic, popular movement which can inspire successful politics. That is, politics which can inspire and engage, can provide people with fresh hope, and give a basis for positive political change. That is what happened in the church-led campaign to abolish the slave trade two centuries ago; and in the formation and growth of the labour movement and Labour Party from the network of chapels and trade union branches among working people a century ago; and more recently in the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns, in which 80% of the supporters who turned up on human chains and other demonstrations – the people who gave the campaigns their energy and their effectiveness – came from the churches.
Its happening again in the current campaigns of London Citizens for a living wage and for safe places for young people. London Citizens is a remarkable coalition drawn from churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, trade union branches and community organisations. It is having a striking, positive impact on a broad range of politicians and companies.
There can be no better foundation than movements of this kind for renewing our politics. People with firm faith commitments have often been reluctant to become entangled with party politics, for fear of finding themselves with conflicting loyalties. Those who have taken the plunge have not always been made welcome. In my view, that needs to change.
Faith and cohesion
This argument may have been viable in an era in Britain when it could be assumed that people of faith would all be Christians. But over a third of my constituents are Muslims, and Britain has large Jewish, Hindu and Sikh communities. Is it not inevitable that different faith groups, far from building cohesive civic politics, will, if they become politically active, provoke divisions?
It is important to address this widely held concern. It is worth starting by pointing out that British communities have not been homogeneous in faith terms for hundreds of years. It is true that the numerous places of worship in a Victorian English town will all have been Christian, but there were sharp and keenly felt differences between them. In most places, this does not appear to have weakened the cohesiveness of the community.
It seems to me that fragmentation, or the breakdown of cohesion, does not occur when people belong to lots of different things, so long as it is clear that the different things are all part of the wider community. The problem arises when people don’t belong to anything at all. The community I represent includes dozens of churches, mosques and temples, which do all see themselves as part of the wider community. It is marked by a high degree of belonging – and therefore, it seems to me, by a high degree of cohesion, rather than by the fragmentation which pessimists might assume would follow. Communities with much less faith diversity, but also much less belonging, are more fragmented and less cohesive. So I see faith diversity as a foundation for civic cohesion rather than for division.
When London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics was being considered by the International Olympic Committee in Singapore in 2005, some forty schoolchildren from East London went to show what modern London is like. They were lively and enthusiastic. They had family roots in every different part of the world, but they were proud of the city which was home to all of them. They presented an optimistic vision of how the world might be in the future, and they were important in securing support for the London bid.
The Opening Ceremony for the London Games, on 27 July 2012, successfully captured that optimistic view of the future for a multi-cultural society, where different faith backgrounds are respected, but people are bound together by shared pride in their nation and by trust in institutions like the National Health Service. Politics needs to capture that spirit of civic commitment as well, and engaging with and learning from the faith communities is an important way to do it.
In 2008, I was appointed Financial Secretary to the Treasury, responsible for the Government’s policy on taxation. The financial crisis was just breaking. I attended the G20 summit in London in April 2009, when countries were struggling with a sharp drop in tax revenues in the wake of the crisis, and there was a lot of concern about tax avoidance.
Soon afterwards, I met at their request with representatives from Christian Aid, who wanted to argue for “country by country reporting”. They produced a pamphlet setting out theological arguments for their case. What they meant was that multinational companies should be required to report each year the profit which they earn, and the tax which they pay, in each country where they operate. In that way it would become obvious where companies were using accounting devices to hide their profits in low tax jurisdictions, and so avoiding tax which would otherwise be owed to developing countries. The scale of this type of – perfectly legal – tax avoidance is immense, and developing countries’ tax revenues are much lower than they might be as a result. Their need for aid is therefore much higher than it would be if all the tax due was paid.
When the Christian Aid representatives had left, I asked the Treasury officials at the meeting what they thought. They agreed that Christian Aid had a point, and that opaqueness in multinationals’ tax payments was a problem. We agreed I would promote a discussion of this idea of “country by country reporting”.
In July, I raised the topic at a meeting of European tax ministers. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, picked up what I was doing and raised it with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Anglo-French summit at the end of July. From there it came to the attention of the OECD. A special joint meeting of the OECD’s tax and development committees was convened in Paris in January 2010. Country by country reporting was a major point on the agenda, and it was agreed that the idea should be worked up into one of the OECD’s guidelines for good practice on the part of multi-national companies.
My work at the Treasury came to an end at the General Election in May 2010, but the idea of country by country reporting has continued to gain support. Christian Aid, together with Action Aid and Oxfam, have continued to give it strong backing. It featured unexpectedly in legislation passed by the US Congress, and signed by President Barack Obama in Summer 2010. And, more recently, it has been the subject of legislation in the European Parliament too.
I would like to see more of that: people starting from a faith viewpoint realising that change is needed, and lobbying politicians to implement the change. It can take some time, rather than happening quickly. But it means that change can be rooted in the values shared by faith communities – and, in time, wider confidence in politics can be renewed as a result.
I have already mentioned the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns, which were larger scale examples of political change being inspired by insights and commitment drawn from faith. Government support for the fair trade movement is another example.
Faith communities’ inspiration of policies does not need to be limited to international development. There is substantial potential for renewing policy on domestic matters too.
Faith and unemployment
Faith groups have long been troubled by unemployment. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, established the first unemployment exchange. In 1997, the report drawn up by the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland on Unemployment and the Future of Work set out the basic moral case that “it is wrong, in so prosperous a society as ours for large numbers of men and women to be deprived for long periods of the means to earn a living”. That thinking was carried forward in the New Deal programme introduced by the Labour Government which was elected shortly after the report was published.
Numerous church-based initiatives participated in the New Deal, and have continued to support jobseekers into work since. In London, I have seen the effective work of Pecan in Peckham, with a speciality among ex offenders; of Spear, drawing on the congregation of St Paul’s Hammersmith to mentor young people into work; of City Gateway in East London, rooted in Christian faith and serving Bangladeshi women among others. Faith Regen is a Muslim-led charity which is working as a sub-contractor on the Government’s Work Programme. I recently visited two church-based job clubs in Devon – at Axminster Methodist Church and at Glenorchy United Reformed Church at Exmouth, which was celebrating its first anniversary. Both are replacing, to some extent, local jobcentres which had been closed down. At Exmouth, one of those present took me to one side to emphasise that, for her, the job club had been literally a lifeline.
All these initiatives bring together people motivated by their faith, whether volunteers or paid workers, who are interested in the individuals they are seeking to help. They will plug away, even if, at times, an observer might feel they are wasting their time. The jobseekers can get to know them, over an extended period if necessary, and draw consistently on their support. At Axminster, a regular attender explained to me that his job club helper had enabled him to obtain an email address for the first time, and shown him how to search for jobs online. Jobcentres – struggling with staffing cuts and large numbers of unemployed people – simply can’t do that. The idea in New Deal that jobcentre advisers would get to know their clients has long since been abandoned; in the latest version of “fast sign on”, there is no conversation at all.
And, to be successful, politics needs to be able to draw inspiration from the imperative which those projects are living out: inspired by commitment to help individual jobseekers, acknowledging the importance of reducing the scale of unemployment and determined to implement economic policies which can provide hope to people worn down by disappointments.
The experience of welfare to work projects in Australia has been very influential on thinking in the UK. In Australia, the market-leading welfare to work provider is the Salvation Army. The second biggest provider is Mission Australia – a descendant of a nineteenth century operation established by the London City Mission. UK policy needs to recognise the value of the contribution of faith-based initiatives too.
A politics of shared values
Too often, politics treats faith as irrelevant, or embarrassing, or even dangerous. Politicians are polite but dismissive. I have set out in this chapter some examples when politicians have taken their lead from the faith communities. We need more of those in the future. They lead to policies which are genuinely rooted in the experiences of communities, reflecting values which are widely shared. This is the kind of politics which can enthuse and engage people – including people who have no interest in faith at all.
It is important, however, to recognise that a large proportion of the UK population ally themselves with one or other of the faith communities. I quoted above the statistic from the European Values Survey: one in eight of the UK population belongs to a religious organisation. As I write the data on religion from the 2011 census has not yet been published, but in the 2001 census 75% of the population answered the voluntary question about faith by associating themselves with one of the major faiths, 72% with Christianity and 3% with one of the others.
And the old assumption that faith participation has been declining appears no longer to be true – at least not in the major cities. The electoral roll of the Church of England diocese of London fell steadily from 1972 to 1992, but has risen equally steadily in the twenty years since – and is now back where it was 40 years ago, and still growing. And today’s enormous African churches, mosques and temples, entirely outside these statistics, were undreamt of 40 years ago. The importance of these trends on our communities, and their importance for our politics, can only grow in the years ahead.
Some dialogues with faith communities over policy will be harder than the examples I have set out here. For example, the Prime Minister’s proposal for changing the definition of marriage to include gay unions, has been widely supported across the House of Commons. It has, however, been firmly opposed by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Chief Rabbi. It would be a mistake, in my view, simply to dismiss their objections out of hand as obscurantist homophobia. There needs at least to be a proper dialogue, and a serious effort to understand why the faith communities have taken the view that they have. The Government’s consultation has certainly not delivered that so far.
Faith and politics can be uncomfortable associates. But the effort needs to be made – and making it is one of the keys to a democratic politics which can succeed in the twenty-first century.
Faithful Citizens: Why those who do God, do good, by Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler, Demos, April 2012
Paul Clifford and Angus Ritchie, “The Gospel and the Rich: theological views of tax”, Christian Aid, London, June 2009
Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP has been the MP for East Ham since 1994 and is currently the Chair of CSM. His website is
Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, 23/08/2012