Oliver Cooper: A truly Big Society would be agnostic towards churches
Oliver Cooper is Head of Policy & Media for the Conservative Humanist Association.
“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which are God’s.” So begins every Christian discussion of secularism. Jesus didn’t discuss what Caesar should do with what has been rendered unto him. It seems the Big Society was not in vogue in 1st Century Judaea. Fortunately, public service decentralisation is in vogue now – allowing Paul Goodman to open the debate earlier in the week.
As an atheist and as a Conservative, I want the government to clear space in the public square for communities. Of all sorts. In all services. This means broadening supply of healthcare and education and devolving welfare provision to target aid at the most vulnerable.
Allowing more providers is common sense conservatism, but focusing on religious groups quietly commits two fallacies: that we can decide who is best-placed to do so from on high and that churches are the best-placed. Indeed, for some people, churches are worse-placed. The Church of England’s Moral, But No Compass report, which Paul cited, represented a final thrust for theocracy – saying on p87 that Christian-run public services would have an evangelical mission. Fine for a few, but not for most.
If the Big Society is about anything, it’s about the government not ‘picking winners’, but instead, as that much-beloved conservative philosopher Mao Zedong said, letting a thousand flowers bloom. Politicians picking churches to provide public services is as flawed as picking Whitehall. It defeats the point of empowering citizens.
Some Christian schools and hospitals may be better. Despite having atheist parents, I went to a CofE primary school – it was the best school for miles, by miles. If Christian state-funded hospitals were to have better survival rates for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, I may well go to one, too. The same applies to Jewish hospitals, Residents Association hospitals, or Microsoft hospitals (but perhaps not homeopathic hospitals). That’s something to find out, not to assume.
Often, we hear of churches being victimised, and they have specific grievances. Some are reasonable – the Equality Act shutting down adoption agencies. Some are daft – the exclusion of RE from the English Baccalaureate, when churches campaign to keep RE out of the National Curriculum. So let’s find out whether people want more denominational public services by levelling that playing field.
Let’s level the playing field on human rights legislation – from which religious groups have several exemptions. Let’s level the playing field on charitable status – for which all religious groups qualify by special privilege. Let’s level the playing field by ending the myriad minor mollifications that secular services are forced to fund – from chaplaincy in all hospitals to Christian-oriented RE and collective worship in all schools.
In any other walk of life, Conservatives would clamber to end this favouritism – so we should here. By doing that, the Big Society will open the town square up to all, religious or not, and not just the select few. That’s the Conservative solution. It can only be achieved if government doesn’t see things through the prism of religious groups, but as a society that’s big and united. Thus, the true Conservative answer to the question of whether government should do more for churches is: doesn’t it already do enough?