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Denham on 'doing politics' and 'doing God'
10th July 2012
Last week, John Denham – one of those MPs who, though confessedly without a faith, has become attuned to the importance of understanding its influence properly – gave a speech for the International Council of Christians and Jews.
Broadly speaking, his argument was that Britain’s ethnic and religious diversity is a strength rather than a weakness, but that multiculturalism had allowed people different groups to adopt an attitude of 'live and let live', rather than engage in a process of negotiating a genuinely common life. He asked “faith organisations, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples [to] play their role in exercising the social responsibility that is needed to develop community and nation.”
He’s asking that faith groups don’t just ‘do God’, but that they ‘do politics’ – politics in the sense of negotiation of interests – too.
But his speech also revealed some of the apparent naivety and suspicion which pervades in officialdom around themes of faith and belief. He spoke of one “farcical moment in the last Government where CLG circulated a list of extremist un-British attitudes that would lead to Muslim organisations being denied funding or dialogue. This included hostility to homosexuality”.
Denham, an ‘enlightened secularist’, rejected the list. But anybody who knows anything about negotiation knows that the first thing you negotiate is the terms of negotiation themselves – even down to where they will take place. Many religious groups are wary of engaging with public institutions because the rules are already set, and that engagement or consultation is – more often than not – a cursory PR exercise. Lurking in and amongst the inevitable procedural secularism (which affords different groups equal space) is a programmatic secularism (which is more actively hostile to faith-based positions). Denham has one way of not ‘doing God’, but there are others.
Of course, no government can remain terminally ambivalent on all points of contention. But its important, if Denham is to make such a plea, that groups know that the terms of the debate don’t exclude their most substantive – or their most awkward – contributions in advance, and in principle.
Photo by Frank Wales