Are smears and misinformation the best secularists have to offer?

Poppy Project Salvation ArmySince I wrote a few days ago on the now notorious Cameron/’Christian country’ bashing letter by 55 secularists last Monday, there have continued to be a few notable responses. Justin Welby’s has possibly been both the most amusing and cutting:

‘Judging by the reaction, anyone would think that [David Cameron and others] had at the same time suggested the return of the Inquisition (complete with comfy chairs for Monty Python fans), compulsory church going and universal tithes.’

Perhaps this is the problem: In order to give the impression that their argument is the most valid, certain secularists and their organisations do appear to have a habit of overstating their point and kicking up a disproportionate fuss in order to discredit those they disagree with. On Wednesday eight leading thinkers and philosophers wrote a pertinent letter to the Telegraph challenging the 55 secularists’ approach:

According to the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey, 67 per cent of us described ourselves as either “religious” or “fuzzy faithful” and only 33 per cent as “unreligious”.

It is understandable that convinced atheists will find this situation irritating. But a public orthodoxy of some kind is inevitable, and some citizens are bound to find themselves on the wrong side of it and required to exercise liberal tolerance toward it. It remains open to them, of course, to persuade their fellow citizens that there is a better alternative.

Can we be persuaded that there is a better alternative that seeks to rewrite our country’s history ignoring much of our Christian heritage? And can we be persuaded that our country would be a better place if Christians stopped doing so much in the public realm for the benefit of others? On the same day as this challenge was made, one of the signatories to Monday’s letter wrote an article that was also published in the Telegraph coincidentally tackling this head on.

Joan Smith, the novelist, journalist and Labour Party activist is also an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and ‘Distinguished Supporter’ of the British Humanist Association (BHA). In her piece for the Telegraph, she decided to take on David Cameron by claiming that his pro-Christian language ‘could hurt thousands of British women’. She openly believes that Christian groups should never have access to public funds in order to support any community work that they do. Her line of thinking focuses in on the Government decision in 2011 to award the contract for looking after victims of sex-trafficking to the Salvation Army. Prior to that the work had been carried out by an organisation called the Poppy Project. This is her complaint:

‘[T}he Poppy Project received government funding for the fantastic work it carried out with women who had been rescued from sex-trafficking gangs; many of these women were deeply traumatised and suffering from STDs, and some had become pregnant against their will. Between 2003 and 2011, Poppy received almost 1,900 referrals, housed 334 women and supported another 449. Its work in the field received international recognition.

‘In 2011, the government cut its funding to the Poppy Project. It awarded the contract for looking after victims of sex-trafficking to the Salvation Army, an evangelical Christian organisation whose stated purpose is ‘helping individuals to develop and grow in their personal relationship with God’. I doubt whether this is a top priority for women rescued from months or years of sexual violence, some of whom may belong to other religions. It’s also worth pointing out that the Salvation Army opposes abortion except in cases of foetal abnormality or where the mother’s life is at stake.

‘This is just one example of public funds being diverted from a secular provider to a Christian organisation… In the rarefied atmosphere of Downing Street, promising to give Christian organisations privileged access to ministers and public funds may sound benign. But the impact on women and girls, in the real world, may turn out to be dire.’

At the time of the contract renewal there was a fuss kicked up about the switch in providers. This is the Church Mouse’s blog entry from three years ago that investigated it in more detail:

It has been in the news this week that the Salvation Army were given grant funding by the government to provide services to the victims of human trafficking.  This provoked a response from secularist groups, who have expressed concern that this funding was being diverted from a secular group who had previously benefited from this funding, and that the Salvation Army would use the opportunity to evangelise to vulnerable people.  They accused the government of an ideological move to include religious groups in the provision of services more.

When Mouse first read the story on the British Humanist Website, he guessed that there may be more to the story than they were discussing. He was dead right. The Poppy Project is a feminist organisation with a political campaigning arm as well as a charitable services arm.  In the past they have drawn some criticism.  It is run by Eaves Housing and has been in the news before – rarely for the right reasons. The service provided by the Poppy Project has been criticised by groups representing sex workers.  Notably, in 2009 Cari Mitchell from the English Collective of Prostitutes wrote to the Guardian arguing that the Poppy Project’s approach, which insists on sex workers not only turning their back on their trade but also on shopping their former pimp, put women in danger when brothels are closed and they are thrown on the streets.  They also accused the Poppy Project of inflating the number of trafficked sex workers to attract more funding. This suspicion had been very publicly aired the previous year after the Poppy Project published a high profile report on the growth of trafficked sex workers, only for it to be heavily criticised by 27 leading academics in this field who publicly stated that the report was fatally flawed, and the evidence gained in unethical and unreliable ways. Most recently, however, the head of the Eaves charity which runs the Poppy Project, Denise Marshall,  publicly set herself up in opposition to the government.  She started off by giving back her OBE to protest at government cuts, and splashing this in the Guardian. Marshall told the Guardian in that interview that she was refusing to tender for the contract, as the government was asking for a lower cost service.

She has declined to submit a tender to provide services at a radically reduced level, and has pulled out of tendering to continue to provide refuge services in Kensington and Chelsea, west London, at similarly reduced rates.

“I’m not prepared to bid for a service that did not enable women to get the quality of service that is essential,” she said. “If you run a refuge where you don’t have the support staff it just becomes a production line, where you move people on as quickly as possible to meet the targets. You’re not helping women to escape the broader problems they face. They may get a bed, but no help with changing their lives and moving out of situations of danger.”

However, the Poppy Project successfully lobbied for the terms of the tender to change, and were eventually happy enough to take part in the tender.

Denise Marshall then took further steps to endear herself to the coalition government by speaking at the March For The Alternative demonstration against government spending cuts, and denouncing them as immoral. So the next question is whether we trust the Salvation Army to provide housing services to trafficked men and women (one of the interesting points about the Salvation Army’s bid is that unlike the Poppy Project, they were prepared to work with trafficked men as well as women). Will they seek to take advantage of their position in providing these services to evangelise to people at the point of their greatest vulnerability?

Well we should have plenty of evidence for this, as the Salvation Army is an organisation which has provided similar services to the poor and needy around the world since their formation in 1865.

Backing up their claim that the Salvation Army can’t be trusted, the BHA quoted the Salvation Army who said that they cannot be “religiously neutral”.  Mouse does not think this means what the BHA think it means.  It just means that they won’t and can’t forget that they are Christians as they do their work.

If the concern around the Salvation Army is simply that Christians might seek to evangelise as they go about their work, then the logical extension of that argument is simply to ban all Christians from all public service provision.  The BHA insist that legislation is required to prohibit evangelism whilst providing public services.  Targeting Christians for legislation in this way is not necessary, however.  If they pressurise people to follow their religion, then they can be disciplined already, as we have repeatedly seen overzealously applied in areas such as health care.  The concern at the moment is more that they will be sacked simply for mentioning they are a Christian, rather than anything else. Mouse, for one, trusts the Salvation Army, and wishes them well as they embark on this important work.

The BHA’s claims against the Salvation Army all sound rather familiar, don’t they? Three years into the Salvation Army’s contract and I can find no evidence of any recorded complaints against the Salvation Army in this area, yet this baseless accusation that they are simply not suitable is still being promulgated. It is nothing more than a smear campaign using underhand tactics that irresponsibly and deliberately stirs prejudice and seeks to mislead.

At least the Salvation Army have had the sense to respond and put the record straight:

‘[W}e {are} able to support female and male victims of trafficking (around 40 per cent of the victims of trafficking are male), whilst the organisation who previously held the contract only cared for women.

‘”To deliver this contract we work with partner organisations – some faith-based, others not, and we respect and support everyone who comes to us no matter what their background or religion. Our positional statements, such as the one referred to on abortion, are ethical guidelines for our church members and we do not impose these views on those we serve.”‘

Back in February of last year the left-leaning think tank, Demos published a report entitled ‘Faithful Providers‘ which looked into the effectiveness of voluntary services provided by faith groups. The summary stated that:

‘[F]aith-based providers appear to be especially effective at delivering services when a ‘holistic’ approach is valued: when service users need to be treated as human beings, with patience, empathy and attention to a wide range of aspects in their lives.

‘Critics often argue that faith-based service providers are more interested in delivering faith than delivering services, and exclusively serve members of their own faith community.  Yet, we saw no evidence of aggressive proselytising, and every organisation we spoke to delivered services to a wide-range of citizens, of no faith and different faiths – in accordance with their public service ethos.’

The Salvation Army along with many other Christian organisations have a rich and distinguished history of working with the most vulnerable in society doing a huge amount of good along the way, but for some vocal secularists this should count for nothing, because it is motivated by faith. If the only method they have to convince us that religion is a threat is by publicly spreading misinformation and presenting straw man arguments, then surely that reveals the vacuousness of their position and what they have to offer.

If I was a supporter of secularism, I would be utterly ashamed by this line of attack. If organisations such as the BHA want to be respected they need to clean up their act and work a great deal harder to present something credible and positive, rather than constantly working to destroy much that is inherently good and beneficial to all.

Categories: Atheism, Christian organisations, David Cameron, Slavery and trafficking

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15 replies

  1. Where in the BHA letter does it ask history to be re-written and our Christian heritage to be ignored?

  2. Not so. “Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action…”

  3. The meaning is pretty clear to me.

  4. Nice article. Ta.

  5. Good, well researched and resourced article. However you might like to consider whether the logical response to Christians being banned from such endeavours ought to be a demand for avowedly humanist and feminist organisations to be similarly barred since they clearly can equally be accused of having an ideology to propagate via their ‘mission work’.

  6. A commendable summary of the recent debate Gillan. Imho, the antagonism as above and from elsewhere is simply symptomatic of a spiritual malaise with secular humanism. Nothing has changed since your blog of 24 July 2013 on the difference between good and bad secularism, and David McIlroy’s excellent Theos paper ‘Is Secular Law Possible’ in particular.

    That malaise highlights the real issue: intolerant totalitarianism rampant within Britain.

    As an example I only need to cite the latest case. Nursery nurse Sarah Mbuyi’s dismissal on grounds of ‘gross misconduct’ – not for unprofessionalism but because her personal opinion was unacceptable to a colleague!! Such idiocy is totally unacceptable. Thus, what you write above, “The concern at the moment is more that they will be sacked simply for mentioning they are a Christian, rather than anything else” is already happening!

    Decent people of whatever persuasion need to stand up and shout “Enough is enough!” and demand a return to proper British rationality in every area of national life. Perhaps the PM should ’put his money where his mouth is’ and get the nonsense within secular law rectified?

    • Well, as I say on my own blog post on the Mbuyi’s case (see: ‘Wouldn’t it be just wonderful to hear some Christian had claimed unfair dismissal because they had challenged their employer about how it treated the poor, or the fatherless, or that it had defrauded employees out of their wages, mistreated foreigners, prisoners etc.’…(cf: Exodus 22:22 , Deut 10:18, 14:29, 24:17, 24:19 etc., Isaiah 1:17, 1:23, 10:2, Jeremiah 22:3, Ezekiel 22:7, Zechariah7:10, Malachi 3:5 – topics of Godly righteousness mentioned far more in the Bible than ambiguous verses on homosexuality). But no, that old chestnut of the rights of the Christians = the right to play judge and jury on the lives of others – mainly homos – is what is being sold as ‘biblical morality’.

      Odder still how ‘Ambulance Chasers for Jesus’ never point their Bible loving clients to other parts of the Bible – Jesus’ commandments concerning turning the other cheek, or when sued for one’s shirt to offer one’s cloak as well… To suffer for righteousness’ sake… But that would suggest Christians shouldn’t have a privileged position in society… And that would never do, would it?

  7. The problem is with such debates is that many who are chipping in their two’penneth’s worth don’t actually have any FIRSTHAND, FRONTLINE experience of the organisations they are talking about. That goes for secularists AND Christians. If they were to visit say a Salvation Army hostel – or Life Houses, as they are now called – they’d find little if any difference between it and say a secular charity like St Mungo’s. Very few Salvation Army officers work in many of their social work projects – a London hostel I used to have dealings with had 3 SA officers and around 50-60 frontline staff – belief wasn’t a requirement for their job, even though they did the hands on social care. SA hostels are to all intents and purposes contracted providers, charging local and central government around £400 a week per person (despite stating on the SA’s appeal advertising that a donation of £21 a week will keep someone in a hostel for a week). Many don’t use volunteers.

    In truth many large scale faith-based organisations could not exist if they wanted only believers working for them ( – and old chestnut here is to suggest the government makes them employ non-believers, this just victim mentality myth – the law clearly allows faith-based organisations to employ only believers if it so desires – Under Employer Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, Section 7, FBOs can restrict appointments to believers only by stating the post has a ‘Genuine Occupational Requirement to be a [believer]’.) Too few Christians want to actually work on the front line – so they pay others to do it for them, often using someone else’s money along the way.

    In some of the SA’s other projects – e.g. the back to work contracts, you’d be lucky to see ANY sign of difference with a secular agency.

    Many other ‘faith-based organisations’ follow a similar pattern. Livability (a merger of the John Groom’s and Shaftsbury Society) charges £1,400 a week to stay in one of its homes for people with physical disabilities (again, the taxpayer in some shape or form footing the bulk of the bill). A similar voluntary homes – say the Leonard Cheshire Homes, charge £950-£1,200 for the same care. I’ve worked for both organisations and can see no difference at a hands on level… Tho’ I preferred the ethos of the Leonard Cheshire – it didn’t sell itself as something it isn’t.

    My advice to both Christians and anti-faith-based welfare secularists is get off your backsides and go and see what these organisations actually do ON THE FRONT LINE. Many do good work – but to call it ‘faith in action’ is stretching it! Yet Christians lap it up – basking in the reflected glory of what the state and taxpayer funds and non-believers enact on their behalf – vicarious charity, done in religion’s name, but for many a Christian, there isn’t the inconvenience of having to mop up a drunk’s vomit or wipe a sh*tty arse (I’ve done both and have a knife scar on my hand from the delights of working with homeless people – I speak from considerable experience and have worked for three faith-based organisations – two Christian and one Jewish).

    The drivel I’ve heard on the subject of faith-based welfare drives me mad! Most people who talk authoritatively on the wonder of faith-based welfare have never actually worked on its front line…

    You might find the following makes interesting reading: – Johnsen the author is a Christian herself – but thankfully is able to be object about the limitations of Faith-Based

  8. P.S – re: my comment above re: Livability and the Leonard Cheshire Foundation – I should note that in the main Livability pays better. Livability pays £7.41 p/h (non-NVQII) and £7.76 NVQ II level – whereas LCF pays little more than the minimum wage £6.31 p/h to £7.19 p/h – these are generous wages when it comes to those who look after our sick and disabled. Whereas as a nation we’re happy for someone to be paid £200,000 a WEEK for kicking a bladder of air around a field…

    • Thank you for bringing so much insight into this.I recently spent some time at your blog and it provides some very clear thinking that is challenging to Christians (and secularists). In my experience Christian organisations often have faith in the background, more at management level and through ethos. Demos wrote this in the report I mentioned in the post:

      And yet for these organisations, as well as many others we profiled, religion remains firmly in the background: never advertised or discussed with those using the service – particularly young people – unless they are themselves religious or express curiosity. The only place where faith is apparent is in the language of duty, caring and responsibility.’

      Sometimes it is difficult to keep an overarching ‘Christian’ approach to this sort of work. Probably the charity I know who manage this best are Christians Against Poverty who are explicitly Christian although working with anyone who comes to them. Some organisations have started off in this fashion and it has gradually been watered down over time, whether deliberately or otherwise. A lot of will have to do as you say whether those on the ground share in the faith that the organisation advocates and whether this is considered in any way an important element of what they do.

  9. Thanks for the reply.

    The problem is that many faith based organisations (FBOs) follow a similar pattern to that of any group begun by a charismatic leader. Many FBOs are founded by charismatic individuals – however charismatic leadership can’t last very long… It either spirals out of control and ends in catastrophe (e.g. Jonestown, Waco etc.) or is institutionalised and bureaucratised. This is what happens in many FBOs. The original work loses its spontaneity. If we look at an organisation like St George’s Crypt in Leeds, it was started in the 1930s by Revd Don Robbins (I think… a scan of my book shelves hasn’t found a book I have on it – our cleaner can be over zealous in tidying up after me!) to provide support for men in the depression. Now it provides support for street homeless, marginalised people and immigrants – it has a paid staff team and despite (as can be seen in this clip the idea the church has an intimate connection with the Crypt, in reality this isn’t the case (I used to work for the Crypt… and I was a member of St G’s for four years too – volunteers from the church were few and far between).

    And this is the fate of many FBOs, they often become divorced from their founding faith community, but what is interesting, is that the faith-community still laps up the association with the FBO – often using it as self-validation and social presence, when in reality, few in the pews will have much involvement. Salvation Army hostels, Livability residential homes etc. all ‘push’ their Christian credentials and faith communities bask in the reflected glory of other people’s work, but in reality, it is mainly charity by proxy – as I argue, a product that can be purchased – and a product hugely subsidised by the taxpayer in many instances.

    What I really enjoyed in my research was working with a church project that provides support via the church – it does have paid staff, but they have to be from the contingent faith community and volunteers have to come from the church. I suspect within a generation such a venture will either fail or transform into a FBO, with a paid staff team and the distance between church and FBO growing as time passes.

    As noted in my previous comment, the problem is that many believers – and wider society – have preconceived ideas about faith-based welfare and organisations that are never challenged because they don’t get their own hands dirty. Too few Christians do the hands on work. Moreover faith-based organisations are also very savvy when it comes to ‘image’ production. e.g. I was once asked to speak on Premier Christian Radio about the Christian witness of the residential home I managed for a large faith-based charity (out of the charity’s 22 homes only two of the homes’ managers were practicing Christians… I being one at the time). I wrote out speech and faxed it (this was the days before e-mail) over to the charity’s PR department – the speeh talked about the notion of Christian service. I was told it wouldn’t do and that instead I would take part in a question and answer session – on stage at Westminster Chapel – a ‘tame’ minister would ask me questions on the work of the residential home: I was faxed over the ‘answers’ that I would give.

    I noted to the PR department that many of the answers were just untrue. The staff team wasn’t ‘a witness of the love of Jesus’ – in fact as a manager, I found non-Christian staff far easier to work with – they didn’t try and impose their worldview on vulnerable people, nor did they get huffy if they weren’t patted on the back every five minutes – nor did they see themselves as being an authority on caring. I was to tell the listening public about the surrogate ‘Christian family’ that existed in the residential home etc. etc. When I noted that at the time we were charging the local authority up to £725 a week (when the economic cost was £490 a week – in 1996) to pay for the care of a disabled person – and that disabled person her/himself, surrendered all their benefits, save £15 a week personal allowance to pay for the care; that non-Christians were the majority of the staff team; many of the residents had no interest in religion and religion played no more a part in the day to day life of the home than any other residential home, I was told my services weren’t needed in the broadcast. The head of PR said to me: ‘We’re paying good money for this radio slot and we want Christians to donate.’ I noted the PR department was bearing false witness – they didn’t reply to this criticism.

    At the same home, I’d had to suspend a member of staff in the first week (one of the more vocal Christian staff) for slapping a resident and I dismissed another member of staff (a non-Christian) who I learned was a convicted paedophile – the charity’s slipshod HR processes hadn’t picked this up (now all staff have to have a CRB). The home at the time scored as ‘Poor’ in its inspection reports – when I left, two years later, it score ‘good’ and went on to score ‘excellent’.

    But such things as ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are of no interest to a PR department – and it is fair to say they gear their PR to say what Christians want to hear.

    I will stress here that the charity ran (and runs) very good homes – but no better or worse than other providers of residential care. It also charges the higher end of the market rate – there is nothing ‘charitable’ when it comes to its costs for care!

    So I would caution care is needed when offering up vicarious charity, as examples of the ‘good’ Christians do in the world. As I’ve said elsewhere, remember the philanthropy of inspirational figures of the 19th century (Lord Shaftsbury, William Booth, John Groom, Dr Barnardo etc.) where challenging a society that at the time called itself ‘Christian’ – and was far, far more Christian than our society now. Today, much that is claimed to be ‘Christian’ in terms of large scale faith-based projects (including schools) don’t actually have much of a hands on Christian presence and couldn’t exist at the size it does without the taxpayer, political will and more importantly, the ignorance of Christians when it comes to the actual front-line work of many of these organisations.

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