Faith, Public Policy and Civil Society: Policies, Problems and Concepts in Faith-Based Public Action

Dinham, Adam
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
2009
9780230573307 (hb)

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Cover of book The role of faith groups in the planning and delivery of public services will always be a political hot potato. Adam Dinham acknowledges such in this engaging book, where he presents the case for the involvement of faiths in public policy, while at the same time recognising opposition both within and outside of faith groups. Situating his argument in the re-emergence of faith groups in public policy rhetoric and reality, Dinham looks at how policy makers in the UK, US and Canada have in the past twenty years begun to explicitly address faith groups.

Dinham begins by exploring the prevalence of faiths across the three countries, outlining their extent, while crucially making the distinction between 'believing' and 'belonging'. In presenting and critiquing key themes of 'Third Way' political theory in the UK and US and their relation to faith groups, this work then examines the reasons behind for policy makers' re-engagement with faith groups. Faith groups, it is argued, are valued for their status as community centres, organisations with strong local groups with embedded, and situated, knowledge. In doing so, Dinham explores and grapples with ideas of 'community' and 'faith community', seeking definition where arguably none exists, but nonetheless giving a wide-ranging overview of the contested debates.

The book then moves on to a superb analysis of theories of social capital, looking at how faith groups can produce both 'bridging' and 'bonding' social capital, and how their production affects what faiths can bring to the public policy table. Within this, Dinham does not shy away from confronting the oft-espoused dark side of religion; insular faiths where extreme views are preached and practiced. Within such groups, bonding between members is strong, but bridging to other members of the 'community' local, regional, national is non-existent. How to include 'good' faith groups while excluding (but not ignoring) 'bad' faith groups is an issue which to which this work, understandably, has no firm conclusions.

However, while the book is up-front in its confrontation of issues around extremism, and frequently references wider concerns around faiths' involvement in public policy planning and delivery, the causes of these concerns are not explored fully. Reference is made on more than one occasion to many faiths' patchy records on issues of gender and sexuality. If, as the book argues, policy makers are keen to engage with faiths and that faiths should, with caution, be keen to accept the invitation, then such issues need to be addressed further. For faith groups to be involved in the design and delivery of public services, the state and the public need to be assured that these services will be delivered without prejudice. How this can be achieved, and what space there is for faiths at the public table if it is not, could be addressed further.

Despite these criticisms, this book is a timely work which offers an essential contribution not only to critique of Third Way policies, but also to themes which underpin the current government's policies in the UK, most notably the Big Society agenda. The latter policy reflects a move away from state planning and provision of public services towards a culture of individual and collection civic action. Themes of localism, of community and of non-statutory groups delivering public services have become hot political topics in recent months. As well as this, issues of religious freedoms and the right to practice faith in public have been highly visible in the media. This book's strength is bringing together these themes to analyse how faiths can and will be involved in governance and delivery. Only its omission of the extent to which religious freedom and public engagement may conflict stops it achieving this fully. In sum, this work offers an incredibly rich resource primarily for academics in the field of civil society, citizenship, welfare and religious studies, but it's engaging and easy style makes it accessible to a wider audience of non-academic experts and non-experts alike.

Eddy Hogg
Northumbria University