Christian conservatism takes radical position against welfare cuts

The 26 Anglican bishops who signed a letter denouncing the coalition government's welfare cuts are part of a central Christian tradition that is growing as the hard times continue.

The food bank movement and the campaign against payday lenders have the support of almost all Christians in Britain. Even the evangelical HTB movement, often derided as an upper-class dating agency, does a great deal of social work, poverty relief and outreach to prisoners.

There is no connection at all between right-wing economic views and theological conservatism. The fundamentalist Salvation Army does almost nothing except work for the poor. It was the conservative Roman Catholic church that opened the latest round of hostilities with the government when Archbishop Vincent Nichols criticised the effects that the policies of his fellow Catholic Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, were having.

The interventions have stung the government, and with good reason. The churches are very much larger than any British political party. Even the Methodist church has more paying members than the Conservative or Labour parties – more than the Conservatives and Ukip together. The Church of England has five times as many people in church every Sunday than the number of Tory party members.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both struck back. Cameron wrote in the Telegraph: "The moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up … Whatever your religious or spiritual perspective … It is wrong to penalise those who work hard and do the right thing while rewarding those who can work, but don't."

While they accept the government has a moral agenda, few bishops believe that is what is driving welfare reforms. Nick Baines, the bishop of Bradford, blogged: "The government [should] just say: 'We are determined to get people off welfare dependency and to reduce the tax burden of welfare, so we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal; they won't take responsibility until forced to do so.' Harsh? Yes, but honest. And at least we would know what we were dealing with."

Baines did not sign the letter, published in the Daily Mirror. In one of the most significant political interventions by members of the church in many years, they warned of a "national crisis" forcing people to use food banks because of "cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system". Mothers, they said, "were skipping meals to better feed their children".

Baines says he would have signed the letter, but wasn't asked. And that brings out another important feature of the row: it is decentralised and spontaneous.

There is some evidence from polling that the government's strategy is popular with Christians, if not with their leaders. A large survey conducted by YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates found that 69% of Anglicans agreed that "Britain's current welfare system has created a culture of dependency", as did 59% of Catholics, while only a quarter of Anglicans and less than a third of Catholics thought that "most people on welfare are the victim of circumstance beyond their control". This hostility was clearly marked even among regular churchgoers.

Some bishops think the answer to this is simply to preach louder and more often. Tim Stevens, the bishop of Leicester, said recently on Radio 4: "I believe that it's impossible to read the gospels without seeing that concern for the poor is absolutely integral to any understanding of what Christian life or Christian values are, and if you say to me that that's not really understood by or grasped by significant numbers of church members, then … it is the task of preachers and teachers to communicate those values more effectively."

The Anglican bishops' letter was signed by 41 senior clergy, including two Quakers and many Methodists. This is an issue which unites churches across the theological spectrum – a unity that marks a change from the struggles of the 1980s, when the Church of England appeared as the most coherent opposition to Thatcherism.

In those days there was a significant body of Christian opinion that argued that the operations of the welfare state were themselves demoralising and tended towards immorality. People such as Brian Griffiths, the head of Thatcher's policy unit, and the ideologue Digby Anderson, who founded the Social Affairs Unit thinktank, believed that it was their Christian duty to attack the social democratic ideology. They saw Catholics and free churches as standing up for an individual responsibility that the Church of England had forgotten. That's over now. The Catholics and the free churches have joined the chorus of criticism.

Disputes about the legitimacy of social democracy and the dangers of paternalism continue. But even people who believe that the present welfare system is morally corrosive accept the urgency of preventing hunger. At the same time, it's much rarer now to find a bishop who believes that the system doesn't need reform – just not these reforms done the way that they have been.

Canon Angus Ritchie of the Contextual Theology Centre, a charity that works with inner city churches, said: "The quality of debate is much better now, but the reality on the ground is much worse. We're seeing less paternalism and more practicality.

"It is a complete misreading that this is an attack on the principle of welfare reform, but there is a feeling that the way the reforms are working is subverting their purpose. If someone comes off a short-term and insecure job and finds there's no money available for food, that's not an incentive to work."

On his weekly radio show, Nick Clegg said it was wrong to say the safety net had been removed. The government, he said, had to deal with a "massive black hole in our public finances", and there was "nothing fair about simply saying we are not going to deal with our debts, we are going to let our children and our grandchildren do it".

The church will perhaps rightly believe its views cannot be ignored. The Christian churches have a wide social spread: they are represented all the way from the inner cities to the House of Lords. This gives them a sense of what is happening on the ground which few politicians can hope for.