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Do God and government US-style

18 May 2011

New American models of religious social action could work in the UK, argues Francis Davis

Compared with a radical American Christian figure such as Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community, or an elder statesman such as Dr Billy Graham, the names of Joshua DuBois and Alexia Kelley are almost un­known to British audiences. Yet, as President Obama arrives in the UK, those two names — and the practical vision they represent — are more vital to the potentialities of the relationship between the Churches and Govern­ment in Britain than any number of famous preachers.

DuBois, who was brought up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is the head of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, and Ms Kelley, a Roman Catholic, is his deputy. Having inherited an earlier form of Mr DuBois’s post from George W. Bush, President Obama refashioned it into a contribution that, if adapted for Britain, would enhance the capability of Whitehall and Westminster to “do God and government”. The state visit provides an opportunity for British Churches to learn more about this.

MR DuBois has a clear brief: his office exists to provide advice, con­nections, and policy proposals that help to demystify the workings of depart­ments of state for faith-based organ­isations and civic bodies. It seeks to establish level playing-fields for them, while also providing a pathway through which to feed their insights from the grass roots into government.

The aim is not to promote reli­gious beliefs, nor to garner faith groups into a debate on cohesion, but more actively to focus on their potential for social action, alongside others, in the areas of most import­ance to the administration.

As a result of this, in 12 crucial departments of state — such as education and aid — there are offices for faith-based organisations and neighbourhood partnerships. They have good access to the US equivalent of permanent secretaries, and net­work with each other across Washing­ton. The lessons for Britain could be helpful.

BY THE end of the Labour Govern­ment a year ago, Church-Government relations had become confused, despite some good personal relationships. There was a great deal of activity, but it was not directed towards solving strategic questions — actual policy design — so much as towards saying nice things about religion, and debating “religious problems”, such as civil partnerships.

Access, exhortation, affirmation, and complex structures are always at risk of raising hopes that will be dashed — no matter how genuine their intentions. If the civic potential of the main Churches, especially the C of E, is to be taken seriously, the structures have to be changed.

Fresh thinking is needed on both sides. Part of this will include a recognition that civil servants and stretched ministers are at their best when dealing with practical issues rather than ideas about faith in the public realm. Churches need more often to present practical solutions to policy problems, where they can draw from their global experience, rather than general ethical lectures.

For their part, civil servants will need to make the effort to understand and work with Churches and other faith bodies as a matter of com­fortable course rather than anguished ex­ception — no matter how polite they are in public. This is where a new network of officers for faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships in particular govern­ment departments would make all the difference.

In Whitehall, the most senior cross-cutting group on building bigger societies is now at the level of deputy permanent secretary, and every department has a lead minister on the topic. If David Cameron adapted President Obama’s model, and appointed a lead special adviser on faith-based social action and the Big Society, that person could work with designated civil servants in each of the departments of education, health, overseas development, local gov­ernment, and the environment.

Collectively, these designated officers would be charged with cham­pioning faith-based civic contrib­utions and shattering barriers to their progress at the strategic rather than the junior-operational level.

This might mean reviewing the potential of faith-based philanthropy for health reforms; for example, helping a national Church to establish a chain of GP or dental practices. Potentially, a progressive local alliance of congregations could gain direct access to ministers, despite any opposition from their more conservative national Church offices.

These designated officers would have the authority to challenge ignor­ance and recalcitrance throughout their department. While “barrier-bust­ing” teams exist in one depart­ment, elsewhere, they are weak or absent. In all departments, they need a brief to take the initiative.

In considering such a proposal, it may be to Mr DuBois, Ms Kelley, and their Republican predecessors that the Cameron team might use­fully turn as a consequence of President Obama’s visit. While vari­ous ministers are on record as being behind a Christian contribution to the Big Society, this could give the Gov­ernment’s rhetoric deeper traction.

While religious life in Britain may not be as vibrant as in the US, its con­tinued rootedness in every neigh­bourhood and realm of wel­fare provision endures. Further­more, a Church that was thinking about the nation rather than itself might invite Mr DuBois to Britain on an alter­native visit, as a prelude to mak­ing its own suggestions for change. In either case, President Obama’s presence offers all those present the chance to raise their game.

Francis Davis has been a ministerial policy adviser to both the Labour and Coalition Governments on faith communities, and then on the Big Society. He is the editor of Religion, Third Sector and Public Management (Routledge, 2009)

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