JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 11.4.09
WHEN I FIRST HEARD of the setting up of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, my heart sank towards my boots; but not, perhaps, for the reasons you might expect. Inaugurated soon after our ex-Prime Minister left Downing Street in June 2007, theTBFF (as the Blair website calls it) aims to promote respect and understanding both about the world’s major religions, and between them; it also wants to promote the core values of the major faith traditions, which it identifies as respect, justice and compassion, and to develop their capacity to work together as a force for good in the world.
Now in the age of Richard Dawkins, and of the new militant atheism of many western intellectuals, this is, of course, a controversial project. Many progressive people in Britain now see it as self-evident that religion is always a negative force in human affairs, irrational, backward-looking, full of dangerous talk of holy war, and usually patriarchal to the point of bigotry; nor does the ex-PM win much support from those better disposed towards traditional religion, who tend to despise Blair’s form of inter-faith liberalism on principle.
The other day, for example, the ex-Prime Minister provoked a wave of media derision by giving an interview in which he exhorted the church to reconsider its views on homosexuality, and suggested that Roman Catholic churchgoers are far more liberal in their attitudes to it than the official position of their church would suggest. Commentators of the left ranted against the hypocrisy of a man who first joins a homophobic church, and then imagines he can change it. Commentators on the right roared that Blair might have been able to make the Labour Party ditch its principles, but he wouldn’t be able to pull the same trick with the Catholic Church. And all seemed to agree that this new God-bothering Tony Blair is a bit of a buffoon, using his global fame to project his own confusions, and his own form of liberal arrogance, onto a world stage where they are likely to be greeted with derision.
The problem for me, though, is that I have a suspicion that on this occasion, Tony Blair is right, in at least three ways. First, he is right to maintain that the idea of religion as a uniformly malign force in human history is a caricature, and a completely inadequate account of the many different ways in which faith communities work within their societies; there is clearly something wrong with an analysis which completely rejects the progressive, educational, caring and democratic elements of various religious traditions – like the work of the Iona Community in Scotland – on the grounds that it is somehow tainted by the hate-mongering of crazed religious fundamentalists.
Then secondly, Tony Blair is right to argue that the Catholic church, among others, needs to start making clear distinctions between the fundamental values of love, peace, hope, compassion and redemption which give faith its enduring appeal, and those old social customs, habits and bigotries which have somehow become confused, over centuries, with the idea of morality. Tony Blair is right to suggest that the basic principles of justice and compassion should win out over the old cultural tradition of homophobia; just as liberal Muslims are right to reject the idea that the teachings of the Prophet are somehow inevitably linked to the vicious oppression of women, and the denial of their full humanity.
Then thirdly, Tony Blair is right to argue that if there is to be any brighter future for this planet and its people, then it is important that the major faiths, with their billions of followers, learn how to work together to that end. The difficulty, though, is that even if he is right three times over, Tony Blair is still wrong enough to risk wiping out any potential positive value of his Foundation’s work.
He is wrong, for example, to indulge in careless talk about how the Catholic Church must change because “times have changed”. A shallow acceptance of some vague notion of modernity is never a good reason for a faith tradition to change. A failure to uphold its own best principles is a good reason for change, on the other hand; and the only one worth raising in this kind of public discussion.
And then finally, Tony Blair is profoundly wrong to imagine that he himself can really assist the aims to which his Foundation subscribes, by adopting some kind of leadership role. In the currently unfolding row about MP’s expenses, we are constantly being told that the inhabitants of the Westminster village just don’t “get it” about how unpopular they, and their working arrangements, now are. And in the same way, it seems that Tony Blair still does not “get it” about how far he is seen as a discredited leader, a man who misled himself and the nation, who made a fool of his country in his abject relationship with the US presidency, who has too much innocent blood on his hands for comfort, and who is likely to do damage to any cause he embraces too closely.
Personally, I am not among those who call for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes. But I do believe that the least we can expect from him, now, is a decade or so of humility, and relative silence. One of the most valuable things about any surviving religious tradition in our noisy society, after all, is what it has to teach us – at Easter, and through the year – about the ancient spiritual practices of prayer, meditation, retreat, and silence. And if Tony Blair were now to pray more, talk less, and stay well out of the public eye, the future he wishes to see might, in the end, have a better chance of coming to pass.