Tony Blair Interview – Church of England Paper – March, 2009
Comment at end
8th March, 2009
By: Paul Richardson
Once Tony Blair was a politician who didn’t do God (at least not in public). Now he is more than ready to do God but wary of getting involved in politics. He hesitated for a split second when I asked him whether he agreed with the decision to prevent the Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, entering Britain but then told me: “I try not to get involved in political matters”.
Blair gave me an interview at his London office to talk about the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. What is its purpose? I asked. “The purpose is to bring people of different faiths together through education and interaction and to combine religious faiths in activity that promotes good,” he tells me, “so that, for example, the Foundation is very active in supporting the anti-malarial campaign in Africa where the churches and mosques have a great role to play but would play it better if they played it together. It’s about bringing religions together and it’s also about promoting religious faith as something positive and progressive and about the future and not just an interesting relic of history or tradition.”
There is a moving passage in Blair’s Washington Prayer Breakfast speech where he tells how faith began to stir in his own life when a teacher prayed with him at school after he heard that his father was seriously ill. “That teacher would lose her job today,” I suggest.
“I hope not,” Blair replies. “I hope and believe that stories of people not being allowed to express their Christianity are exceptional or the result individual ludicrous decisions. My view is that people should be proud of their Christianity and able to express it as they wish.”
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has complained that faith ‘tends to be treated as a personal eccentricity rather than as a central and formative influence in British society’. Does Blair agree?
“I think he is right to draw attention to that danger and risk”, Blair comments. “Sometimes I think we as Christians are more sensitive than we should be although I say that as someone who when I was in office, although I was perfectly open about my Christianity, nonetheless kept it within certain boundaries that were restricted in terms of what I said publicly. The position of Prime Minister puts you in a unique category. But in general terms in British society there is a risk that people see faith as a personal eccentricity. I actually believe that people are far more respectful of Christian faith than is acknowledged.
“As with all these kinds of issues,” he continues, referring to press stories of people penalised for expressing faith at work, “you can take one or two well publicised stories that are actually exceptions but you end up thinking they are the general rule. My experience is that they are not.”
We turn to a related issue, the clash between faith communities and new codes of Human Rights. How does Blair see this working out? “I think this conflict is inevitable,” he responds. “With change in society you are bound to have a situation where faith communities have different views. You have to work out a way through that keeps people of faith together even though they may disagree. I think these issues are difficult but they are not confined to Christianity.”
When it comes to Muslim courts and Sharia law in Britain, Blair does not understand what all the controversy is about. “If it’s about substituting Sharia law or any religious law for the law of the land, forcing people to go through religious law rather than the ordinary law of the land, I don’t think people would find that acceptable in this country. I don’t think that’s what Rowan Williams was actually advocating. I think he was drawing our attention to the fact that in Judaism there are procedures recognised by our courts but there is no doubt that primacy rests with the courts of the land.
“I thought at the time all this was a lot of fuss over nothing. As I am sure Rowan Williams knows, you have to choose your words very carefully otherwise people think the head of the Church of England is advocating the import of Sharia law into the UK in a way that you would understand it in a predominantly Muslim country and that is not what he was saying really.”
I suggest that what the Archbishop was concerned about is the right of voluntary bodies to function according to their own beliefs and values and that there is a danger in allowing the state to over-rule intermediate bodies (such as faith organisations) and regulate their internal affairs. The treatment of Catholic adoption societies is an example of this.
“I happen to take the gay rights position,” Blair tells me. “But at the time of the Catholic adoption society dispute I was also concerned that these people who were doing a fantastic job were not put out of business. You have got to try to work your way through these issues. Religious organisations are no different from the rest of society. The most important thing, I think, is to create the space in which people of different views can still come together.”
What about attempts to suppress free speech on the grounds it is disrespectful to religion. “The real test of a religion,” Blair affirms, “is whether in an age of aggressive secularism it has the confidence to go out and make its case by persuasion. You will get all these different issues that come up but if I was going to be advising a religious organisation (which I’m not) my advice would be you have to manage the kind of disputes that are going on in the whole of society but, if I were you, I’d worry far more about how you are facing outwards to the public at large and showing the essence of religious faith.
“In other words, how you can prove that religious organisations can be an instrument of God’s work in carrying the essential message of compassion and solidarity and humanity out into the world. That’s where we are being attacked. People are saying you are part of the problem you are not part of the solution. Actually, we are part of the solution.”
Just as once he was a moderniser, intent on getting the Labour Party to move on beyond Clause Four and live in the real world, so Blair gives the impression of wanting to get religions to stop arguing about doctrine, modernise and concentrate on practical activities. But can we ignore doctrine? I ask him.
“I actually am fascinated by issues to do with theology,” Blair assures me. “I read a lot about it and think a lot about it. But I am convinced that the first stage for religious faith as a force for progress in the 21st century is not actually to deal with the issues of doctrine first but to show religious faith in action. That is not to say issues of theology and doctrine are unimportant. On the contrary, at a certain point they are central and crucial. But I think that the starting point is to get people of different faiths to come together and to act together according to basic principle that all religions accept: love your neighbour as yourself.”
We turn to humanitarian interventionism. How far does the reluctance of the Chinese to push human rights in Darfur or elsewhere in Africa stem from their very practical approach to life? They do not share a crusading Western mentality that springs ultimately from monotheism. In other words, theology has practical consequences.
Blair is not convinced. “The Chinese reluctance to interfere in the affairs of another country is born out of their fear growing out of their history of other countries interfering in their affairs and that is more important than anything coming out of Confucianism. I personally think that the whole Chinese system will evolve in time and the Chinese leaders know this. What is fascinating about this generation of Chinese leaders is their desire to discover the spiritual history of China.”
Politics, rather than religion, may lie at the root of different approaches to human rights but globalisation remains a challenge for human beings who are inspired by different faiths but still need to work together to solve common problems. As Pico Iyer has put it, we are global citizens with tribal souls.
“That is the big challenge,” Blair agrees. “As globalisation pushes people together, if faiths become exclusive then religion will become a source of conflict. But if we can show how people of different faiths can coexist and work together, then religious faith can be helpful in giving globalisation the value structure it requires. That is why encouraging religious faiths to learn about each other and tolerate each other is a very important part of making the modern world work.”
We turn to the world economic crisis. At Davos, Blair said that while capitalism certainly wasn’t finished, we need to do more thinking about the moral values guiding capitalism. “What was fascinating about Davos,” he tells me, “was that you had spiritual leaders as well as business leaders at Davos and everyone thought this was a perfectly natural way for it to be. The free enterprise system needs to be infused with clear values if it is to work properly.”
Blair sums up a paradox of the current crisis very well. “You say to the banks ’Your reckless borrowing has got us into this situation’, but then you have to tell people to spend to help us get out. In the future we need a better regulated system but the immediate priority is to get us out of the crisis. At the root of our present problems is globalisation which enables a crisis of confidence to spread rapidly through the whole system.
“The lack of confidence is to do with the lack of certain basic values: trust between different parts of the financial sector; thinking long-term rather than short-term maximising of profits; the fact that a company isn’t just about its shareholders but about its stakeholders, including its employees and the wider community. These values don’t necessarily arise from religious faith but faith has a part to play. These values need to be recovered.”
Finally I turn to the millennium goals, supported by the Blair Foundation. Don’t people like Paul Collier have a point when they say these need to be rethought? Isn’t there some justification for the scepticism of people like Dambisa Moyo about the value of Western aid?
“I totally support the millennium goals,” Blair asserts, “but that is all they are. They are objectives it is difficult to disagree with. The question is how we achieve them. The two projects we are doing in Africa, in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, are concerned with building capacity for governance. My own view is that traditional aid policy needs to be rethought in the way welfare policy was. The purpose should be to build up the capacity of people to take care of themselves. Conflict resolution is very important in Africa. We need an African Union standing force that is capable of going in to situations and imposing order.”
Only a few politicians make the jump to becoming a kind of moral or spiritual leader. Nelson Mandela has managed it without using explicitly religious language. The Dalai Lama is both the political leader of his people and a widely respected spiritual leader. Tony Blair still carries a lot of political baggage which affects how people see him but when issues like the Iraq war are no longer so controversial and people look at what his Foundation is doing they will probably conclude he does have important things to say about the role of faith in the modern world. Whether the faith communities listen to him is a different matter.
He remains a moderniser; many will find his ethical views confused or argue the failure to reckon with doctrine leads to superficiality, but he can quote no less a figure than Hans urs von Balthasar in support of his approach. ‘Only love is credible,’ the Swiss Catholic theologian pointed out.