COVID-19 makes victims of both rich and poor, but not in an equal way. Poorer children are falling behind their wealthier peers academically. Mortality rates from Covid-19 in the most deprived areas of the country are more than double that in the least deprived areas.
This is exacerbating an already grossly unequal situation: the UK has one of the highest levels of income inequality in Europe: the top 20 per cent of households take nearly half the total national income. A large body of research shows the damage this does to society: as income inequality rises, social mobility and equality of opportunity are reduced; health problems proliferate; and levels of trust in democracy decline.
After the pandemic, we can’t go back to the status quo. As my new report, Bridging the Gap: Economic inequality and church responses in the UK, published by the think tank Theos, argues, Churches should marshal their resources — both practical and theological — to become champions against economic inequality.
In the report, I have tried to show some ways in which Churches are already starting to do this, going beyond their traditional focus on poverty. At a local level, churches have responded to the disempowering effect of inequality by contributing to — and, in some instances, driving — initiatives such as Poverty Truth Commissions and the community-organising movement Citizens UK, which bring together people from the economic spectrum to work towards common goals.
Nationally and internationally, Churches have used their position as investors and shareholders to push companies to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, which is a crucial step in tackling global inequality. Church leaders of different denominations have spoken out against inequality: the Archbishop of Canterbury has condemned it as “the most destabilising and unjust feature of our own society”.
Too often, however, this work to tackle economic inequality is not publicised, and is little known by church congregations, let alone by the wider public. There is much more that the Churches could be doing practically.
For example, strong condemnations of economic inequality are more powerful if they come from Churches as institutions (particularly if they are cross-denominational) than from individual church leaders. Churches could use their positions as investors to fund companies that help to reduce inequality, and to put pressure on those that do not. They must also ensure that their own activities are not contributing to the problem.
The question of exactly the steps that are needed to reduce economic inequality is a political one, and has been the subject of much political debate — although concern about economic inequality increasingly transcends traditional political divides. Evidence of this is a paper published by the Social Market Foundation recently, Beyond Levelling Up. From a Conservative perspective, its author, a former Treasury adviser to Sajid Javid and Philip Hammond, makes the case for reducing economic inequality.
The part for Churches to play is more fundamental: to challenge indifference to the damage that inequality causes. They should realise that they have ideas that are sorely needed to refresh an often stagnant debate.
They should be much more vocal in explaining why high economic inequality is a spiritual as much as a social problem. I have tried to show how a strong theological case can be made against high economic inequality, on the grounds that it inhibits the Christian vision of a good society.
It can undermine the common good and solidarity, as the rich become able to isolate themselves from the poor. It can mask people’s true worth from themselves, as they are encouraged to value themselves in terms of their material success relative to others. And it can engender sin, encouraging the poor to become jealous and the rich to become proud and defensive of their wealth. As the theologian Dr Justin Thacker argues: “Inequality fosters a zero-sum mentality that says if I win, you lose, and if I lose, you win.”
MOST importantly, Churches need to proclaim a better vision for the economy after the pandemic. Our economy is underpinned by the flawed assumption that people find their fulfilment through individual consumption: the more you have, the better your life will be. This assumption also tends to underpin secular arguments against inequality which are based on its negative social consequences.
Christianity gives us a different understanding of the economy: one that has a moral purpose, of helping us to become orientated towards other people’s needs over our own, and to find our fulfilment through loving relationships.
The Bible’s vision of economic justice is about reciprocity, relationships, and prioritising the most vulnerable. Now is the time for the Churches to bring this vision to a society that desperately needs it.
Simon Perfect is a researcher for the religion-and-society think tank Theos. Its report Bridging the Gap: Economic inequality and church responses in the UK can be read here.