Today, we launch the first in our three report series investigating religion in society in the 21st century. Faithful Citizens shows that religious citizens are more likely to volunteer and to be politically engaged. However, we also found that they were more likely to hold left-wing or progressive opinions on key social questions around equality and immigration.
One of the most consistent findings in social science research is the positive association between being an active religious practitioner and being more likely to volunteer and be civically engaged. The majority of this research is from the United States, which has a very different and unique religious and social context. At Demos, we were interested in whether the same thing could be said for the UK. And in short, it can. Religious citizens in the UK are more likely to volunteer on a range of issues, to describe themselves as very interested in politics and to be politically active, such as attending lawful demonstrations.
We also wanted to explore what kinds of issues religious citizens are most concerned about, and where they consider themselves to be on the political spectrum. What we found was that – contrary to common assumptions – religious people in the UK hold progressive views on a number of issues. They were more likely to prioritise equality over freedom and to have positive associations toward immigrants and foreign migrants. They were also more likely to place themselves on the left side of the political spectrum.
Of course, most people do not fit neatly under one political label. It is doubtful that religious citizens are more likely to hold left-wing views on every political and social issue. Religious citizens are probably more likely to conservative in so far as they value tradition and institutions, and stress ‘traditional family values’. But they are also more likely to have compassion for the socially marginalised and economically excluded, and to volunteer their time in addressing these issues. This makes them important allies for social democratic parties on the left. In a time of increasing social inequality and public austerity, politicians on the left can find allies within all faith groups who are concerned about rising inequality.
Yet too often the political left is uncomfortable with religion, and sometimes openly hostile when it becomes associated with the kind of atheism proposed by Richard Dawkins. As our report shows, this shouldn’t be the case.
In the US the Republican Party has become synonymous and increasingly dominated by religious evangelicals. According to social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs, this association between religion and right wing politics is exacerbating religion’s decline among younger generations who are put off by the politicisation of religion and right wing political views.
In the UK, the situation is very different and progressive politicians should capitalise on that difference. To be sure, questions around abortion and homosexuality are still hotly debated in the UK. But the so-called ‘culture wars’ that define the US are largely absent. This leaves more space for what religious institutions can be particularly effective at – campaigning on behalf of and supporting those on the vulnerable edges of society. Although on the whole it is in decline, religion remains important to a diverse range of citizens, and so it must to politicians. Our report suggests that people of faith are likely to be a vital base of support for any future election-winning progressive coalition.