Comment on the Comments
William Oddie FAITH Magazine July-Aug 2007
A CHRISTIAN LEGACY?
Now Mr Blair has actually left office, a great event is supposed to take place and perhaps (I write this, of course, still living under the Blairite dispensation) already has happened. Mr Blair – or so Father Michael Seed was alleged (on May 20, by Michael Wroe in The Sunday Times) to have claimed – is due to ‘ declare himselfRoman Catholic’. Did this mean that Mr Blair has himself unilaterally determined that he is an RC, rather like Napoleon seizing the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowning himself? Or perhaps Mr Blair has already been received in the normal way. Fr Seed, according to The Sunday Times, ‘is without peer in luring high-profile figures into the Church’. But perhaps it was not Fr Seed who ‘lured’ Mr Blair into the Church at all. As The Sunday Timeswent on to surmise,‘…another Catholic priest, hundreds of miles away in the German town of Tübingen, may yet have a far more influential role in Blair’s future.’
And who might that be? Why, it is none other than ex-emeritus-Professor Hans Küng, who is ‘widely regarded as the most influential living Christian theologian.’ Certainly, that Kung is exactly Blair’s cup of tea is obvious enough. According to Michael Wroe, it is not just that Kung’s ‘magisterial inquiries into the meaning of God and the nature of religion place him in the pantheon of modern religious thinkers and give him a global audience’ (cor!): ‘Less well known’, says Wroe, ‘is a friendship with Blair, cemented at private meetings at Downing Street’. Wroe continues with the information that ‘It’s Küng’s decade-long quest into what the great religions share that inform plans for the Blair Foundation, designed to foster understanding between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the threeAbrahamic faiths.’
Likely enough, though it isn’t yet clear what Blair’s foundation is going to achieve that the Three Faiths Forum – founded some years ago by the late Sheikh Zaki Badawi and Sir Sigmund Sternberg – hasn’t, particularly in view of the fact that because of Iraq he is heartily detested by most Muslims (except in Kosovo), for all that he reads the Koran on aeroplanes. The fact is that so far as they are concerned he might just as well share the views of Mr Gladstone (that other great religious Prime Minister) that Muslims ‘were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity’, and that ‘Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them...’ Kung himself thinks that, Iraq notwithstanding, Blair ‘is an ethicalperson with charisma, he could become a worker for peace, maybe not in the Middle East but certainly in Africa.’
It isn’t, of course, just his views on interfaith dialogue that recommends Kung’s ‘global ethic’ to Blair: it is the fact that here is a Catholic, still officially a priest in good standing, who like him believes in indiscriminate intercommunion and rejects practically every doctrine and ethical belief that makes Catholicism different from Anglicanism. Kung’s beliefs on abortion, women priests, married priests, infallibility and the nature of the Church, and much else besides do prompt the question, well, if a Catholic priest can believe all that and remain in good standing, why shouldn’t Blair, or any other Anglican, whatever his beliefs, become a Catholic at any time without any further enquiries.
What Mr Blair believes is now, however, a matter of historical interest rather than current concern. During his time in power his religious beliefs and preachy tone, on the whole, prompted mistrust. His friendship with the openly, almost showily religious George W. Bush prompted journalists to ask him more than once if they prayed together (a question Blair always refused to answer, but I bet they did). But Blair made a point of repudiating any suggestion of American style political religiosity. ‘I don’t want to end up with an American-style type of politics with us all going out there and beating our chests about our faith,’ he said during the 2005 election campaign. People were defined by their faith, he went on, but it was ‘a bit unhealthy’ if it became used in the politicalprocess.
But was Blair’s religion in fact ‘used in the political process’?
Certainly, he always attempted to avoid specific issues, on which he was often vulnerable. Before the last election, his response to a call from Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, surprisingly perhaps, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to make abortion an election issue was to ignore them both, and to take refuge in windy generalities: those windy generalities, all the same, were not simply evasive tactics, but a pretty clear attempt to attract the support of a particular constituency. Two days later after the Cardinal’s statement on abortion, Blair gave a speech to ‘faith groups’; ‘In his speech’, reported the news agency Ekklesia, ‘Mr Blair said a vision of community, with people helping each other, was central to his politics. He said churches made a “visible, tangible difference”for the better in society. “I would like to see you play a bigger, not a lesser, role in the future,” he said. “So many of your organisations have the capacity not only to help, but to inspire and to enthuse, by being unashamed about your beliefs, your commitment and your example.” All of which meant not very much; but it was the kind of thing which tended to get ideological secularists worried.
But was there really ever anything to be worried about? The Observer(that steadfastly secularist organ) certainly thought so in 2003 when it unveiled a classic newspaper ‘revelation’, which it ushered in with the time-honoured formula ‘ The Observercan reveal’. What the paper revealed was that ‘Blair is to allow Christian organisations and other “faith groups” a central role in policymaking in a decisive break with British traditions that religion and government should not mix.’ The Prime Minister, said The Observer, ‘has set up a ministerial working group in the Home Office charged with injecting religious ideas across Whitehall. One expert on the relationship between politics and religion described the move as a “blow to secularism”’ (this alleged expert was unnamed). But what did thissupposed ‘injection’ of religious ideas across Whitehall actually amount to? It undoubtedly caused a stir at the time. Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society protested that ‘this is a further example of the Government’s desire to favour and privilege religious organisations’, and wondered ‘when the opinions and needs of those who are non-religious will be similarly regarded. The non-religious’, he whinged, ‘feel alienated and excluded from the political processes that help shape our society.’ This supposed blow to secularism was unwisely stressed by some religious supporters of the government at the time. Graham Dale, director of the Christian Socialist Movement, declared that the new group ‘raises to a new level the recognition of faith as a factor in governmentconsultation and indicates the Government’s willingness to engage with people of faith in every area of public life’; he added ‘ It therefore also represents a blow to secularism.’
But what did all this actually mean, in practice? The anxiety of the National Secular Society, it turned out in the end, was entirely misplaced: Blair’s was in reality a resolutely secularist administration; when it came to defending religious freedom from the secularist juggernaut of the Sexual Orientation Regulations, for instance, all Blair’s talk in 2005 of wanting to see faith groups ‘play a bigger, not a lesser role in the future’ melted away like snow in the sunshine. As I reported in the last issue of this magazine, when it came to political survival, not only Blair but that prominent Catholic, Ruth Kelly, abandoned the Catholic adoption agencies to their fate, an act for which she was warmly praised by the National Secular Society, which welcomed ‘Ms Kelly’s statement that therewill be no scope for religious groups to discriminate if they are given welfare services to run.’
As Peter Oborne pointed out last year in The Spectator, Blair’s ‘evangelical style is by no means matched by evangelical substance. Indeed some Christians come close to despair when they contemplate Tony Blair’s policies. On issue after issue they are baffled by his failure to convert Christian belief into action. Back in 1993 the Prime Minister insisted, ‘Christianity is a very tough religion. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad.’ Yet 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.’
Nevertheless, despite Blair’s practical secularism, and despite his repeated pretence at not ‘doing God’ for his own party political ends, he has done it repeatedly, often implicitly – by adopting that sing-song evangelical tone (‘Vicar of St Albion’s’) when defending particular policies – but sometimes, too, quite openly as when, the year before he was elected in his first landslide, he declared in The Sunday Telegraphthat ‘My view of Christian values led me to oppose what I perceived to be a narrow view of selfinterest that Conservatism – particular its modern, right-wing form – represents.’ But what precisely are these ‘Christian values’? And how have they informed his policies in government? The answer of history will surely be that this is a government which has presided over amarked retreat of Christian values from the arena of public policy, despite all Tony Blair’s fine words. Perhaps the most dangerous retreat of all, from the point of view of social cohesion and stability, has been in the area of family policy. As Peter Oborne points out in his Spectator piece, ‘Christian teaching is strong on family values, and Tony Blair has enthusiastically embraced the rhetoric’. And yet, Oborne continues,‘… The married-couples allowance has been abolished, funding has been switched from groups backing marriage to those taking a relaxed view of any kind of relationship, the benefits system has been changed to target all money for children regardless of family structure... Far from being morally neutral on the family, the Blair government has actively discriminatedagainst it’.
Before Blair became Prime Minister, the Methodist minister, the late Lord Soper, told Oborne that he had ‘every reason to think that Mr Blair is a sincere Christian and [that he had] no doubt that in his political life he is largely directed by his religious beliefs’. But Soper was troubled by the fact that ‘he talks about his faith and principles, but fails to explain how he would translate his beliefs into action if he were elected.’
It is a question which, during ten years in power, he never did answer, either in word or deed. Now, it is too late.