Are Christians really more hostile to benefit claimants than their bishops?

Welfare BenefitsOne of the most important lessons I’ve learnt the hard way about blogging is that the content of an article is not the most important part. What will usually make or break it are the few little words at the top in big letters. Get a headline wrong and no matter how good the content is, you’ll struggle to grab people’s attention and they’ll never find out what all that time and effort spent writing was all about. However if the headline sucks readers in, curious to find out more, you can be on to a winner.

In our papers’ newsrooms it will be a sub-editor, rather than the author who has the job of writing a headline that will catch a potential reader’s eye. I always try to make sure my headlines reflect the content of my blog posts, but sometimes you’re left wondering if a sub has understood the implications of the words they’ve chosen or paid much attention to the content of an article. I had one of those moments on Monday night. The Guardian was running an article with the headline: ‘Christians less generous than their clergy and everyone else’. I immediately fell into the sub’s trap, already beginning to get wound up as I clicked on the link trying to imagine how Christians could be perceived as less generous than the general population when giving is such an integral part of the Christian faith.

As I started reading the subheading it didn’t get any better. It went: ‘Christian thinktank finds widespread evidence that church-goers are hostile to benefits claimants’. Once I got going on Andrew Brown’s piece I realised that both of these statements were spurious at best. It was immediately obvious that the article, which focused on the results of two recent polls on attitudes to welfare, failed to fully back these claims up.

For once, the Guardian later admitted this to be the case after a challenge from the think tank, Theos who had commissioned one of the polls. In response it has subsequently changed both headline and subheading, toning them down and removing the unjustified claim that Christians are less generous than others. I suspect that part of the problem is that it was one of those articles where a range of statistics were used liberally to produce certain conclusions that some of which made less sense than others.  Unfortunately without going back to the raw data it’s hard to establish where the truth lies. Few of us would ever make the effort to do this, but on this occasion I chose to do just that.

I’m not picking out this article because I have anything against the Guardian or Andrew Brown, but because there has been so much misinformation and ill-informed comment over the last week or so around the bishops’ intervention on food poverty. This piece falls into the same category, adding to the confusion and complications. If we’re going to get anywhere beyond name calling and defensive knee-jerk reactions, some of us need to try to shine some light through the fog.

In his article, Andrew Brown refers to a new poll by Theos which allegedly reveals that ordinary Christians are at odds with the bishops over welfare because the research suggests that large numbers believe spending on social security should be reduced:

‘Theos… found a widespread belief among those surveyed that the poor are to blame for the perceived woes of the welfare system, putting ordinary Christians at odds with bishops who have been protesting about the effect of government cuts. The report said that 90% of the 2,000 people surveyed believed the welfare state was facing severe problems, slightly higher than the proportion of the general public, at 87%.’

Has anyone been listening to what the Bishops have actually said? When (now Cardinal) Vincent Nichols caused this whole frenzy to kick off several days ago, the first thing he said was: “People do understand that we do need to tighten our belts and be much more responsible and careful in public expenditure.” The End Hunger Fast letter that the 27 bishops signed only made a brief reference to the reduction in welfare spending, after which they called on the Government to act to investigate failing food markets, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger. Back in March of last year when the bishops took on the government over the effects of welfare cuts on children the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby wrote this:

‘[Iain Duncan Smith] is introducing one of the biggest and most thorough reforms of a system that most people admit is shot full of holes, wrong incentives, and incredible complexity… Having met him, I am absolutely convinced he is trying to do something that he knows more about than most – and with the best possible motives. But, with a number of other Bishops (and we tend to live in, or have lived in, or have clergy living in, the most affected parts of our country), I feel that the particular way the burden is being shared is wrong… This is not a great, grand political gesture, but a reasoned questioning of something that a lot of people are concerned about. It is not me saying the government is evil (I am much less cynical than many about politicians of all sides), but that I don’t agree on this particular bit of a programme which in general is incredibly brave.’

So to believe that welfare spending should be reduced isn’t automatically going against what has been said by the church leaders. The question was actually asked in a poll conducted by Professor Linda Woodhead on behalf of Westminster Faith Debates who is referred to later in the article. The numbers reveal that around half of the Christians surveyed wanted to see the welfare budget reduced compared to 46 per cent of respondents in total, although Catholics were very slightly lower than this average. Christians were also more likely to believe that the welfare system has created a culture of dependency according to Woodhead’s poll.

The numbers from Theos do find that 90 per cent of Christians consider the welfare state to be facing severe problems compared to 87 per cent of all those polled, but 3 per cent is not a significant difference. It also has to be recognised that the question is only asking for an opinion on the state of the system, not whether the system itself is bad or flawed or whether those who claim are deserving. In a similar way, wanting to see record levels of spending on welfare lowered or believing that Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency, which enough experts would not disagree with, does not give good reason to infer that you are hostile towards those living on benefits. There is just as much evidence to imply that Christians have a better understanding of the issues relating to welfare and are keen to see it continue in a sustainable manner over the long-term. This may or may not be the case too, but without asking direct questions about whether someone feels a level of hostility towards those on benefits there will not be a definitive answer.

The real problem with this article and so many others that have been accusing the bishops of being too left-wing and out of touch with both their churches and wider society, is that for the sake of a good news story or some political manoeuvring, the heart of the issue is being pushed into the background. The bishops may not be approaching the issue of food poverty using exactly the same language that the average person who identifies themselves as Anglican might, but they are not there to represent a constituency or a majority. Instead by signing this letter they have sought to draw attention to the struggles that many who have sought help from foodbanks are facing. If unelected newspapers are more than willing to tell the Government how to run its business, what makes a few bishops sharing their concerns any worse?

There are hundreds of thousands of people who have accessed foodbanks over the last year who probably have little interest in a letter that a group of bishops have signed. Some may be thankful though, for the churches and Christian volunteers who have helped them to put food on their tables. Politicians, newspapers and church leaders arguing over the morality of this situation is of no consequence to these recipients unless something changes as a result. As Lord Carey put it in the Times on Tuesday: ‘There remain urgent questions about governance, spending and subsidiarity that are simply not being addressed. It is better for politicians, church leaders and others to address these questions together and avoid false ideological divisions.’

Cardinal Nichols and the bishops have made their point. The Government would do well to take the time to listen to them some more and be willing to draw on their resources and the experiences of their own churches in order to seek to provide a welfare system that is not just based on what we can afford, but – in David Cameron’s own words – ‘is also about doing what is right.’



Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Church, Social action

Tags: , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I wonder how many of the 90% of Christians, and 87% of all respondents, who “consider the welfare state to be facing severe problems” would hold that those severe problems are completely or largely the result of the present government messing around with a system which, in their opinion, was previously working well. It would certainly be wrong to conclude from these figures that there is broad support for what Cameron, Clegg and friends are currently doing.

  2. As with any good article or post, the above has wider implications than those of poverty or what Christians think or how they act or their political perspectives. What I gained from the above is a greater sense of the curious paradox at the heart of much comment on contemporary Christianity. It can be seen as yet another example of how we like our opinions pre-packed and ready to wear. ‘Christian’ = a prescribed set of beliefs, actions, perspectives and political views. But this should come as no surprise, since in a goodly portion of Christian media ‘liberalism’ or ‘homosexuality’ or ‘medicine’ etc. are phenomena treated with the same contempt.

    Christianity is seen from certain media perspectives (not least from much Christian media and pressure groups) as a monolith, without variation of opinion; one voice, the voice of all. I say this is a paradox because of course for centuries (and in the present) groups of Christians have spent (and do spend) a good deal of time and effort saying just how different they are from other Christians – and in particular how other Christians have got it ‘wrong’ and they have got it ‘right’. In reality there is no such grouping as ‘Christian’: ‘Christian’ is actually a nebulous appellation and means different things to different people and moreover Christianity is manifested and understood in diverse ways at different points in history and in different cultures.

    I would suggest a telling example of this is probably linked to different experiences of clergy. Cardinal Nichols notes that a proportion of his (that is RC clergy) see firsthand the effects of deprivation etc. Which I suspect is because a disproportionate number of RC clergy are to be found in poorer areas – although there are Anglican and other denominations found in pockets of deprivation, I would suggest a larger proportion of RC clergy are to be found in marginalised communities. This allows them a different world view.

    After the 2011 riots I noted that there was much posted from some of our more vocal reactionary Right Christian bloggers. Many of these were Evangelical or conservative Christians. Their target of opprobrium was ‘liberalism’ and ‘break down of the family’ – what they suggested was far more Christianity in society (forgetting that in London at least, a disproportionate number of rioters were from black backgrounds: the very groups where there is a still a good deal of conservative Christian congregational practice – yet oddly enough it is these ethnic groups (Afro-Caribbean and African) with the highest incidences of lone-parent families and teen pregnancy and crime (but this is not atypical of conservative Christian societies…)). I looked up the addresses of many of the Anglican conservative Christians writing on the topic of the riots (mainly Evangelical) in Crockfords and was not surprised to learn (checking their postcodes again ACORN classification (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ACORN_(demographics)) that all of them lived and ministered not in areas of deprivation, but in leafy suburbs of affluence – ministering to the ‘haves’ of the society, yet oh so wise when it came to how to deal with the ‘have nots’.

    The above example tells us that it is not just the perspective of ‘Christians’ that need to be taken into account with any comment on social policy, but also their view point. It is easy (and not without an element of self-interest) to preach on the woes of Britain from the comforts of suburbia or write a damning sermon or blog post from the comfort of a Des Res vicarage in the heart of a plump, middle-class community. Yet these proscriptive souls would have more credibility if they actually got their hands dirty – which very view appeared to do!

    I was invited to an event organised by Theos and held at the Houses of Parliament a few years ago and I was struck by how many of those joining in the discussion saw the welfare state as something that other people benefited from – many of the audience were middle-aged and seemed to forget that it was the welfare state that had paid for their education. Many forgot that it was the welfare state that paid for their health care. I heard much about the wonders of ‘faith-based social welfare organisations’ – yet again, many seemed ignorant of the fact that many of our large faith-based organisations couldn’t exist at their present size and scope of work (which to be fair is miniscule in terms of general welfare provision in the UK) if it were not for the welfare state footing most of the bill. Of course, in truth, the vast bulk of welfare spending goes on the 65+ group of society, but for a good number in the Theos audience, their focus was on sink estates and single-mothers (though I doubt many had actually stepped foot on a council estate!).

    I am all for a major shake up of the welfare state – benefits should be earned, not seen as a right (with the exception of the profoundly disabled). But I don’t really think it is a matter for Bishops or Christians per se to stick their nose into it. Although some like to think otherwise, they don’t have any special knowledge or ability in the field of welfare. The welfare state was not a Christian invention – indeed when the churches were full and the Bible well know, the lot of the poor was far worse than it is now – which tells us all we need to know really! The real problem is a certain flavour of Christian has a habit of thinking they know best – and it is in society’s best interest to avoid giving these self-magnifying (and self-interested) souls a platform.

  3. Thanks for pressing this point Gillian. I took a look at Linda Woodhead’s data in the original. There were two responses to “which of these is *closest* to your opinion followed by two statements that were poles apart. This doesn’t come from Linda’s excellent academic work but rather is a primer for a debating society she runs in London. Just as there are “statistics” and “statistics” so there is “research” and “research”.

  4. To illustrate the danger with headlines, this one could mean it was being alleged that Christians were more hostile to benefits claimants than to their bishops. Perish the thought!

    Certainly you’ve done a good job of unpicking the Guardian’s interpretation of the research. After all, those who think the benefits system faces serious problems will include many whose view is that it’s underfunded and therefore overstretched.

    But ultimately, is there a problem if religious leaders don’t precisely reflect the views of the totality of “believers”? Consider the following possible headline: “BISHOPS LESS RACIST THAN BELIEVERS” (say only 1% of them can be categorised as racist compared to say 5% of their followers). Or consider MPs. An MP may choose to take a brave, considered stand on something where (s)he knows the majority view is different. My impression is that most people wouldn’t want that to stop – though of course political leaders can be simultaneously attacked for not going with the majority view and for cynically doing whatever will get the most votes. In other words, leaders shouldn’t get out of touch, but they should lead.

    I agree that the implication that Christians were more judgmental about claimants than the general population would be altogether more serious.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful blog. Another interesting case is with The Independent which seems to take such an anti-clerical line that it ties itself up in knots trying to praise the bishops for speaking up for the food poverty issue and at the same time castigating them for thinking they still have any right to speak up in this liberal secular society.

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