In case you missed it, here's my piece from the Guardian's Comment is Free this week: Christians will build the 'big society' – if they are allowed
Worshippers do more voluntary work than non-believers. Yet the government is doing little to support them in their faith.
The success of the "big society" initiative will not just require the help of faith organisations, it will need actively to promote them. So concludes a fresh report, The Big Society in Context: A means to what end? published by the Christian social reform charity Jubilee Centre.
Recent research by Evangelical Alliance and Christian Research showed that 81% of evangelical Christians do some kind of voluntary work at least once a month. This compares with a much lower figure of 26% for the population at large, obtained in citizenship surveys by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and is consistent with comparable differences identified by researchers in North America.
The level of community engagement is influenced not only by faith, but by how seriously faith is taken. So, their research also showed that those who consider their faith to be the most important thing in their life undertake an average of two hours' volunteering each week, compared with an average of one hour 15 minutes by those who do not consider their faith to be the most important thing in their life. Eighty-six per cent of evangelicals voted in the last general election, compared with 65% in the population at large.
Similarly, a five-year study by the political scientists David Campbell and Robert Putman concluded: "Forty per cent of worship-attending Americans volunteer regularly to help the poor and elderly, compared with 15% of Americans who never attend services. Frequent-attenders are also more likely than the never-attenders to volunteer for school and youth programs (36% v 15%), a neighbourhood or civic group (26% v 13%), and for healthcare (21% v 13%) ... The "religious edge" holds up for organised forms of community involvement: membership in organisations, working to solve community problems, attending local meetings, voting in local elections, and working for social or political reform."
The role of Christians in their communities
Motivated by a love of neighbour, Christians will be keen to take any new opportunities that arise to play a greater role in their communities as a result of the big society – not just volunteering, but also starting new social enterprises and bringing biblical principles and social transformation agendas to business. However, to quote the Jubilee Centre report, there is a continuing question "of how much people will want to engage with big society initiatives if there is no direct and obvious benefit to themselves".
Even the government admits that its big society ambitions are highly unlikely to succeed without the help of faith groups – not least because more people do unpaid work for church groups than any other organisation. For example, Lady Warsi has called for "a new beginning for relations between society, faith and the state", while the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, has acknowledged that, in realising its ambitions for a big society, central government needs to "build on the huge amount of experience faith groups have in getting out into the community", and promised to send "an important signal that we value the role of religion and faith in public life", for "the days of the state trying to suppress Christianity and other faiths are over".
In one of the prime minister's clearest statements defining the government's programme, David Cameron said: "The big society is about a huge culture change where people ... feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities." Yet it seems they are still not taking the action necessary to guarantee our freedoms.
So, in recent years, we've seen cases such as the supply teacher Olive Jones, suspended after offering to pray for a sick pupil; the community nurse Caroline Petrie, suspended for offering to pray for a housebound patient's recovery; and the school receptionist Jennie Cain, suspended over a private email asking friends at church for prayer after her daughter apparently came home in tears, having been reprimanded by a teacher for talking to another pupil about heaven, God and Jesus.
When even the atheist historian David Starkey is expressing "profound doubts" over what he recently described on Question Time as the arrival of "a tyrannous new morality that is every bit as oppressive as the old", we would be wise to take heed. For if people of faith retreat from the public square because they feel intimidated by political correctness and restrictive human rights legislation, it will be more than just our freedoms of expression, conscience and religion under threat.
Unless the coalition resolves the current tension over equality and human rights, and ensures that people enjoy sufficient freedom of conscience to be truly able to "help themselves and their own communities", then whatever other steps the government takes to achieve its big society ambitions will fail.