Change-Maker: Tony Blair’s Courtship with Religion

by Caela

Tony Blair Faith Foundation
On May 30 in New York, Blair formally unveiled The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which, among other things, is dedicated to proving that collaboration among those of different religious faiths can help address some of the world’s most pressing social problems.

The riddle of man’s relation with God (or a creator) — or even absence of — has found many different expressions. It has evoked many brilliant answers and how we feel about them is largely dependent on our private belief as to just which answer our own peculiar spiritual needs. There was a point in our shared histories when religion — and faith — was openly criticized, a point in time when everything was open for debate and discussion. That period saw the birth of progress at a rate previously unknown. It also lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. One by one, these products of that period seem to be failing but it does not mean that they are failing for what they are. Back in Davos Tony Blair was quite right in saying that “[w]e’ve been taught a very old lesson, which is that values matter.” We have forgotten the values that gave birth to these: freedom and a contractual basis of rights.

“The issue of religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st Century as political ideology was to the 20th Century. In an era of globalisation, there is nothing more important than getting people of different faiths and therefore cultures to understand each other better and live in peace and mutual respect; and to give faith itself its proper place in the future.”

-Tony Blair

Today, the religious debate is fading to a merely academic concept which are now discussed less even in academic circles due to political correctness. Slowly religion and faith are being tolerated in the west as private vice — like a pornography collection perhaps. And this begets the question “Does political correctness undermine freedom of speech which is one of the foundations of progress, of academic freedom and even democracy?” It is in the name of the same desire for political correctness that politicians and policy makers shy away from the religious debate although one can also lay blame on the thinking that secularism gave birth to democracy. (On the contrary, democracy gave birth to secularism such that the people had the freedom to choose to separate church and state.) Publicly engaging on the topic of religious debate has been such a social taboo that those who dare do it are frowned upon at the very least and mocked most of the time. Case in point, of course, is Tony Blair. Anything useful he might have said to contribute to the religious debate (or lack of) is being drowned out by a chorus of outrage that he should think himself fit to have said it.

It has been proven time and time again that when the message is hard to hear, it is easier to shoot the messenger. Some of those who speak against the Bible dismiss it first as written by mere humans. (And for the truly determined it will not be hard to find things that would discredit that would discredit those who wrote it — Matthew, Mark, Luke, John et al.) When it comes to difficult topics like religion — as in philosophy — one must try to avoid the danger of letting our personal bias get in our way, lest such interference should block off one’s vision and perception of the approach, idea or viewpoint at hand. But to suspend judgment is not an easy thing to do as it requires both maturity and an open mind.

Tony Blair Faith Foundation

What drove Tony Blair to create a foundation for faith in his name and his relationship with God is a question for another day. For once, we must suspend judgment and take a look at what is important: the message.

Seeking to “use its profile and resources to encourage people of faith to work together more closely to tackle global poverty and conflict,” the Tony Blair Faith Foundation can effectively open lead and shape the religious debate. It is pegged on an important fact:

“Faith matters. It matters, in fact, whether you are religious or not, or even anti-religious. It matters because it inspires people to act. That can be for ill, as we see when extremism captures parts of the faith community. Or it can be for good, as with ‘Making Poverty History.’ But the point is, to ignore the role of faith is to be blind to a dimension of the world that plays a part in the thinking and attitudes of billions of people.”

-Tony Blair, September 2009, RSA London

Moreover it acknowledges that:

“[It] also clearly presents dilemmas and can cause feelings of mistrust and opposition. This can be because of positions of some religious people on issues such as gender equality (especially in relation to issues like maternal mortality on which DFID is rightly running a big campaign), sexuality or contraception. It can also be because some think that people of faith have always some ulterior motive to their “good work,” through evangelising or proselytising or even conversion.”

-Tony Blair, September 2009, RSA London

The thing with true religious understanding and tolerance is that it can only be achieved if it goes back to the values of freedom and a contractual basis of rights. The religious debate today can be likened to an old crumbling house threatening to fall down. Ignoring the cracks (or refusing to look at religious differences) would not make the structure and stronger or even prevent it from falling. Subtly Tony Blair has suggested that the only way for religious understanding and tolerance to be achieved is for different faiths to address this issues and for them to acknowledge their differences.

When Britain’s National Secular Society insists that the foundation’s “Face to Faith” initiative to bring “children in all schools to emphasise their differences even more, rather than concentrating on what they have in common” would “do more harm” than good, they are denying the cracks. Centered on encouraging people of different religion to work together would indeed unmask their differences which they would have to work together to overcome and only then would real unity and tolerance be achieved. To court the young and unpolluted, the foundation could effectively shape the next generation’s religious debate. By bringing it into Universities, it can give birth to a new generation of leaders and policy makers ready to face the religious debate, prepared to not only acknowledged that our false sense of tolerance is crumbling down but also to take actions to rebuild it.

“The links between the religious, economic and political forces shaping our world are too rarely explored or explained. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation intends to help put this right. The Foundation will work with some of the world’s most respected scholars and leaders to develop a deep understanding of how politics, economics and faith can come together in the 21st century for the good of humanity.”

Faith and Globalisation

The Change-Maker

“We face an aggressive secular attack from without. We face the threat of extremism from within.”

-Tony Blair

It is true that since the Age of Enlightenment, the Catholic Church has found an itself under constant aggressive secular attack and of exclusionary extremists from within. Both have fragment the Catholic Church and rendered it impotent to fulfill its mission and potentials. while secularists are often more hostile in their rhetoric than their actions and extremist vice versa — its effect to the Catholic Church (or any other religion) is the same. They both undermine the potential of religion to be a force for progress and so religion must defend itself on both fronts.

In order to do that, religion must prove itself as a force for good. It must establish its morality and “legitimacy” (for a lack of better term) to the world. It must not allow itself to be cornered by secularists to irrelevance and decline as it must not allow extremists for faith to be abused to do wrong. It is almost cliche-ish but a religion needs to find itself before it can understand other religions.

“If people of different faiths can co-exist happily, in mutual respect and solidarity, so can our world. And if faith takes its proper place in our lives, then we can live with a purpose beyond ourselves alone, supporting humanity on its journey to fulfillment.”

-Tony Blair, Faith and Globalisation

“We, Christians and Muslims, represent around half the world’s population. In an era of globalisation, when nations are interdependent, change happens at a rate unsurpassed in human history and people of varied races, colours and creeds are thrown together as never before, getting on together matters. Actually, if we can get on, the twenty-first century world can get on.

It’s true we are different. But then so were our founders. Jesus Christ was a Jew who gave birth to Christianity. The Holy Prophet was steeped in study of the books of the Bible and was chosen to recite the Qur’an. Each was made to feel an outsider. Each stood out against the conventional teaching of the time. Each believed in the universal appeal of God to humanity. Each was a change-maker.”

-Tony Blair, October 2009, Georgetown University

Courtship With Religion

Tony Blair has once again chosen the road less traveled. As always his childlike optimism and desire to challenge conventional thinking had driven him to address questions and problems that others tend to avoid. Tony Blair’s courtship with religion takes the form of a sophisticated intellectual argument and a third-way rejection of ideological extremes. As the only European politician who still seems to take Sept. 11 seriously, Blair is highly critical of “extremist and exclusionary” religion. He draws a stark global dividing line, not between left and right or north and south but between pluralists and totalitarians.

Regardless of the message, people seem hostile to Tony Blair “doing God” and this is not lost on him as shown by his hesitation to express himself frankly. Indeed one should take a look at his political idioms. He knew very well that his contemporary public was too deeply committed to their own religion to tolerate any open assertions as to it’s malice and evil. He also knew that if he should declare war against religion in order to fight for the freedom of man, the public would tell him he was being ridiculous.

Again here one must be cautious. Tony Blair is most likely not waging a war against religion but against extremism from both side of the religious spectrum for having created such an outrageous rendition of their religion/belief (or lack of).

In a way what Tony Blair is doing with his foundation may be likened to puting children in a sandbox. At first they would play alone and be quite territorial in their own corners, then they would fight and eventually make up and play nice with each other. As for its success or failures, only time will tell. When the charge of leading the world is handed over to today’s generation of students and those after, we will see what change Tony Blair’s courtship with religion has contributed to the religious debate and how it helped shape the society of generations to come.

4 Responses to “Change-Maker: Tony Blair’s Courtship with Religion”
  1. I’m a little loathe to enter this debate, Caela. When I have thought about it hard in the past I have ended up leaving my draft thoughts in draft!!! I had thought about it TOO hard and found myself too critical of a man whose political acumen I admire tremendously.

    In the end, much as you advise here, I thought it better to suspend judgement.

    But I’m not sure what this means:

    “He also knew that if he should declare war against religion in order to fight for the freedom of man, the public would tell him he was being ridiculous.”

    I don’t think that ‘declaring war against religion’ thought ever crossed his mind, Caela. Since leaving office, and to be fair to him, ONLY since leaving office, it is his zealousness and faith in faith per se that worries those of us not touched by the presence/knowledge/conviction of the existence of a deity.

    He has been religious all of his adult life. There was no way he would ever declare war on religion.

    He has always been critical of those he says use their ‘perversion’ of a religion, Islam, in support of their terrorist cause. A pity he no longer feels able to repeat that criticism again.

    For my money, and for my vote, someone needs to.

    Oh, and btw, there is no such thing as a secular extremist, imho. And, secularism does not equal atheism. One is of democracy, the other about belief or lack of.

    The day I hear of a secularist killing people using a suicide bomb, an ied or a bullet is the day I will begin to accept that secularists are as dangerous as religious extremists.

    See, I told you I shouldn’t have started along this religion tack!!!

    • Caela says:

      I don’t think it crossed his mind to declare a war against religion per se but I wouldn’t put it past him to realize that he may cause a “civil war” among different faiths or within it. I’m sure he is confident the moderates would win but what he is basically saying is that those who believe should care if they want to win.

      I don’t think he is equating secularists and religious extremists in the balance. Only as a threat to religion. I don’t think he means atheism here. I think he is referring more to the “don’t cares”, those who believe but do not care. Both undermines the potential of religion to do good. What he is saying is that we have to find the middle way. I don’t think it is really about what they do rather about how they affect the moderates and their perception of religion.

  2. strappara says:

    I’m afraid you have convinced yourself somewhat erroneously that you are having some sort of intellectual debate. Time to go for a very long walk.

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