Why the Charity Commission Should Support Religious Groups

by Mal Fletcher

2020Plus.net : : Social Comment : : Leadership Innovation

Last week, I sent a text message to a friend in St Louis. I was appalled by what I was seeing on TV, as a super-storm with the innocuous name of Sandy pounded American’s east coast.

I simply asked whether my friend was involved in the relief effort. Immediately, I received a reply: ‘We’re already strategising about responses to the east coast.’

My friend, Jeff, is the founder and director of an NGO called Service International, which has brought practical relief to thousands of people in the wake of several disasters, including Hurricane Katrina. As it happens, he is also the pastor of a large and respected church. Whilst they don’t constitute a ‘mega-church’ in the manner of some American churches, members of his congregation are hugely supportive of the NGO’s work.

Published on the Kindle platform on November 30th 2012

Jeff’s story is typical of the common juxtaposition between religious belief and works of charity. In America, religious groups often lead the way in promoting justice, aid and poverty relief. The same is true in other parts of the world – including Britain.

Over the past few days, it came to light that the Charity Commission has warned the Church of England and other churches that they may be denied charitable status. This, says the quango, is because it does not believe that promoting religion – any religion – necessarily promotes ‘the public good’.

For religious groups in this country, the Commission’s response may provide a valuable opportunity for reflection. Doubtless, there are some religious organisations that, having started with great intentions yet have, over time, turned inward, focusing on the needs of their members rather than those of the community they were set up to serve. This is easily remedied, however – perhaps especially among faith groups, whose members will often, in the cause of public service, go beyond the call of duty because they feel ‘called’ to do so.

That said, the Commission’s stance will also provide cause for concern – and not just for the many adherents of Britain’s religions. For a start, it seems to suggest a mindset that sees administration as an end in itself. It appears to be a case of administrators getting above themselves.

The tribunal is charged with defending the law as it relates to the registering of charities. But its mandate does not extend to ignoring long-held conventions when it comes to the definition of ‘the public good’.

Our history suggests that religious organisations often do the work that governments cannot – or will not – do.

Government is not, nor can it be, the answer to every problem. Behaving as if it is will only lead to higher levels of social fragmentation and an attitude in society of ‘every man for himself’.

It will also rob people of the rewards that come from taking responsibility for others. A great society is one in which people feel responsible for their fellows and local groups build alliances for the common good, while still being free to retain their particularities of belief.

At its best, government facilitates this type of activity, creating both proscriptive and protective laws to enable these groups to flourish. At its worst, government – through its ancillaries – blocks the way, by removing the links between public service and the personal beliefs that, for many people, provide a motive for action. Religious groups usually do community work because they are religious.

The Commission’s stance also seems to suggest a predilection toward secularism as a worldview. In response to an application from the Plymouth Brethren – a relatively small Christian group – a lawyer representing the tribunal wrote: ‘This decision [to deny charitable status] makes it clear that there was no presumption that religion generally ? is for the public benefit, even in the case of Christianity…’

In this country, history suggests otherwise. Whether one is religious or not, a cursory look at British history will reveal that religious groups have contributed much to the public good.

Doubtless, religion has also contributed to social conflicts of various kinds – especially when it has been co-opted by wily political forces, or has allowed itself to become too closely aligned with ultra-nationalism. Nevertheless, historians have long acknowledged the part that churchmen and women have played in fighting for unpopular causes and, in the process, raising public awareness and changing government policy.

Names like Wesley, Wilberforce, Muller, Livingstone, Booth and Nightingale represent just a very small sampling of the Brits who’ve influenced social policy and initiated far-reaching reforms, as a result of their religious cause.

This legacy continues today. A great many religious or faith-based organisations – Christian and otherwise – contribute to the welfare of people in their towns and cities, meeting material as well as emotional or spiritual needs. Some groups have invested heavily, for example, in helping to reduce the blight of modern slavery that is people trafficking.

Most of them do so without direct government funding or media coverage. As a social commentator and speaker, I have had the privilege of supporting many such groups in the community arm of their work. I never fail to be impressed by how much can be achieved by a group of dedicated people, who make up in passion what they lack in financial resources.

Recognising the importance of this grassroots level work, governments of all persuasions have, over the years, supported it by granting charitable status to religious organisations.

The Charities Act of 2011 lists the purposes a charity may serve if it is to qualify for this. Of the thirteen items in this list, the first three are: the prevention or relief of poverty; the advancement of education and the advancement of religion (which is broadly defined).

By definition, most religious organisations will automatically fulfil the third of these. Many are also involved in the second – and even more are working for the first. (More than a few are also involved with other items on the list, such as providing sporting or recreational facilities for the community.)

If the Charity Commission is of the view that promoting a religious belief is, in itself, deleterious to the public good, it is flying in the face of historical evidence to the contrary – at home and beyond.

If, as seems just as likely, its stance is based on promoting political correctness, it is hopelessly ill-advised. Attempts to promote social cohesion, by wiping out all cultural and religious distinctives within a community, represent PC of the worst kind.

At its root, political correctness is an attempt to solve by political means the challenges raised by rapid urbanisation and multiculturalism. It represents a misguided – though, sometimes, well-intentioned – attempt to enhance social inclusion by legislating courtesy and kindness, both of which are products of human decency, not the result of government diktats.

Those who advocate political correctness would, if they could, paint the entire community a drab shade of grey, wiping out differences of belief so that no one person’s views will threaten anybody else’s. In so doing, they seek to wipe out the points of tension that, if handled correctly, make urban life interesting and produce the greatest springboards for creativity.

Political correctness has only ever produced frustration, mainly because its petty rules tend to change like the wind, guided only by the subjective whims of those who set them. What’s more, political correctness is a recipe for cultural blandness and the ultimate expression of an attitude that says ‘only government knows what’s best’.

In the early days of his government, David Cameron made a lot of noise about the concept of the Big Society. His avowed intention was to encourage and empower individuals and community groups to initiate solutions to social problems, rather than relying on government to do so.

If Mr. Cameron is serious about being taken seriously, if he aspires to showing leadership rather than mere political management, he must match his walk to his Big Society talk.

He should encourage the Charities Commission to stop leaning on religious organisations. In Britain, faith-based groups provide the best examples of the Big Society ideal in action – and they have done so for a very long time…..THIS IS AN EXTRACT – CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL EDITORIAL…

Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2012. Used with kind permission

Mal Fletcher is a social commentator, broadcaster and author. His new book “Fascinating Times” is released on the Kindle platform on November 30. For more by Mal go to: http://2020plus.net

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