The concept of social cohesion was born in 2001, as the outcome of a report by Ted Cantle. Looking at white and Asian communities, he concluded that people were living parallel lives with little contact between the two contrasting cultures. The report attempted to present positive ways of creating a diverse society in which people of different faiths, cultures and communities could live together to the good of all.
The intention was to work towards the dictionary definition of cohesion: ‘the forming of a united whole’. Fifteen years on, social cohesion means something rather different – something much closer to the scientific definition of cohesion as being ‘the sticking together of particles of the same substance’. Where faith was seen as an essential part of personal and community identity, it is now seen as something toxic that should only be expressed in private.
Then, faith schools were seen as positive community spaces; they could play a part in shaping a cohesive society by building bridges between diverse groups. Now they are regularly described in the press as ‘silos of segregation’ which are responsible for creating ghettoes. There are groups such as the Accord Coalition and Fair Admissions Campaign which argue for open access to faith schools (even though many of them already are) and humanist and secular activists that are calling for faith to be removed from all schools. If only, the argument goes, expression of religion was removed from all public spaces, we could use schools to build a socially cohesive country.
But they miss various key points about faith. What we believe, our worldview, is part of our individual identity and therefore a vital part of how we see the world and how we interact with others in that world, not just those within our own communities. Imagine if a government suddenly decided that in order for everyone to be equal we should be a neutral skin colour when in public, say green. We could be any skin colour we like in private and in our own community, but in public, we must be green in order to overcome racial prejudice or stereotyping. Ridiculous? Of course.
Yet that is exactly what the liberal secular argument suggests about faith. Leave your identity at home. In public, you can only express approved, liberal thoughts; we must all think the same. But as France is finding out, requiring a public conformity that denies individual identity in the cause of enforcing secular orthodoxy is costly. It drives resentment underground. Western society is seeing not greater cohesion, but increasing polarisation.
So, if our personal systems of belief (and humanism and secularism are both belief systems which inform a worldview) are part of our uniquely individual identity, how can we create this ‘united whole’ from such diversity? The answer is relationship and that is at the heart of our Christian faith, because God is relational.
The apostle Paul was teaching in a similarly polarised society and he wrote to the church in Galatia that ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). Belief, race, gender or status don’t matter to God, so they shouldn’t matter to us. And the Bible has plenty to say about how that should affect the way we live in the world. We should value others above ourselves, bear with one another, love, forgive and be like faithful friends.
The key to social cohesion can’t be found in government mandate or academic reports. It isn’t about enforcing a single orthodoxy in all of our schools. It isn’t about removing faith from the public square. It’s about the quality of relationships. It’s about building bridges between people based on foundations of respect, regardless of difference.
Paul urged people in the church in Rome to ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ (Romans 12:15-18). The key to a genuinely cohesive society lies with you and it lies with me as we live our faith in our communities.