A Politician Even in His Faith

Did Tony Blair convert to Catholicism insincerely? His comments to a gay magazine raise the question again.

In March, Tony Blair gave an interview to Attitude, the United Kingdom’s leading magazine for gay men. The interviewer, Johann Hari, challenged the former prime minister, a recent convert to Catholicism, over the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. “Look,” Blair replied, sensing the delicacy of the subject, “There are many good and great things the Catholic Church does, and there are many fantastic things this Pope stands for.” But on gay rights, he explained, the Pope and his Church suffer from “entrenched attitudes.” Blair even presumed to school Benedict XVI on the complexities of the issue, accusing the Vatican of clinging nervously to its “core vote” rather than accepting that “the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change and actually reach out.”

The headlines almost wrote themselves. “Blair: Pope wrong about gays— and most Catholics think so too,” trumpeted the Independent newspaper. Apparently, though, most Catholics—and quite a few non-Catholics—strongly disagreed with Blair. “How typical,” wrote Tom Utley, a columnist for the
Daily Mail and a Catholic. “He’s been a Roman Catholic for only 20 minutes, yet he’s already lecturing the Pope on how to ‘modernize’ the founding Church of Christendom, so as to make its doctrines more congenial to Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. I honestly think the poor man has gone mad. He really does seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that he’s God.”

Others suggested that Blair had perjured himself. If he does not accept Catholic teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, how could he have made a legitimate profession of faith when he was received into the Church over a year ago? When he declared that he accepted everything Holy Mother Church believes and teaches to be revealed by God, was he lying? “Has he come to dissent from this ancient and coherent teaching in the past 14
months?” asked the Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read. “Or was his profession at his reception insincere?” “The Catholic Church is not going to change to please Tony Blair,” added Ann Widdecombe, a Conservative member of Parliament. “The sooner he realizes that, the better.”

Even The Tablet, the left-leaning British Christian weekly, which often defends Blair against his conservative critics and to which Blair’s Catholic wife, Cherie, sometimes contributes articles about her own unorthodox beliefs, seemed to think the former PM had taken a secular step too far. “When Mr. Blair talked about the Catholic Church needing to move beyond its ‘core vote’ as if there were an orthodox heartland which could be taken for granted and a less committed periphery that needed wooing,” said the magazine in an editorial, “he seems to have mixed up the Catholic Church with New Labour.”

Not all the faithful felt the same way. Sir Stephen Wall, who has been both a senior adviser to Blair and chief-of-staff to the archbishop of Westminster, defended the use of a “political analogy on a moral issue.” “He was right to do so,” he said. “The Catholic Church can either talk to itself or reach out to non-Catholics and non-Christians.” Sir Stephen categorized those who had challenged Blair’s religious pronouncements as straight-jacketed thinkers for whom “ticking the boxes of orthodoxy becomes more important than living the Gospel.” He added, “The reaction to Blair’s mild unorthodoxy smacks of a Church that has lost its confidence as it has lost respect in society, and is therefore falling back on rigid adherence to the rule-book.”

The charge that Tony Blair crosses the line between politics and faith is, however, unlikely to go away. Garry O’Connor, author of The Darlings of Downing Street, a biography of Mr. and Mrs. Blair, said that they “have always comprehended the Church as a secular, even political institution, never as a divine one. He is, in my view, a very superficial man. He is a politician even in his faith.”

Here is a well-observed irony. The most often-quoted remark about Blairism and religion is his spin-doctor Alistair Campbell’s comment: “We don’t do God.” Everybody knew then that those words were not exactly true. Today, however, they sound ridiculous. Blair is fast becoming a one-man global faith brand, a sort of emasculated Rick Warren with a pluralistic twist. He leads the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which aims “to promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.”

“I can’t stand politicians who wear God on their sleeve,” Blair once said. As leader of Britain’s Labour Party and prime minister, however, he rarely shrank from invoking God himself. Like many successful politicians, he had an instinct for public intimations of faith. He often allowed himself to be photographed in churches, or referred to his spiritual nature in interviews. “God will be my judge,” he told chatshow host Michael Parkinson, gravely, when asked about the war in Iraq.

Yet Blair is more than a spiritual showman in the Bill Clinton vein. In the 1990s, it became commonplace to describe him as the most Christian British prime minister since Gladstone. And in the most testing moments of his career, he really did turn to the Lord. “There is no doubt,” wrote Matthew D’Ancona after interviewing Blair for The Sunday Telegraph, “that he seeks authorization for the war, as well as personal spiritual solace, in the Gospels.”

Even so, by the time Blair left 10 Downing Street in 2007, he had perhaps done more to harm Christianity in Britain than any political leader in history. As Peter Oborne put it in The Spectator, “On practically every key moral issue of our day—family, abortion, cloning—the prime minister falls on the side of the secular, liberal consensus rather than that of robust Christian teaching.”

It is certainly true that Blair has been a longstanding ally of the abortion lobby. He regularly employed the old chestnut that, although he was “privately opposed” to abortion, he could not let his personal beliefs affect his judgment as a man in public office. In 14 parliamentary votes, he never failed to support abortion rights. He even had the dubious distinction of being, at one time, the only major-party leader who opposed reducing the 24-week time limit for legal terminations in the United Kingdom. His government invariably promoted the morning-after pill in schools and pharmacies, as well as aiding and abetting “family planning” providers throughout the Third World. Under his watch, Britain became a world leader in embryonic stem-cell research and efforts at human cloning.

The contradictions run on and on. “A young country that wants to be a strong country, cannot be morally neutral about the family,” said the fresh-faced Labour leader in 1995. Yet Tony Blair’s party went on to abolish the marriedcouples allowance and other financial incentives that encouraged the formation of traditional families.

“Christianity is a very tough religion,” Blair opined in 1993. “There is right and wrong. There is good and bad.” Yet Blair’s premiership was to its end defined by a persistent refusal to accept such intrinsic values.

“How do we explain the fact,” asked William Oddie, the former editor of London’s Catholic Herald, on the eve of Blair’s resignation as prime minister, “that his premiership has at its core such a sense of almost palpable moral vacuousness?” It would be naive, of course, to be surprised that a statesman should say one thing and do another. Yet Blair’s piety does not arouse suspicion because it seems false. The opposite is the case: his religious beliefs invite cynicism precisely because they are so evidently sincere, yet have had no discernible influence on his political life. His inner life seems at once powerful and vapid, profound yet strangely empty.

“It’s undeniable that he has a certain spiritual bent,” says O’Connor. “At the same time, as Canon Timothy Russ [a Catholic priest who was close to the Blairs] observed: Tony Blair was two very different people. He could be modest and self-effacing. Yet he could also take himself very seriously: as a historically important person whose authority had been sanctioned by a higher power.”

O’Connor is one of many observers to spot Blair’s tendency to think of himself as being in a special, personal relationship with his Maker. Blair’s Christianity has a strong evangelical tone. So, too, does his political style, with its emphasis on (his own) charisma, sunny optimism, and faithful friendship. Yet if Blair had already established a direct link to the Almighty, why then should he have been drawn to the Catholicism, with its difficult doctrines, sacraments, and hierarchical authority?

The best answer is obvious: his wife. Cherie Booth was born in Liverpool to a family of devout working-class Catholics. She grew into a proud leftliberal, rejecting the Church’s stance on contraception, abortion, and women priests. Yet she has never lost, it seems, a tribal loyalty to the Church and a cultural attachment to her Catholic roots. Though she is an avowed feminist, she nevertheless wore a black lace mantilla in 2005 at a vespers service in Westminster Cathedral following the death of John Paul II.

Tony Blair’s religious intuition, by contrast, was not instilled in him by his parents. His childhood was not particularly religious. At St. John’s College, Oxford, however, he found a spiritual mentor in Peter Thomson, a 36-year-old ordained Anglican cleric, who introduced him to Christian socialist philosophy. “My Christianity and my politics came together at the same time,” said Blair in 1995.

“Not all the people I went out with were particularly religious,” Cherie later recalled, “but it was one of the things that Tony and I had in common from the beginning.” Yet if she was initially drawn to his left-wing evangelism, he was finally more attracted to her cradle faith. Tony and Cherie may have married in an Anglican Church, but their children were all raised as practicing Catholics. “He wanted to become one, to merge with his Catholic wife,” explains O’Connor. “Cherie was his bridge to Catholicism.”

For many years, Blair appeared to think that that he could be Catholic without formal reception into the Church. In the 1990s, as Leader of the Opposition, he often received Holy Communion with his family at St. Joan of Arc, a Catholic Church in Highbury, north London. Cardinal Hume, the then-archbishop of Westminster, wrote to the rising political star, telling him to desist. Blair was outraged. “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it,” he petulantly remarked.

After he became prime minister, Blair was frequently described, sometimes denounced, as a closet Catholic. In 2007, Father Michael Seed, who celebrated private Masses for the Blairs in Downing Street, suggested that the PM had been a “de facto Catholic” for more than 25 years. He would convert if he could, people said, but his change of allegiance might upset the delicate peace process in Northern Ireland.

Today, Blair is officially a Catholic. Yet many of his co-religionists, especially after his recent outburst in Attitude, would argue that, having once been regarded as a Catholic in everything but name, he is now a Catholic in name only. Indeed, if he did not accept the Church’s core teachings when he joined the faith, he can hardly be described as a Catholic at all.

Blair is unlikely to be put out by those detractors, however. Why would he worry about the foundations of his faith, when he has the Faith Foundation to worry about?

In recent months, Blair has been giving “Faith and Globalization” lectures at Yale University. For many, the great economic downturn has demonstrated the limitations of global economics. Blair, by contrast, continues to argue that “globalization operates to push people together, to blur distinctions between different nations and cultures, and to create a multi-faith society.” In this respect, he elaborates, “faith either becomes a constructive and progressive force that can provide globalization with a human face and some spiritual capital, or, alternatively, it can be a reactionary and destructive force that pulls people apart.”

Not all his listeners were convinced. “I think it is overly simplistic, Mr. Blair,” said one, “to say that you are either with us or against us.” Another questioner, a journalist, asked him to assess the role of Catholicism in the process of globalization. “The Catholic Church does fantastic work on the ground,” he says. “The Vatican has been taking up a number of interfaith initiatives. But there’s always, in all religions, a lot of nervousness about the interfaith idea.”

No doubt there is much that is good about Blair’s infectious zeal for worldwide tolerance and diversity. From a Catholic perspective, however, he spoils it all by patronizing and undermining the coherent and time-tested wisdom of the Church. Stick to the “fantastic work on the ground,” he seems to be telling the Vatican, but leave the heavenly questions—the sexual morality, the peace-on-earth stuff—to me. This is more than misguided do-goodism. The Tony Blair of 2009 isn’t simply “doing God”; he seems to think he actually is God.

And it is not just paranoid Catholics who sense a whiff of messianism in Blair’s rhetoric of interfaith global harmony. Political observers have been saying it for years. He wants “to change the world for the better,” wrote Richard D. North in his book, Mr. Blair’s Messiah Politics, “and be seen as the person who made the transformation.”

Soon, if some reports are to be believed, Tony Blair is to be crowned president of Europe, or head of the EU Council. With such authority, how much further might this zealous agent of global change be willing and able to go?

But this is all to take Blair and his rhetoric too seriously. It is better to think of him as Rev. A.R.P. Blair, the long-running preachy caricature in the British satirical magazine Private Eye, and just laugh. To look at Tony Blair on the lectern at Yale, preaching his globalized religion of political correctness with a small microphone attached to his face, one might be forgiven for thinking that Tony Blair had taken the joke to another, almost surrealist level.

Or maybe there is a better analogy. As Garry O’Connor says, “He brings to mind that character Pecksniff from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘Some people likened him to a direction post, which is always telling the way to a place, but never goes there.’ Tony Blair is rather like that.”



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