Blair: Faith Reconciliation – “My life’s work”
Comment at end
8th April, 2008
“I see this over time as the rest of my life’s work.”
Tony Blair didn’t do God in Downing Street.
Now he’s making up for lost time
Tony Blair talks about his Faith Foundation, which is no less than an attempt to save religion from extremism and irrelevance
You can’t fault Tony Blair’s ambition.
Within hours of his leaving office last June, the UN announced that the former Prime Minister would take up a role as a Middle East peace envoy. As if attempting to solve that ancient conflict was not enough, Mr Blair will set up his Faith Foundation this year — no less than an attempt to save religion from extremism and irrelevance, and find a way for the world’s religions to co-exist peacefully. If the Blair years are over, no one’s told him.
His new London office is more adviser to JPMorgan than spiritual guru. It may not be Downing Street, but the premises overlooking Grosvenor Square in the shadow of the US Embassy are fitting for a global statesman. The carpets are plush. Bobby Kennedy’s speeches are cheek by jowl with William Hague’s biography of William Wilberforce. And against the wall is the trademark Blair sofa so that he can conduct business as in the old days.
It is here that he talks passionately about his own faith and the cause of interfaith dialogue. As Prime Minister, faith was an issue he talked about rarely — it was not going to give him answers about public-service reform, he explained.
This was summed up by Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, who famously said: “We don’t do God.” It is clear now though, that freed from the burdens of office, Mr Blair does God very publicly.
“If you are somebody of faith it affects your politics, it affects everything that you do,” he said. “But when I was Prime Minister, if I was to give interviews on faith, I’d just have ended up with a great load of trouble.”
In fact, during his premiership, Mr Blair at times seemed irritated when asked about his faith — not least when Jeremy Paxman asked him whether he had prayed with George W. Bush (He said that they had not). Now though, he says that faith is the issue that will be the driving force behind his life. “People will think this is a piece of spin, but,” he said, “I’ve always been as interested in religion as in politics.” Then, for good measure, he adds: “I see this over time as the rest of my life’s work.”
Issues of faith have clearly been consuming Mr Blair. Since leaving office, he has converted to Roman Catholicism. This requires much thought and reflection. After confessing serious sins, a convert must make the “Rite of Reception”, including saying that: “I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.” To have come to that conclusion, surely Mr Blair must have decided there was something wrong with the Church of England’s conception of God?
“At the time I made the change, I said that I did so making no criticism of Church of England. I’d been attending Mass for 20 years with my family. I can’t take Communion in a Catholic church without being a Catholic. For me, it was a personal decision strongly influenced by family.”
Surely Mr Blair converted to do more than end an awkward moment on Sundays? Though he intends to engage others in questions of faith, he seems awkward about some aspects of his beliefs and wants to avoid an evangelical posture. For example, when asked whether he thought a person would be better off believing that Jesus was the Son of God, he said: “I believe in and I hold the doctrines of the Christian faith. But I think that when you start to engage in that type of thing — that actually you’d be better off if you converted to my faith — if you’re not incredibly careful about how you approach that conversation — that’s actually what leads to a lot of confrontation and difficulty.”
This answer tells you something important about his Faith Foundation. While Mr Blair may have changed the subject to talk about religion, he remains to his fingertips a politician. He knows that, while the fact of his religious faith is essential to making his initiative work, the content of it might get in the way.
His foundation will not attempt to preach. He says that it will have global extent. And though it currently has a “small team” and is looking for financial backers, it may attempt to follow the mould set by the foundation of Bill Clinton, the former US President — now a multimillion-pound philanthropic operation.
“Let’s start it, be modest and grow it,” he said. “I want it to be a global foundation.” Then comes more of that Blair instinct for a political position to occupy. Al Gore has global warming sewn up. Bill Gates is sorting out a cure for malaria. Resolving interfaith conflict is crying out for a standard-bearer and he realises the position is vacant.
“I think that the areas to do with climate change, and Make Poverty History, where there’s a well-trodden piece of ground there, and actually I have interest in both of those things. But in respect of faith, there is a burgeoning interest in it now.”
He has set his Faith Foundation two tasks: producing educational material and bringing together different faith organisations to work towards the UN Millennium Development Goals. The latter is particularly ambitious. The goals can be seen as a to-do list entitled “achieving world peace”. Combat extreme poverty and hunger — check. Achieve universal primary education — check. Combat HIV and Aids — check. The list goes on.
However, is this where Mr Blair’s Faith Foundation will come unstuck? Once the priests, imams and rabbis get together to discuss how best to tackle Aids in Africa, will there be a tricky argument about whether distributing condoms is a better method of tackling the epidemic than promoting “abstinence-only” programmes?
He gives a very Tony Blair sigh. Such questions miss the point of his foundation. “Irrespective of what your position might be on Aids and the use of condoms and so on, actually to get the faith communities to work together to deal with the killer diseases, is going to be tough enough as a thing to do . . . but that’s not where I’m starting from.” He says that he does not wish his foundation to get bogged down in arguments about doctrines.
Then he gets to the heart of the matter. He looks around the room and sees two Jews, a Muslim and a Catholic, all of us with our own faiths but all at home in a liberal democratic society. We, he says, are his audience. The Faith Foundation, in other words, is another chapter in Blairite triangulation. There are the fundamentalists (old Conservatives), the radical secularists (old Labour) and the Blair Faith Foundation (new Labour, new faith).
So does this mean he is developing what amounts to a new religion?
No, he replies. Not at all. “This is not about chucking all the faiths in a doctrinal melting pot and coming out with the world religion as it were, that’s not what it’s about.
“It’s about defining those two issues: that faith is under attack from without; an aggressive secularism that sees faith as basically a historical relic, and it’s under attack from within; from people who see their own faith as excluding the other.”
Which presents Mr Blair with a problem. Does he want to be honest broker, bringing together traditionalists, helping them to understand each other but not challenging them. Or does he want to champion liberal ideas in faith communities?
He says that he does not need to pick between being controversial and being irrelevant. He has a two-part strategy and being an honest broker is where he is beginning: “From where I’m starting, given the debate that I see out in the Middle East at the moment, you’ve got enough to start with.”
He adds: “It is true, further down the line you will get to a lot of difficult questions. But at the moment, you’ve still got really quite profound struggle going on about whether religion is going to be taken over by those who do not regard even the thought of an encounter with those of another faith as a good thing. On the contrary, they regard it as a betrayal of their faith.”
Even if he leaves the really controversial stuff until later, being an honest broker is not without tough decisions. Who is allowed inside the big tent and who is excluded?
Al-Qaeda? How far do you go? “As far as people who want peaceful coexistence. So they don’t. There are elements within Islam that don’t.”
The Blair Foundation has its share of contradictions. His own faith — the Prime Minister who introduced what amounts to gay marriage and then became a Catholic — embodies some of them. But he’ll have to get past those. Mr Blair is trying to reconcile the age-old arguments between Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome. It is a good thing that he is a man of faith.
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