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Beyond Left and Right: why theology might have the answer to inequality

Beyond Left and Right: why theology might have the answer to inequality

In this blog, Hannah Rich introduces our latest report ‘Beyond Left and Right: Finding Consensus on Economic Inequality’. 29/11/2021

A search in the Hansard parliamentary archives reveals that inequality is a topic our politicians talk about literally ten times as much as they did two generations ago. Data in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey found that in 2020, the proportion of the UK population who agreed that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ was the highest it has been since 1998, at 64%. In recent polling commissioned by Theos, three quarters of people (76%) disagreed with the statement that ‘the UK is an economically equal country’, with 42% strongly disagreeing. (Further analysis and findings from this polling will be published in the coming weeks.)

It is evident, then, that the apparent lack of effective action to address economic inequality is not because of a lack of interest, or public ignorance of the scale of the problem. However, even where there is consensus that excessive economic inequality is an issue, as our polling suggests, it seems that potential solutions draw more partisan–based support.

The conversation quickly descends into political caricatures, which makes it harder to build a coalition of agreement around how and even if we should tackle it. In our new Theos report published today, Beyond Left and Right, we sought to address this failure of consensus, by bringing together people from across the political spectrum to discuss the topic.

We gathered theologians, charity leaders, local and national politicians, policy–makers and economists from a breadth of ideological perspectives, encouraging them to find common points of agreement within the thorny issue of inequality. Together, we explored how theology might offer an alternative, less economistic starting point for the conversation, and perhaps one that is more conducive to consensus building.

In 1930, economic historian and social theorist RH Tawney wrote that ‘in order to believe in human equality, it is necessary to believe in God. It is only when one contemplates the infinitely great that human differences appear so infinitely small as to be negligible.’

The suggestion that belief in equality and belief in God are mutually inextricable is perhaps too strong, and Tawney’s explicitly socialist thinking might not seem an obvious source for consensus building. However, his observation here highlights the way that theology, and particularly that of Christianity, can contribute profoundly to our discussions of inequality. His thinking on inequality was influenced by his faith in a way he viewed as natural and even necessary. As noted in Theos’ first report on economic inequality, Bridging the Gap, Christian thinkers across the political spectrum have also concluded that theology has something to say about the matter of inequality.

In our consensus building and our new report, we drew on thinkers from St John Chrysostom to Pope Francis. From the Old Testament principle of Jubilee to the implications of Catholic Social Teaching about the distribution of wealth, the whole historical gamut of Judeo–Christian thought is replete with wisdom for contemporary economic debates.

Through this, we arrived at an agreement that the impact of widening inequality is as evident in our relationships as in our bank balances. Inequalities of wealth and income have consequences for the way we see ourselves and others. Inequality is not therefore only an economic problem, but a social and relational one too. Inequality is especially concerning when it undermines our capacity to have good relationships with one another and separates us from community. As we hosted these conversations in the run up to COP26, we also found strong agreement that there are profound ecological as well as economic reasons to be concerned about inequality.

Flourishing human relationships can and should be the basis on which we develop policy approaches for addressing inequality. Policymaking which focuses on the human and relational dynamics of inequality is likely to secure support from across political divides, and thus to be effective. This might take the form of action from co–operative business models to community initiatives, taxation policy to strengthened family support.

Together with specific policy proposals, there is also scope for reimagining our economic models. A Christian approach to inequality would mean recalibrating the economy to prioritise wellbeing, without disregarding economic growth completely.

As we begin to envision a world beyond the pandemic, influenced by what we have learned about ourselves, our society and our economy during this crisis, we ought also to reconstruct our moral imagination in such a way that a world without excessive economic inequality becomes not only possible, but also unanimously desirable.

You can read the report here


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 Image: fran_kie/shutterstock.com

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘Growing Good’ (2020).

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Posted 29 November 2021

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