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From wellbeing to ways of being: where does British social policy
lie in relation to religion?
Dr. Rana Jawad
University of Kent
Email: [email protected]
Paper submitted to the Social Policy Association Conference, University of Lincoln, UK
N.B: Please do not quote without permission from the author.
From wellbeing to ways of being: Where does British Social Policy Lie in Relation to
In response to the growing prominence of religion in British social policy discourse and
academic research, this paper presents the beginnings of a theoretical argument about the role
of religion in social policy. It argues that a religious perspective shifts our attention away
from the central precept of human wellbeing as the core unit of analysis in social policy, to a
much broader notion which the author introduces as the concept of ways of being.
Encapsulated in this notion of ways of being are three key lines of argument which the paper
explores. These are that religiously inspired welfare is: (1) fundamentally concerned with
identity (both of the individual and their social group) as opposed to utilitarian
understandings of happiness; (2) moves beyond the dichotomy of public space versus private
space to emphasise the personal/metaphysical (spiritual) experience of welfare; (3) shows
that the perennial concern with social justice in the social sciences cannot be separated from
the concern with truth. The paper reviews the current state of knowledge in policy and
academic discourses on religious welfare and bases its argument on a critique of present
arguments which pitch religious welfare under the banner of the voluntary sector, or as a
purveyor of social capital. The paper benefits from an international perspective on religious
welfare and puts the British context in comparative context to argue that whilst religious
groups may provide a cost-effective means of future service provision, this should not
underestimate the strength and authenticity of their potential contribution to social policy.
The coming of age of the subject of social policy in the post WWII era has stood in sharp
contrast to the near total silence within academic research of the debt of the welfare state to
religious traditions (namely Christianity), and the active engagement of religious
organisations in the delivery of social welfare services and the promotion of human wellbeing
in the UK. Historical and theoretical accounts of the British welfare state pay passing tribute
to the role of Christian ideals and religious activism in the development of the welfare state in
the UK. Page and Silburn (2005) offer one such example whereas Offer (2006) goes further
in showing how the Christian ethics helped to develop the idealist values which underpinned
the post-War welfare state. In the mainstream academic literature, it is still the case that
where religious social welfare provisions is discussed, it comes under the banner of the
voluntary sector (Milligan and Conradson, 2006; Stewart, 2007). Here, religious
organisations are described as engaging in charity and there is no discussion of their
motivations and perceptions of social action and human wellbeing.
Yet, religious values and sensibilities have formed the backdrop to the political ideologies
and social action of key public figures from Gladstone to Beveridge, to more recent figures
such as Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith. In the UK, the Nonconformist movement
represented the major force behind the development of Labour’s social policy programme
and also commanded adherents among the Conservatives (Van Kersbergen and Manow,
2009). Indeed, social policy discourse has given renewed emphasis in the last two decades to
notions or pluralism an participation with the new coalition government resting their
proposals for welfare reform and remodelling of the welfare state on the term the‘big
It is not a coincidence therefore, that the increasing prominence of religion and faith-based
groups in British social policy since the 1990s is one of the most controversial developments
in the recent history of Welfare reform in the UK. The pull between faith-based welfare as
progressive and regressive relates to the fundamental nature of the involvement of religion in
human wellbeing: religious welfare is both an old and a new phenomenon in the UK. The
earliest documented history of religious welfare dates back to the Middle Ages when the
Church was the first body to take responsibility for the poor. Religious welfare reached its
apex in 19th Century Britain through the widespread philanthropic and charitable activities of
Victorian society. But the situation was already changing with the Enlightenment when faith
and reason became polar opposites with religion strictly confined to the private sphere, and
social welfare increasingly assuming a secular character in primarily Reformed Protestant
The end of WWII and the ensuing golden age of the Welfare state eclipsed any role for nonstate welfare actors in human wellbeing (at least in the history of social policy which has
subsequently been written), to which the influential ideas of Richard Titmuss attest. But the
fall of the Berlin Wall, and the onward march of global neo-liberalisation have introduced
new realities to the UK, namely of the new structural forms of poverty and the new cultural
forces which shape social problems. As Britain has become an increasingly pluralist society
and social exclusion has become an increasingly prominent concern for British public policy,
faith-based organisations have come to the fore as community leaders, able to muster
substantial social synergy, reach deprived segments of society which the welfare state cannot,
in ways more effective than the standard package of welfare services can. This is how they
are presented in official government discourse.
This explains the sense in which faith-based welfare may be viewed as a new development in
the UK. Indeed, it suggests that what both faith-based welfare and the Welfare state itself are
about is something more intrinsic to human identity and deeply-ingrained values about the
“good society”. The horizons of social policy in the UK are distinctly ethical in character and
it is feasible to argue that the developing debate on religion and social policy in the UK will
form a constitutive part of the changing political identity of Britain in the foreseeable future.
But whilst the British political scene may not be as religiously-charged as is the case in North
America, the changes already happening at local and national level give cause for academic
scrutiny of the work of faith-based welfare in the UK and its wider implications for social
Thus, in reality faith-based welfare has always existed in the UK spanning a whole range of
sectors from education, health support, housing and social care to a whole range of social
groups from the elderly, to children to drug addicts and prisoners. In the words of Simon
Jenkins in a very recent column in The Guardian (2 May, 2008): “There are some things the
Church does well, …one is unofficial welfare…Fairness could be achieved in Britain (as
elsewhere in Europe) through redistributing taxes, without dismantling the historic
institutions of local charity. This dismantling removed the link between giver and receiver
and knocked the stuffing out of local leadership and charitable giving. In much of Britain it
reduced welfare to an alien and bureaucratic wasteland.” It is indeed, comparative European
analysis of social policy which has shown how far the role of the voluntary sector has been
ignored in the UK. As the contours of social Europe are being drawn, there is further good
reason to consider the place of faith-based welfare in the UK.
A good number of researchers here have been addressing the issue of faith-based welfare
through government and non-government commissioned reports, journal articles or isolated
book chapters (with most attention being paid to Christian social services and particularly
faith schools (mainly Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Hindu). A fair share of research reports
have also appeared which deal with faith-based welfare in particular sectors such as urban
regeneration and neighbourhood renewal by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, or in particular
regions of the UK such as the East of England Faiths Councils’ Faith in Action report which
presents the findings of a survey of 12 faith-based organisations (Christian, Jewish, Muslim,
Hindu and Sikh) in East Anglia.
In sum, whether we take a 500 year or a 20 year perspective on faith-based welfare in the
UK, it is highly pertinent that we take stock of where we are with faith-based welfare, and
where we might be going with it. This involves questioning and seeking to understand the
real contribution of faith-based welfare to human wellbeing in the UK today. At the same
time, it is important that we think about the implications of a religious analysis on how we
understand human wellbeing and social policy (Jawad, 2009).
In light of the above, this paper presents the beginnings of a theoretical argument about the
role of religion in social policy. It argues that a religious perspective shifts our attention away
from the central precept of human wellbeing as the core unit of analysis in social policy, to a
much broader notion which the author introduces as the concept of ways of being.
Encapsulated in this notion of ways of being are three key lines of argument which the paper
explores. These are that religiously inspired welfare is: (1) fundamentally concerned with
identity (both of the individual and their social group) as opposed to utilitarian
understandings of happiness; (2) moves beyond the dichotomy of public space versus private
space to emphasise the personal/metaphysical (spiritual) experience of welfare; (3) shows
that the perennial concern with social justice in the social sciences cannot be separated from
the concern with truth. The paper reviews the current state of knowledge in policy and
academic discourses on religious welfare and bases its argument on a critique of present
arguments which pitch religious welfare under the banner of the voluntary sector, or as a
purveyor of social capital (Furbey et al., 2006).
The paper benefits from an international perspective on religious welfare and puts the British
context in comparative context to argue that whilst religious groups may provide a costeffective means of future service provision, this should not underestimate the strength and
authenticity of their potential contribution to social policy. Empirical research spanning
several years is also reported in the paper and has been funded by various sources namely the
Leverhulme Trust as part of a larger project at the William Temple Foundation and other
small research grants awarded by the University of Warwick and the University of Kent to
the author in 2009 and 2010.
Section one considers how social welfare is understood within the Christian tradition which
has been the most dominant religious tradition in Britain and the rest of Europe. Section two
then considers the social policy literature and how much account it has taken or neglected to
take of religion in the development of social policy, the definition of human wellbeing and
the provision of social welfare. Section three considers the British political context since
Tony Blair and where the UK policy discourse currently stands. Section four consolidates
the discussion by considering the implications of more serious engagement with religion in
social policy.
Christian Social Ethics
For over a thousand years, Christianity has been tightly associated with the European
continent. But this is no longer the case, with over 2.1 billion Christians worldwide, the
centre of Christianity is now shifting elsewhere to Africa, Latin America and the Far East
(Freston, 2007). Together with Islam, Christianity is one of the largest faiths of the nonWestern World.
Like Judaism, Christianity was erected upon the main principles of the ten commandments,
though Jesus went further in his Sermon on the Mount later recorded in the gospel of
Mathew by adding further injunctions which have given Christianity its particular character
(Gwynne, 2009: 103). For example, Jesus went beyond the basic Jewish commandment of
“do not murder” adding that one must not get angry with a brother or sister, or insult them.
Jesus taught that the human being was not obliged merely to avoid vice but had to actively
embrace virtue. St. Paul added the precept of faith in Jesus as the spiritual motivation to
adhere by the Decalogue. Indeed, the centrality of the person of Jesus in Christian faith
parallels that of Sakayamuni in Buddhism giving Christianity its monastic character and
detachment from the material world (Gwynne, 2009).
Arguably the central message of Jesus Christ was the injunction of “Love”. The New
Testament uses the Greek term agape which is a higher form of love and relates more to
God’s divine love for humanity, expressed through his incarnate Son. This became Jesus’
new, eleventh commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Gwynne, 2009: 104).
Christian beliefs and practices rest upon three essential sources: (1) The Creeds which are the
summary statements of Orthodox beliefs although Quakers and Baptists tend to reject these;
(2) Tradition which relates to the authoritative understandings and interpretations of basic
Christian beliefs which as found in the Creeds and scriptures; (3) Reason, conscience and
experience whereby it is possible to interpret the bible on the basis of human faculties
according to the demands of the day. Some controversy surrounds the validity of human
reason for interpreting the bible and this is a particular feature of Methodism (Multi-Faith
Centre, 2007: 132-133). A linked point is that like Judaism, Christianity also accepts the
existence of innate human morality which is separate from belief in Christ’s message.
Catholicism in particular, under the influence of Augustine developed the doctrine of ‘natural
law’ which is based on secular reasoning (Stark, 2005).
However, the three major branches of Christianity have differed in the bases upon
which they have interpreted the teachings and life of Christ and where they place the
authority for such interpretation: Catholic morality is based on papal teaching and the famous
encyclicals such as the Rerum Novarum (1891); Orthodox morality is based on the Church
fathers and Protestant morality stems from a close reading of the bible. These various
traditions have had a direct impact on the way in which ideas about poverty and social
welfare have been formulated in the countries with Christian populations and even how
social policy has been structured (Kahl, 2005; Hornsby-Smith, 1999).
Some general points first about the place of poverty in Christianity: as is well-known
concern for poverty is a major dimension of righteousness in Christianity and directly relates
to the rewards of the afterlife (Martin et al. 2007). Jesus is famously reported as advising a
young man to sell all his property and give it to the poor in order to inherit eternal life
(Martin et al. 2007). The Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the most stringent in its
articulation of the just redistribution of resources and the fact that to please God, humanity
must live in equality (Tyndale, 2000). Other authors point to the parable of the Good
Samaritan (Pemberton, 1990) as a key lesson about caring for the plight of fellow humans.
Pemberton (1990) links this to the Catholic notion of the ‘preferential option for the poor’.
Even though Jesus admitted that the poverty could never be abolished, he also taught that it
was harder for the rich to enter heaven, as the famous saying about the “eye of the needle”
cited above attests. Thus, to help the poor was an expression of personal faith.
Christianity, particularly the Roman Catholic branch, advocates near veneration of the
condition of poverty with many medieval well-to-do Christians giving up their material
possessions to live a life of frugality (Tynedale, 2000; Kahl, 2005). In Christian teaching,
detachment from material goods is considered to lead to higher levels of spirituality and
virtue (Martin et al, 2007; Kahl, 2005). The collection of charitable alms, known as the tithe
was also a key fixture of Christian practice in the Medieval Ages although this has dwindled
in modern times (Midwinter, 1997). Today, Western Christian groups carry their missions
into developing countries where they are known to set up hospitals, income-generating
projects and schools (Clarke and Jennings, 2007; Martin et al., 2007).
The political and social engagement of the Christian churches in matters of social justice,
equality and solidarity is thus, centuries old and well-documented from throughout medieval
and early modern Europe (Atherton, 1994; Midwinter, 1997; Fehler, 1999; Innes, 1998;
Kahl, 2005). This literature is tremendously large and it is not possible to review here all the
forms of Christian-inspired social welfare which have come into existence. A useful
summative argument is however, provided by Higgins (1981) who reminds us that even
some of the most prominent modern figures in Western social policy such as Seebhom
Rowntree and William Beveridge were either inspired by their religious beliefs or had
advisors who were religious. Thus, the task of explaining the eventual secularisation of social
policy in Europe from the 16th century onwards is not straightforward. According to Higgins
(1981), some key factors leading to this lack of administrative capacity of the churches to
continue to act as effective social controllers and social welfare providers as society became
urbanised and pauperisation increased. Moreover, the ‘self-help’ ideology which came to
characterise the churches in the 19th century (such as the ideas of Samuel Smiles and the
Charity Organisation Society) coincided with the rise of the liberal ideas propagated by
emerging social thinkers such as David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill.
What I shall offer here then, is a broad brush review of the most influential currents of
thinking on poverty and social welfare in Christianity. These will consider the understanding
of poverty and poor relief which crystallised around the period of the 16th century
Reformation in the main branches of Catholicism, Lutheranism and Protestantism (Fehler,
1999; Kahl, 2005; Innes, 1998). I will then consider the formal elaboration of modern
Christian social teachings which crystallised in the 19th century:
(1) in the case of Catholicism, these relate to the Social Teachings of the Catholic
Church which are generally agreed to be founded upon the encyclical letter written by Pope
Leo XIII in 1891 called Rerum Novarum in which he addressed universal social issues such
as human dignity and worth, the rights and responsibilities of society, the preferential option
for the poor and solidarity (Van Kersbergen, 1995).
(2) in the case of Protestantism, modern social teachings on poverty and social welfare
gained a formal status as a result of the 19th century Social Gospel Movement which spread
particularly in Britain and the USA where it continues to be quite influential (Atherton,
1994). The British Labour government and Tony Blair in particular have a strong affiliation
to the Christian Socialist Movement which is directly inspired by the Social Gospel
Movement. This movement sought actively to go beyond simple Christian notions of love,
justice and honesty by engaging with economic and social issues in a direct way in order to
seek to provide real solutions to the modern problems of urban degradation, squalor,
inequality, crime, racial tensions and poor schools (Atherton, 1994). Finally, I will briefly
consider the newer Christian religion of Pentecostalism which is sweeping Africa, Latin
America and the Far East and is more directly associated with poor communities around the
world (Freston, 2007) – though it continues to boast a substantial following amongst the
Middle Class elites in the USA.
The shift of political and religious power from the ecclesiastical to lay control which
occurred in 16th century Europe and the accompanying desire to separate out the deserving
from the undeserving poor masses has come to be known as the Reformation (Cunningham.
It is a turning point in the history of Western European Christianity and a sharpening of the
contours around the two main Christian denominations of Catholicism and Protestantism.
Although Innes (1998) warns that the distinctions between social welfare practice in he 17th
and 18th centuries were not so sharp between Catholic and Protestant poor relief, Kahl (2005)
shows that the conceptualisation of poverty amongst the Christian denominations did bear
significant distinctions. Further, Kahl (2005) argues that both Catholic and Lutheran
understandings of social welfare are engrained to this day in modern day social policy. This
explains the key divide between Lutheran countries such as Germany which oblige welfare
recipients to seek work, with Catholic countries such as France where the poor are not
blamed for their condition.
To this extent, the conceptualisation of poverty and how to deal with the poor within the 16th
century Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Protestant (Calvinist) traditions could be summed
up as follows (Kahl, 2005):
(1) In Catholicism, poverty was sacred and helping the poor through private charity
earned the benefactor salvation in the after life. In this view, the poor were
blameless and should not be forced to work or to take responsibility for their
deprivation. During the counter-Reformation, the concept of caritas became
popularised attaching a notion of divine benevolence to those who helped the poor.
Poverty was not banned, and it was certainly not secularised or institutionalised in
the slowly forming early modern states (Kahl, 2005). Instead, "the postulate of
charity" was considered the "highest divine poor law" (Catholic historian Fösser,
cited in Kahl, 2005: 106). The conviction that poverty should continue to be a mater
for private charity is one of the sharpest divisions between Catholicism and
Protestantism and is one reason why in Catholic countries today (such as France,
Italy, Spain), social welfare provision continues to be patchy and fragmented with
Catholic relief services occupying centre stage in social welfare. Like the
preservation of personal wealth advocated in Judaism above, the concept of Caritas
in Catholicism obliged the rich to pay charity to the poor but did not give the poor
an automatic right to claim charity from the rich (Kahl, 2005).
(2) In Lutheranism, the translation of the Bible into the vernacular lead to the concept
of work becoming elevated to a spiritual duty and taking centre stage in the postreformation thinking (Kahl, 2005). God's favour could only be gained by true faith
as opposed to the Catholic practice of benevolence to the poor which was no longer
viewed in the Lutheran perspective as leading to salvation. Thus, poverty began to
acquire negative connotations of laziness and undeservingness. The imperative of
controlling and managing the poor in Luthernism progressively transpired into
more centralised forms of outdoor poor relief. The 1522 Nuremberg Poor Law
replaced the practice of almsgiving with the introduction of a municipal common
fund to help the poor. By 1859, Lutheran social reformers devised a new policy
whereby that state would protect the community from the undeserving poor and
seek to help those truly in need. Both secular and religious authorities began to take
responsibility for the poor, based on Luther's basic principle that "No one should
live idle on the work of others" (Kahl, 2005: 104). Thus, it is possible to argue that
Lutheranism is the predecessor of the modern welfare state. The huge number of
legislation which was introduced by Lutheran countries to deal with poor relief
stood in sharp contrast to the Catholic countries which opposed to the
individualisation of faith in Protestantism arguing that helping the poor was a
religious duty of benevolence.
(3) In Calvinism, otherwise known as reformed Protestantism, work reached ever
higher spiritual heights. Weber’s (1930) infamous study of the origins of modern
Capitalism emphasises the notion of the ‘calling’ which a true Puritan felt towards
work. 1Calvin turned work into an absolute moral duty and placed discipline and
rationality at the centre of the good Christian's life (Kahl, 2005). This eventually
developed into the belief that poverty was a curse from God, an irreparable sin
whilst material wealth was a sign of God's blessing. Thus, Calvin developed two
key ideas bout the nature of poverty which led to its stigmatization: these were the
doctrines of pre-destination and the work ethic. In this view, the poor had to be
punished and forced to work in what later became know as the Workhouse system
(Kahl, 2005). The poor became classified into different categories depending on
their moral conduct and ability to work, as was the case in the 1601 English Poor
Law. But Calvinism retained a feature similar to Catholicism in that poor relief was
considered to be a matter for the Church and not the state authorities. England and
The Netherlands thus continued to have localised forms of poor relief. Private
Christian charity continued to flourish well-into the 19th century in these countries.
The 19th century did indeed see the consolidation of both Catholic and Protestant social teachings
as has already been noted above. With regard to the Social Gospel and the spread of socially
engaged Christian movements in Britain and the USA, influential thinkers behind this movement
in Britain have included William Temple (1881-1944), Bishop of Manchester, R.H. Tawney
(1880-1962). In America, major thinkers behind the social gospel have been Walter
Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) and John C. Bennet (1902- ). Beyond Britain and America, the
movement of liberation theology which developed in Latin America was led by Ulrich Duchrow
(1935- ) and Gustavo Guiterrez (1928- ). Other socially engaged Christian thinkers who are of a
more conservative leaning include Michael Novak (1933- ) and Brian Griffiths (1941 - ). The
central preoccupation of these major social Christian thinkers is the critique of Capitalism and a
concern with the state of urban-industrial societies (Atherton, 1994:11). Some of the central
tenets of Christian socialism and the social gospel movement may be summarised as follows
(Atherton, 1994:14-15):
1. A fundamental concern for all humanity, based on the core belief of God's essential
relationship to the human being.
2. The imperative of addressing the social context within which human beings live.
It is not possible here to enter into more detailed discussion on the debate surrounding The Protestant Ethic.
But it is useful to point out that this work has already been well-critiqued. Gidden’s introduction to the 1992
edition references here provides a comprehensive overview of the shortcomings of Weber’s thesis, such as that
post-mediaeval Catholicism also developed strong links to capitalist enterprise as referred to elsewhere in this
book, and that other parts of 16th and 17th century protestant Europe such as the Rhineland, Netherlands and
Switzerland, not considered by Weber did not confirm to his thesis. The similarities between Catholocism and
Protestantism are further discussed in Higgins (1981) and Innes (1998).
3. The need to collaborate with other social actors in the fight for social justice such as trade
unions or socialists even though these were not Christians. Indeed, every human being was
believed in the Social Gospel to have God's nature in him.
4. The importance of social action and of actively providing programmes and services to
improve the plight of the urban poor, such as education and producer co-operatives.
5. A direct challenge to capitalism and the values of competition and accumulation which
underpin it.
6. A critique of the otherworldly evangelical belief of the Church and the need to remain
grounded in the realities of social action.
7. Spirituality and worship continued to be the central driving force behind the movement.
To this day, committed Christian socialists continue to critique social policy and to seek to
influence the role of the state. Bayley (1989) makes a particularly strong argument against
romantic/pastoral/community/decentralised popular rule. Bayley (1989), an Anglican priest,
cites Richard Titmuss to argue that the welfare state intrinsically depends on there being a
welfare society. This is not too far away from the vision of self-sufficient villages
envisioned by Ghandi. Davis et al. (2008) also critique the present Labour government over
its lack of a moral vision for social welfare arguing for a revival of such notions as gift,
covenant, justice and advocacy. To a large extent, whilst the Church is not a position to write
policy, Christian leaders do influence the moral standards according to which social policies
are devised (Nesbitt, 2001; Fischer, 2001). This is particularly evident in two major
documents on urban poverty and social justice which appeared in the UK and Germany in
the late 1990s: Faith in the City (by the Church of England) and "For a Future Founded on
Solidarity and Justice" (a joint work by the Catholic Bishops an Evangelical Church of
Germany). Fischer (2001) describes how these reports signal landmark attempts by the
religious establishment in both countries to directly engage with the social and economic
policies of the times arguing for a role of the Church as a mediator between socially silences
populations and the government. Thus, Fischer (2001: 161) concludes " there is no doubt
about the church's role in tweaking the national consciousness of British and German
citizens and insisting upon the immediacy of the problem."
Like the Social Gospel Movement, Catholic Social Teaching has also entailed a critique of
Capitalism though questions may remain as to how far-reaching this critique is (HornbySmith, 1999; Van Kersbergen, 1995). However, Adloff (2006) argues that social Catholicism
had strong relations with the labour movement, unlike the Social Gospel reformers,
especially in the USA.
The central social teachings in social Catholicism are to be found in the 19th century Rerum
Novarum followed by the Quadragesimo Anno (1931) (Van Kersbergen, 1995). Van
Kersbergen (1995) argues that before the Rerum Novarum, the Catholic Church has not
really engaged with the 'social question' and was only impelled to do so in the 1880s due to
the need for a prominent Vatican leader.
The Rerum Novarum thus entailed Pope Leo XIII's response to the social upheaval caused by
capitalism and industrialisation. On a more critical note, Van Kersbergen (1995: 219) argues
that it symbolised more an attempt to "keep workers as Catholics in the church". Defending
the pursuit of justice, the protection of social rights and the just wage, the Pope nevertheless
continued to support the importance of private property rights, as in the other faiths discussed
in this chapter. However, the Pope also called for the need to temper the free reign of market
of forces with moral considerations. The Catholic principle of 'preferential option for the
poor' was again reiterated in the Rerum Novarum. It also upholds the doctrine of subsidiary
which is central to Catholic social thinking whereby responsibility for social welfare must
not rest with the state but rather must begin with the family and local community. Most
importantly, the Rerum Novarum continued to hold on to the central idea of charity and as
such did not provide a substantial programme for action. The emphasis remained more on
social obligations as opposed to rights with the encyclical continuing to promote the
importance of private property as the root out of property. This appeared to be the only real
human right human which contradicts the Pope's call for justice (Hornsby-Smit, 1999; Van
Kersbergen, 1995).
The social teachings of the Vatican are paralleled by the lay political movement of Christian
Democracy which flourished in the inter-War years in some key Catholic countries namely
Italy, Germany and the Netherlands (Van Kersbergen, 1995). The Christian Democratic
movement which was inspired by Catholicism, shared many of the core beliefs of the
Vatican teachings such as the organic nature of society, the centrality of the family, the
subsidiarity principle but much of its success according to Van Kersbergen (1995) was its
attempt to reconcile liberalism and socialism and it was this ability to draw upon abroad base
of social support due to its ability and conviction in the politics of mediation between all
social groups and social classes. Thus, in the post-war period, Christian Democratic
governments all over Europe were at the forefront of reconstruction effort and the
formulation of generous social policies. The latter have been especially corporatist in nature
with generous family-oriented policies and employment-based insurance (Hornsby-Smith,
From Europe, the final segment of this section of Christianity considers the rise of
Pentecostalism or Evangelicalism in non-Western contexts (Freston, 2006). This is a popular
form of Protestantism which has been spreading since the 1950s amongst poor populations in
Africa, Asia and Latin America. Because of its highly voluntary and non-institutionalised
nature, envangelicalism has lost its links with normative Church doctrine (Freston, 2006).
The main drive behind this form of Christianity is conversion and the revival of morality is
portrayed as the main root to prosperity. There is a growing involvement in social projects as
many Pentecostals have increasingly moved to the left in their beliefs hat government must
provide basic social needs to the population. The immense developmental success of the
Christian Base Communities in Latin America is one are were Catholicism in the developing
world ash had a major impact on social and economic welfare (Bruneau, 1980).
Religion in the Social Policy literature: An Old-New Partnership
In modern day Britain, arguably the home of secularisation and of modern social policy,
where the social democratic tradition has been able to flourish, there is little place for
discussion of religion as a serious contender in the world of welfare. Indeed, some have
argued that the purpose and nature of the welfare state has replaced those human needs
traditionally filled by religious belief, not least because the welfare state was supposed to recreate the social bonds which had been dominated by the pre-existing religious order. The
‘gift relationship’ which Titmuss (1970) defended as the core philosophy of the welfare state
was an innately ethical concept which he argued paralleled the primordial ties which bound
traditional religious societies (Titmuss, 1970: 210). Indeed, it is noteworthy that Titmuss
(1970) argued that what Marx failed to do was to develop a moral theory for socialism. Yet
today, discussion of morality, ethics or religion is marginal in the social policy literature with
few exceptions such as Donnison (1998); Dean (2004) and Fitzpatrick (2008). In the North
American context, it is perhaps more usual to adopt a moral stance in discussion of social
welfare. To this end, Skocpol (2000) argues strongly that biblical (religious) beliefs and
motivations provide the most powerful engine yet for reviving the ideals and practical
commitment to social justice. Celebrating what she sees as the great debt of modern
American democracy to the cross -class religio-social movements of the 19th century,
Skocpol (2000) pitches conservatives against liberals, thus, neatly summarising the state of
social policy in our times:
“In recent years, the academic literature on ‘social welfare policy’ has been so
dominated by leftist secularists that it has written out of the record positive
contributions fro religiously inspired services to the poor. If noted at all, such
ministry has transmuted into Machiavellian acts of class of racial domination.
This is unfortunate, because mush of redeeming value has been accomplished by
religiously committed individuals and congregations delivering spiritual along
with material aid to fellow embers or needy persons beyond the exiting
(Skocpol, 2000: 24)
Thus, within the European context however, those social policy professionals who take the
big step towards considering the connections between religion and social welfare are a very
rare breed, and when they do this they feel impelled to begin their arguments with the usual
disclaimers, devoting several paragraphs in their prefaces and acknowledgements to arguing
that one does not have to be religious to want to explore the connections between religion and
social policy, just like ‘you do not have to be a fool to study madness’. These are the words
of Van Kersbergen (1995: viii), a previous student of Esping-Andersen, and one of the first
contemporary social policy academics in Northern Europe to seriously consider the role of
religion in the welfare state. Van Kersbergen (1995) looks at the specific case of Christian
Democracy in Italy, Germany and The Netherlands to make the case for the possibility of a
welfare regime called social capitalism. Wilber and Jameson (1980), Higgins (1981),
Hornsby-Smith (1999) and Nesbitt (2001) are amongst the earliest works in the USA and UK
to pay attention to the role of religion in social policy whilst some of the most recent
publications on the subject are penned by Kahl (2005) and Opielka (2008), with a new edited
volume on the religious origins of European social policy by Philip Manow and Kees Van
Kersbergen due to appear soon. It has also often been the case that social scientists have more
willingly recognised the role of religion in public policy in the ‘third world’ than they have in
the Western context (for good critiques, see Wilber and Jameson, 1980; Gorski, 2005).
Thus, as already suggested above, there are some variations within Northern Europe and
North America on academic debate about the role of religion in social policy. The USA and
continental Europe tend to stand apart from Great Britain because of the better established
recognition of the roles of the voluntary sector and the churches in public service provision
(Esping-Andersen, 1999; Skocpol, 2000). This also includes recognition of the role of
spirituality in health and social welfare, especially in the North American context
(Tangenberg, 2004). By contrast, in the UK it is only recent publications such as Spalek and
Imtoual (2008) which have begun to take a fresh look at the implications of spirituality for
the study of the social sciences. Like the USA case, authors on non-Western contexts have
also long acknowledged the critical role of spirituality in public action there (see for example
Ver Beek, 2000). The question of religion thus contributes to the challenge of holism in that it
appeals precisely to the moral, spiritual and emotional dimensions of human experience in
such a way as we are only just beginning to appreciate in the social sciences. The rejection of
dualism made here advocates an ontology of the social actor as a whole. Linked to this is the
importance of religion in stimulating association life and providing the moral energy behind
the ideals and the pursuit of social justice. For Skocpol (2000), the two are inextricably linked
in historical terms and she argues forcefully that American democracy would not be what it is
where it not for the 19th century federations, charities, voluntary associations and citizen’s
groups which were led by individuals with deep religious values, but not actually under
‘clerical control’ (Skocpol, 2000: 37).
It is important to note here the key role which the cultural turn in the social sciences is
playing in introducing religion (back) into the social policy agenda. Opielka’s (2008) chapter
is part of an edited volume on the role of culture in the welfare state. Social policy observers
(Midgley, 1997, 2004; Hill, 2006) have been predicting for some time now, the
intensification of cultural considerations in the study of social policy as greater attention is
paid to issues such as the politics of recognition, social exclusion, multiculturalism, the
quality of life (Hornsby-Smith, 1999). The post-materialist era which is marked by greater
economic security (Beckford, 1989; Inglehart and Baker; 2000) means that consideration of
spirituality and religion will need to be taken more seriously in the study of wellbeing and in
the advancement of new avenues for policy-making.
To summarise, based on a review of the contemporary relevant literature in the
sociology of religion, social policy, historical sociology and political science, it is impossible
not to enunciate the key question which arises from decades of scholarship on the condition
of modernity and the quest for human happiness: does religion have a relevant public role to
play in the pursuit of human wellbeing? Can religion offer as convincing a solution to social
problems and human prosperity as the (welfare) capitalist state has?
Religion in Contemporary British Social Policy
As cited in Dinham and Lowndes (2009), a clear enunciation of the future importance of
religious welfare provision to social policy in the UK was made by Jim Murphy, Minister of
State for Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform in 2006-7 whereby he
foresaw an increased role of religious organizations in public welfare.
Indeed, 2007 saw the launch of the Welfare Reform Act which was accompanied by a string
of seminars which the Department for Work and Pensions held around the UK, one of which
took place in Manchester City Stadium on 19 February 2007 under the title of “The Role of
Faith-Based Groups in Welfare Provision’. Other important developments in the policy
context include the establishment of the Inner Cities Religious Council in 1992 (with
permanent representation by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu organisations), the
elaboration of national guidelines for local councils to consult and collaborate with faithbased organisations through the DETR’s (Department of the Environment, Transport and
Regions) 1997 handbook and later in 2002 through the LGA’s (Local Government
Association) good practice guide for local authorities. There have also been various major
funding initiatives through the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Office of the
Deputy Prime Minister and the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund (which provides
grants for faith-based organisations to build their professional capacities to be able to
compete for government grants). Most recently, a Faith Communities Unit in the Home
Office was formally established (in 2003). Current government policy documents stress the
importance of supporting faith groups with further government grants in order for them to
carry out social and public welfare roles at community level.
It is argued that Tony Blair has been one of Britain’s most openly religious leaders and a key
architect of the increasingly faith-friendly politics of Britain. In key speeches addressing the
Christian Socialist Movement in 2001 and then Faithworks (the movement led by Rev.
Steven Chalke, founder of one of the UK’s most socially active Christian organisations,
Oasis) in 2005, Blair seemed to embrace faith-based welfare as a kind of missing link in
British social policy which tied the ends of the (new) political rhetoric of welfare pluralism,
social capital, partnerships and community participation. Of course, increasing the public role
of faith-based welfare is a long-standing feature of conservative politics with contemporary
influential advocates in the UK being William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.
It is useful at this point to consider some basic figures about the estimated size and resources
of the faith-based voluntary sector in the UK. According to a 2007 report published by the
National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the total income of faith-based
registered charities in the UK is £4.6 billion. 90% of the latter is concentrated amongst 10%
of the organisations whose income surpasses £2 million. The NCVO states that amongst the
largest faith-based organisations in the UK are: The Salvation Army, Christian Aid, Islamic
Relief, Muslim Aid, Muslim Hands, Jewish Care, The United Synagogue. In total, there are
23,832 charities registered with The Charity Commission who state that they are involved in
religious activity. These organisations state that 56% of their activities are spent on grantmaking activities and 35% on service provision. Over half of these faith-based charities aim
to serve the general public and two-fifths focus particularly on children and young people.
The NCVO further states that the number of officially registered faith charities
underestimates their true number in the UK since many smaller charities are not registered
and other well-established ones do not call themselves religious (like Barnardo’s, which
states on its website that its inspiration comes from Christian values).
Official policy discourse appears then, to portray faith-based welfare as a progressive step for
the future of social policy in the UK - almost as if it were a natural step - as faith-based
welfare proponents highlight the historic and immense future potential of the Church and
other newer faith groups in alleviating social problems and offering vital social support
services to different segments of the population. Yet, what appears to be a progressive and
almost natural step forward for advocates of faith-based welfare is strongly criticised in
media, academic and policy circles as a regressive step for social policy which strikes a blow
to the very heart of the welfare state and the important gains it has achieved in making British
society more egalitarian, free, just, and tolerant.
Dinham and Lowndes (2009) identify three main ways in which religion is gaining visibility
as an actor in the public sphere in the UK: first, religious groups are considered to be a rich
source of physical and social capital meaning they have buildings and human manpower and
synergy through their meeting places and places of worship, their adherents and volunteers.
To this end, government polices since the 1990s have stressed the useful way in which
religious groups can build on their existing services in the areas of education childcare and
urban regeneration in order to expand their remit and social welfare roles. Such a role is seen
by government policy as a way of promoting more responsive local services and diversifying
provision to suit local needs.
Second, religion is considered in government policy to play a key role in promoting
community cohesion. Inter-faith networks in particular are seen to have an especially strong
role in this regard. In many respects, religion is here understood as proxy for ethnic identity.
The riots in Northern England in 2001 gave further impetus for the need to harness the
community role of religious temples and groups. Cross-religious sports events and
community activities were fostered as was of using religion to build bridges and link different
religious communities together.
Thirdly, government is also interested in increasing the role of religious groups in governance
particularly at local level. This is exemplified in for example the establishment and promotion
of Local Strategic Partnerships, regional assemblies and neighbourhood management boards.
Faith representatives have thus found their way into policy-specific consultation forms with
the police, health authorities and social care agencies. At national level, a Faith Communities
Consultative Council has been established to advise minsters (Dinham and Lowndes, 2009).
What this means for social policy is a dramatic shift away from the ubiquitous welfare state
to a kind of ‘stakeholder welfare’ which according to religiously-minded advocates such as
Atherton (2005) and Davis et al. (2008) better reflects the natural altruistic tendencies of
human nature and indeed promotes them – as opposed to overemphasis on the state as the
main symbol of social solidarity. In some respects, this inadvertently reflects back on
Beveridge’s original conceptualisation of the welfare society and the welfare state and his
argument that the latter cannot flourish without the former. In this view, David et al. (2008)
argue that religious welfare organisations can do more than just deliver services, they can
engage actively in civic renewal and thus help promote human wellbeing and socio-economic
participation. This perspective was operationalised in Blairite ideology by promoting the
values of both localism and subsidiarity as a way of bridging the gap left by individualism
and personal responsibility. But Davis et al. (2008) argue that it is Conservative politicians
who have the greatest appetite for increasing the involvement of religious groups in the
public sector. The 2007 Conservative Commission on Social Justice argues that ‘new
legislation should be introduced to put faith groups on a level playing field’ and also that a
‘faith standard’ should be produced whereby religious organisations can have services
benchmarked against objective standards (Davis et a., 2008: 42).
Thus to sum up, David et al (2008) argue that the although the new government discourse of
governance, partnership, governance and justice are favourable for the re0-entry of religious
groups into the world of welfare, religious groups and Church ones in particular, need to
engage more deeply with this new policy landscapes in order to know how to address their
response. Similarly, faith groups are suspicion of working with government as they do not
wish to undermine their prophetic mission by taking on the role of being a cheaper option of
service delivery for government. Partnership thus becomes exploitation in their view (Davis
et a., 2008)
Conclusion: Re-thinking Social Policy - Implications of a Religious Perspective
The aim of this paper has been to open debate on the role of religion in social policy on
Britain. This has two perspectives from a historical angle, the paper has argued that Christian
social teachings and Christian social ethics have a long history in the development of the
welfare state both in Britain and the rest of Europe. Up until the 20th century, the Church
played the most important role in social welfare provision. This role has not faded with the
rise of the welfare state in the post-WWII era but it has been greatly diminished. Since 1997
and the adoption of the Human Rights Law in 1998, Britain has become an increasingly
religion-friendly place. Archbishop William temple played a key role in 1941 in coining the
term ‘welfare state’ and in developing the vision for social policy in the Britain. The welfare
reform process unleashed in earnest by Tony Blair in 1997, coupled with the major economic
and social impact of the 2008 global recession have made the entry if faith groups into the
social welfare sphere a reality.
A key are of contention is the extent to which religious groups can compromise their
commitment to prophecy and their role in basically delivering social services to this living in
poverty and indeed. It is this same issue of prophecy which highlights that government policy
itself, though keen to prove that it is working from a body of proven evidence hinges
fundamental on how human nature is conceptualised and how human nature flourishes.
Notions of truth therefore matter for social policy and not just social justice which itself can
be vague and improperly used.
Although issues of religious literacy continue with government and religious welfare
organisations are not all united in their commitment to work with government, the time has
come to square the circle and for religion to find its place both in the past, present and future
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