Christians are much more hostile to welfare recipients than their bishops, according to research which suggests that large numbers believe spending on social security should be reduced.
In a separate study, the Christian thinktank Theos found a widespread belief among those surveyed that the poor are to blame for the perceived woes of the welfare system, putting ordinary Christians at odds with bishops who have been protesting about the effect of government cuts. The report said that 90% of the 2,000 people surveyed believed the welfare state was facing severe problems, slightly higher than the proportion of the general public, at 87%.
More than half of the Christians worried about the future of the welfare state put the blame on people falsely claiming benefit, on "benefit tourists" or just on the EU "for opening up borders"."
The Theos poll does not distinguish between Christian denominations, but a larger sample polled for Professor Linda Woodhead, a Lancaster University sociologist, makes it clear that members of the Church of England are much more hostile to benefit claimants than their bishops or clergy; and more hostile than Roman Catholics, too.
Despite a letter published in the Daily Mirror last week denouncing benefit cuts, and signed by 27 bishops, half of all English Anglicans think that the welfare budget should be reduced (and this is true whether or not they are frequent churchgoers) while fewer than one in five think it should be increased.
Three quarters of churchgoing members of the Church of England think that the welfare system creates dependency whereas in the population as a whole fewer than two-thirds do. Again, and despite the efforts of bishops and clergy to popularise food banks and call for compassion, fewer Anglicans than anyone else believe that welfare recipients are victims of circumstances beyond their control, the report said.
"So the Archbishops are even more out of step with Anglicans on this than they are in their resistance to gay marriage" says Woodhead.
Nick Spencer, of the Theos thinktank, interprets these results as meaning that the public has shifted irrevocably away form a needs-based system of welfare to one where benefits are related to contributions. The only exception, he writes in his report, is the NHS, which still treats children and young people, who may have paid no taxes at all, entirely on the basis of their needs, and not their previous contributions.
But, he warns: "The moral case for a health system whose fundamental criterion for access is need must be made repeatedly" at a time when budget cuts threaten the ability of the NHS to provide all of the treatment needed by everyone.
Spencer argues that it is impossible for Christian leaders or poiliticians to restore the pre-Thatcherite consensus on welfare. Only a system based on public contributions will have the necessary legitimacy. But in that case, he says, there will have to be a huge expansion of the role played by charities and religious groups.