Premier Blair, Catholicism and Christianity

One of the big news stories in Britain in the Christmas period was the announcement that the former prime minister, Tony Blair, had converted to Roman Catholicism. It was hardly a surprise. His wife, Cherie, is a Roman Catholic, and Blair had been attending Catholic mass for years. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, wished him well. Some Roman Catholics welcomed his entrance into the Church. Others, such as the British MP and Roman Catholic, Anne Widecombe, questioned his acceptance into the Church because of the passage of legislation by the Blair administration that contradicted Christian and Roman Catholic doctrine and belief, such as civil partnerships, which acted as ‘gay marriages’ and the demands that Roman Catholic and other adoption agencies accept gay parents.

My own view in this is that Blair’s conversion to Roman Catholicism is largely a matter for his conscience. While I understand way some Roman Catholics may have misgivings about the architect of policies they find repugnant joining their faith, his conversion itself seems sincere. Hopefully the fact that now both parents are of the same faith will strengthen the bonds of his family as such arrangements have done for many others of widely different faiths.

What is remarkable about Blair and his Christian faith is not the specific denominational aspect, though if Blair had become a Roman Catholic while a serving Prime Minister it would have caused constitutional complications because of the role the Prime Minister plays in selecting the bishops of the Anglican Church. Clearly there is a conflict of interest in requiring a person who is not a member of that faith to supervise it. It’s why over the past few decades increasingly more functions that have previously been reserved for the government and Prime Minister have been taken over by Church itself through its General Synod. No, what is really remarkable was the uproar in certain quarters that Blair was a practising Christian at all.

Blair’s genuine devotion to his faith seems to have been regarded by some as constituting a radical attack on the legacy of the Enlightenment. Indeed, after Blair talked about praying just before the invasion of Iraq and other major decision, there was a torrent of sneers and what can only be described as invective from certain Secularist quarters. The former Conservative MPs Matthew Parris and Michael Portillo made pronouncements to the effect that this was retrograde irrationality and superstition, and that faith should have no place in politics. It was an especially bizarre statement from a couple of former Conservative MPs, whose party has always had a strongly religious element. From the comments some atheists left on the web pages of the newspapers reporting Blair’s religious pronouncements, you could be forgiven for thinking that Blair had formally torn up the constitution, and officially declared Britain to be a theocracy with himself as Supreme Pontiff, under whom all decisions would be made through prophetic utterances made in a trance state.

Yet clearly this wasn’t the case. Blair did not reject the usual process of rational deliberation and thought, and despite some of the more emotive pronouncements from part of the British secularist community, the Test and Corporation Acts have not been introduced, nor the system of church courts that existed in England before the 19th century to try crimes like adultery. And contrary to some expectations, the Spanish Inquisition are not torturing people in comfy chairs in a dungeon somewhere below 10 Downing Street.

In fact Blair’s deep personal faith is only what was considered both natural and respectable in British politics before the 1960s, when the social mood started to change and it became accepted wisdom that faith was by nature irrational, and socially and politically repressive. The result of this seems to have been a mood in certain quarters that no politician who has religious beliefs should be allowed anywhere near power.

Yet Blair’s statement that he prayed for guidance is both natural for a man of faith, and from the Prime Minister of a country where 70 per cent of the population identify themselves as Christians. As a Christian leading a nominally Christian country, it is perfectly right for him to seek guidance from the Almighty. The Bible states clearly that kings and rulers govern through the divine wisdom, so from a Christian perspective Blair was doing no more than going to the very source of that wisdom for guidance. Also, it’s axiomatic that human intelligence is limited, and praying to the Lord for wisdom means recognising that one’s intelligence is limited and that one needs outside help to make the right decision. And as God is the author of moral values and justice, one should turn and ask for guidance from God when making such a momentous decision as sending thousands of troops to fight and die. Turning to God in moments like this isn’t irrational, but a rational recognition of human limitation and that morality depends on a higher source that individual judgement. What is moral goes far beyond what is moral for a single person, as some forms of postmodernism would suggest. Especially when that decision affects the lives of millions.

Blair’s Christianity was also suspect for some in the ranks of the Labour Party because of their own perception that holding religious views somehow makes one a bigot. During an interview with a journalist, Blair mentioned his deep Christian faith, but stopped himself. He didn’t want to say anymore, because there were some in his party who would see this as being unfair to Muslims. ‘You know what the Labour Party is like’, he added. Again this is very much a product of the New Left that emerged in the 1960s. Before then there were secular elements in the Labour Party, but there was also a very strong Christian element. As the backbone of the Liberal Party under Gladstone had been the Nonconformist Conscience, so the Labour Party included a large number of Dissenting and Anglican Christians, who like their counterparts in the Conservative Party saw a firm faith expressed in moral integrity and action as having a proper place in politics.

Moreover, Blair himself could hardly be described as sectarian, nor hostile towards Islam. He gained the respect of many Muslims when he stated that he regularly read the Qu’ran. After the terrorist attack on London and Glasgow he attempted to tackle the disaffection within British Islam that was leading some into terrorism through negotiations with moderate Muslims. Here, if anything, the criticism is that rather than being too hard in his attitude to the Islamic community, Blair was too accepting and conciliatory. Former Jihadists have since come forward to describe how many of the ‘moderate’ Muslims Blair attempted to recruit were nothing of the sort, but were intolerant militants who wished to exploit the situation and their new-found political role to further their brand of Islamic radicalism, rather than reconcile disaffected Muslim youth to democracy and British civil values.

At the heart of this opposition to the inclusion of faith in politics is a conception of the individual who is radically sovereign, and for whom the relationship between the state and any other entity is a radical infringement of liberty. Yet the attempts to create the secular religion of the Greek polis in the name of the individual during the French Revolution resulted in a totalitarian society. Other scholars, such as the British philosopher, Roger Trigg, and the French American philosopher, Jacques Maritaine, have strongly argued for the necessity of a co-operation between religion and the state in order to preserve and strength democracy and civil politics. Trigg, basing his argument on the conception of Christian tolerance and democracy articulated by John Locke, that democracy has its basis in Christian assumptions and axioms, and that by attempting to remove Christianity from public discourse, the conceptual foundations of democracy and civil society are damaged as a result.

Contemporary Roman Catholic philosophy is critical of the secularising utilitarianism in Locke’s philosophy. Nevertheless, Roman Catholic scholars like Maritaine have similarly argued on rational, Aristotelian principles, that the foundations of civil society depend on a transcendental conception of humanity not reducible to simple rationalism, and which can only be nurtured through religion. Thus, for Trigg and Maritaine, humanity as a democratic politikon zoon – a political animal, as Aristotle described it – can only be supported through a conception of it as homo religiosus, where a plurality of faith is respected, but which in turn supports the transcendental notions of human equality, immortality, friendship and freedom on which democracy depends. Rather than infringing on the sovereign liberties of the individual, recognition of the role of religion in shaping morality and communities of belief supports the notion, fundamental to any society, that civil society depends on a shared morality and faith communities separate from, but supporting, the civil values of the state.

Whatever his failings as a politician, Blair did indeed express strong religious views, despite the admonition of his advisers that ‘we don’t do religion’. Rather than being irrational or divisive, Blair’s religious opinions, like those of his opposition counterparts, such as Anne Widecombe, reflect an attempt to reconcile a sincere faith and recognition of the transcendent source of wisdom and morality with democracy and party politics. I leave it to the readers of this blog to decide for themselves whether he succeeded.

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