Government minister: faith should not be kept private

Religious people should not have to keep their faith private, a Government minister has said.

A large number of people in Britain see faith as “the key to their whole identity” and should be listened to by politicians, said Stephen Timms, Financial Secretary and Labour MP for East Ham.

Mr Timms was delivering a lecture on politics and faith at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

His comments will be received with caution by Christians who feel their religious freedoms have been increasingly eroded by new legislation introduced in recent years.

He said “faith communities offer a rich resource of hopefulness which, in progressive politics, we need to tap into and draw upon”.

He argued that rather than dismissing “faith-based perspectives”, progressive politicians should recognize them as “valid and mainstream”.

“That means recognising that faith cannot be relegated to the private sphere”, he said.

According to a recent poll, more than four in five Christians (84 per cent) think that religious freedoms, of speech and action, are at risk in the UK.

A similar proportion of Christians (82 per cent) feel that it is becoming more difficult to live in an increasingly secular country.

Last year, Labour MP Ruth Kelly said political debate was becoming more secular and sidelining religious belief.

Speaking in the wake of her resignation from the Cabinet, she said: “It is difficult to be a Christian in politics these days.”

Mr Timms was among a number of MPs who voted against the inclusion of a free speech protection in a recent ‘incitement to homophobic hatred’ law.

The Government is now seeking to remove the protection, despite warnings that the ‘incitement’ law could be used as an excuse to silence the views of Christians on sexual ethics.

Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, recently prompted fears that Christian groups carrying out important social work could lose funding unless they dilute their Christian character.

She said: “I am concerned to ensure that if faith groups become involved, they do so on a proper footing – not by evangelising or proselytising, but by providing services in a non-discriminatory way to the whole community.”

A report from the Church of England recently accused the Government of ignoring the valuable work that Christians – many of them volunteers – carry out in prisons, hospitals, counselling services and other organisations.

The Government itself acknowledged in a report last year that there are “a number of specific challenges for faith-based organisations” including “poor understanding of their role by all sectors” and “concerns over proselytising activity that can serve as a barrier to accessing funding”.

Yet, the document says: “Faith-based organisations make up a substantial part of the third sector, with a long history of working with offenders in prisons, through the gate, and in the community.”

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