Has religion got a monopoly on the silly season?
First there was the Anglican farce over gay bishops; then the Pope's edict against samesex unions; and, finally, at the beginning of August, the revelation that the Government has set up a highlevel committee to promote the involvement of faith groups in policymaking in Britain. One can readily dismiss the first two as predictable examples of outdated moral values: shameful to behold, but largely meaningless to the majority of the population including most grassroots Christians. But the government's efforts to give faith groups a special lobby, allowing them to leapfrog the usual democratic channels and gain direct access to the heart of Whitehall, is a much more serious matter: something to set the alarm bells ringing.
The religious steering group, convened by Home Office Minister for Race Equality, Community Policy and Civic Renewal, Fiona Mactaggart, comprises seven Labour MPs, one member of the Local Government Association, a Downing Street representative and ten 'faith leaders'.
Its official brief is to "consider the most effective means of achieving greater involvement of the faith communities in policymaking and delivery across Whitehall". It will, in other words, seek to improve ways in which faith groups can influence policymakers.
The criteria for membership of this group are nebulous. According to a government spokesman, "members of the steering group were selected in discussion between the Home Office, other departments and No.10, with advice from the faith communities." No democratic procedure there then. Secular groups such as the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS) have complained vigorously about their exclusion from the group.
Mactaggart has promised both organisations meetings at which they will be allowed to air their views, but neither has been offered equal access to key policymakers. It seems that some groups are more equal than others in the eyes of the government's equality envoy.
The government will argue that this is not the first time faith groups have been consulted: on a local level, dialogue has been taking place for a while. The justification is that "for many people, their faith determines the way they conduct their lives and the values they hold." Further, "places of worship and faithbased organisations are engaged in a huge range of voluntary activities that benefit the wider community."
This is the crux of the matter: Blair and Mactaggart are keen to harness faith groups' potential for social action. On the face of it, this is understandable.
Faith groups have proved that they are able to deliver certain services more efficiently than state organisations or NGOs, particularly in the field of homelessness and social exclusion.
But their success rests partly on evangelical zeal and unpaid labour, areas in which proselytising fringe groups have an advantage over established organisations employing wellqualified professionals. The risk here is that public funds and official approval will be used for missionary work as well as social work among the very vulnerable and excluded members of society who are the object of these programmes.
In return for providing core services which the government has otherwise failed to deliver, religious lobbyists will get a hotline to the top of Whitehall, and their projects will receive funding to the tune of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Do we really want social work or no social work to give such privileged access to a steering committee which includes among its members people like Joel Edwards of the Evangelical Alliance who has come out vehemently against the appointment of gay bishops?
The filmmaker John McCarthy, who has just completed a television series, Faultlines, on the role religion plays in politics around the world, said in a recent interview: "When politicians get hold of a sense of superiority because of their faith and then try to use it to get power, that's worrying. Politicians become dirtier and religious people lose out." And not just religious people. What started out as an attempt to fight social exclusion might well turn out to increase discrimination.
In effect, the government is encouraging the institution of minority groups in which subscription to a certain faith is the basis for access to jobs, money and services. Would a Muslim, an atheist and an evangelical Christian be treated equally in an Islamic hospital, for example?
If Blair really wants government for the many, not the few, he will have to take into account the opinions of the vast majority of people in this country, who do not place faith or worship at the centre of their lives.
Otherwise, his genuine aim of reaching out to the excluded will merely create new forms of social and political exclusion.