Tony Blair, double agent?

blairbigbenTony Blair’s faith has long been the subject of speculation, analysis and even controversy.

The buzz has continued since Blair converted to Catholicism last year after leaving office as Prime Minister of Britain. More recently, he’s started the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, an organization promoting faith as a force for good in a globalised world.

Free from the perceived or real constraints of office, Blair’s been talking about faith in general, and his faith in particular.

See him gamely (and a bit bemusedly) playing straight man with Comedy Central host Jon Stewart last September.

Read an article by Tim Walker on the Telegraph.co.uk website, where Blair confesses that he may have been too reticent to talk about his Christian beliefs while Prime Minister.

“I think it is sad in the way that people feel you can’t talk about something that is obviously important to who you are,” he says in an interview with Martin Popplewell for Christmas Voices on BBC1 on Sunday. “Maybe I became too sensitive to that or too cautious about it, but I just came to the conclusion that [if] I started talking about religion…it was going to be difficult.”

The British press seems intrigued by the inside baseball game of whether or not Blair was influenced by former communications chief Alastair Campbell, who famously said “we (the P.M.’s office) don’t do God.” But writers on this side of the pond are greatly intrigued by parsing Blair’s faith.

For those curious about how Blair sees himself, a few articles bear a look.

This week’s edition of Newsweek has a succinct and provocative interview with Blair by Lisa Miller.

Miller starts with the assertion that Blair had, for much of his life, moved in what the Renaissance writer Sir Thomas Browne could have called “divided and distinguished worlds.”

It was, perhaps, an ill-kept secret. as Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair was officially an Anglican. Unofficially, though, he was a practicing Roman Catholic. “My wife’s Catholic, my kids are brought up as Catholics, I’ve been going to mass for 25 years,” he told NEWSWEEK last week. Blair’s dual identity, obviously, was awkward. Catholic-Protestant relations in Britain have historically been troubled.

The P.M. has traditionally followed the Reformers. (Even Benjamin Disraeli, who was born Jewish and served twice as prime minister in the 19th century, was baptized in the Anglican Church when he was a boy.) As part of his job, the prime minister appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury in the name of the Crown. This would be a tricky role for a Catholic.

Blair’s Catholic practice doesn’t seem to have been much of a secret. While it’s true that Catholic-Protestant relationships in Britain have been troubled historically, as Miller writes, they’ve improved considerably over the past 50 years. I suspect that some of Blair’s apparent evasiveness about his faith was due more to his own ambivalence about what he revealed and did not reveal than the reality of the political situation.

As Blair says in the Walker article about the possibility of having a Catholic P.M., “I don’t think it makes any difference to people at all, politically.”

Here’s an intriguing quote from Miller’s column:

Now officially Catholic, Blair continues to eschew orthodoxy. Though a devout believer, he stands in opposition to his pope on issues like abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research and the rights of gay people to adopt children and form civil unions. “I guess there’s probably not many people of any religious faith who fully agree with every aspect of the teaching of the leaders of their faith,” he says.

In a way, Blair’s foundation is the culmination of his life as a double agent.

Yanno, if I was Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who received Blair into the Catholic Church last year, or the ex-P.M. himself, I wouldn’t be very happy to read this paragraph. A “double-agent”? As in a spy — or a renegade? Yikes.

Miller’s absolutely correct in noting that some of Blair’s positions fly in the face of Catholic doctrine. Read this Religion News Service commentary by Phyllis Zagano to find out more.

So why did the Catholic Church receive him? A BBC article from last year says that the Vatican “welcomed” his conversion. It’s hard to believe that Pope Benedict XVI finds all of his views palatable. How can Miller say (accurately) that while he “eschews orthodoxy” he is a “devout believer”?

(By the way, if I could I would forcibly retire buzz words like fundamentalist, evangelical, liberal and orthodox from the vocabulary of journalism and force writers to find more accurate ways of describing people and groups — they obscure more than they reveal.)

Miller plays it relatively straight for most of this article. But the last few sentences befuddle:

Religious people must recognize “that other people feel that they have the one true faith, and you see how you can come together.” Beyond this, he won’t expand. Blair knows that he’s on thin ice here–for, as Benedict XVI preaches, religious relativism is the enemy of orthodoxy. But then orthodoxy has never been what Tony Blair is about.

For some, the Blair quote is a clear signal that he’s one of those “many roads to the same God” type of gents. But for all readers know, he was making a statement of fact — many faiths believe they have the one and only answer. NBD. Who has a clue?

Apparently Miller knows what Blair was talking about, because she calls his statement “religious relativism” — fighting words if ever I heard them. And then she reintroduces the “o” word. If reader’s are greatly confused as to what anyone in the Blair conversion drama (Cardinal, Blair, Pope) was really about, I wouldn’t blame them.

Now there’s a story worth writing — but I suspect it’s one for the history books. But at least it’s easy to know which side you are on. “Relativist” versus “orthodox” — where would you like to find yourself?

Readers can take a stand — and they will, of course.

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  • FW Ken

    Now officially Catholic, Blair continues to eschew orthodoxy. Though a devout believer, he stands in opposition to his pope on issues like …

    It boils down to one thing: in what, specifically, is Tony Blair a believer? Apparently, he really is a religious relativist who became Catholic for family, not religious reasons. It happens.

    My gripe, and this has been noted before, is the journalist’s opposition to Blair and “his pope”. Blair stands in opposition to the Catholic Faith, in matters of theological and moral doctrine. To reduce it to a mano-a-mano or, perhaps, a mano-a-papa avoids factual precision in favor of a cultural bias for the noble individual against the bad old church authority.

    As longs as the mano in question holds opinions congenial to the reporter’s bias, of course.

  • Dave

    “Relativist” versus “orthodox” — where would you like to find yourself?

    Readers can take a stand — and they will, of course.

    My Unitarian Universalist orthodoxy requires me to be a relativist. ;-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    FW Ken:

    A reporter could seek an answer to this question: Why is Blair no longer an Anglican? Why believe DID HE GAIN in Rome that he did not have before?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Great line, Dave.

    So what’s your hypothesis, Tmatt?

  • Jerry

    My Unitarian Universalist orthodoxy requires me to be a relativist

    Dave, are you a card-carrying member of the Unitarian Jihad? http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2005/04/08/DDG27BCFLG1.DTL

    Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    It may be as simple as Mr. Blair wanting to find a greater unity in his home by fully joining his wife in her Catholic faith. Not every change from one church to another occurs because of changes in one’s theology.

    My dad was Catholic when he married by mom, a Baptist. They sought a bridge church and found one in the Episcopal Church. I’m an Episcopalian to this day, even after moving from nominal faith, as a child, to a clear embrace of evangelical theology in my early teens and into my adulthood.

    If Mr. Blair is unwilling to discuss theological details, as Newsweek‘s brief story suggests, it may be that theology played a minor role in his decision.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    How much orthodoxy to expect from converts is an interesting conundrum.
    In the Middle Ages everyone was expected to be a member of the king’s church. How many of those who complied believed in much of anything the Church teaches?? But baptismal water was liberally spread around.
    Why should a convert be expected to be more orthodox than those who are “cradle” believers???
    And how orthodox in their beliefs have Catholics been over the centuries?? What would polls have shown if they existed in 1234 A.D?? 837 A.D??
    Apparently it has always been taken for granted we all have more to learn about the breadth, depth, and beauty of orthdox Catholicism so where should the Church membership line be drawn??? The one group that has always been expected to be knowledgeably orthodox has been the clergy. On the other hand it has always been taken for granted there would be huge gaps in the orthodox learning of lay groups or individuals and great patience and compassion must be shown to those of good will who still have a lot to learn about The Faith. The key has always been the willingness to learn more deeply about the Faith and not attacking the Faith out of ignorance.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Deacon John — GREAT points about history. It’s unclear how much many Christians understood about their faith in the so called Dark Ages, because learning was the province of the affluent and/or educated class. It’s not a coincidence that many younger sons of nobility went into the priesthood. They were ,as you write, expected to be the guardians of the faith. Of course, you can be uneducated and a saint, but it seems to me that even now the level of understanding of doctrine varies widely among people, particularly converts. Of course, Tony Blair is supposed to be a rather smart guy, so I expect he picked some basic Catholic doctrine up along the way.

  • Dale

    The “interview” reads much more like Miller’s extended commentary on a few vague comments by Blair. Did Blair say that that he “eschewed orthodoxy”? That he “opposes” the pope on “abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research and the rights of gay people to adopt children and form civil unions”? Certainly the policy of the Labour government was inconsistent with Catholic doctrine on those issues, but that is not the same thing as Blair opposing Catholic teaching. The verbatim quote that Miller provides to the reader may just be Blair’s polite avoidance of direct questions when direct answers won’t serve his purpose–promoting interfaith cooperation in pragmatic charitable efforts.
    Miller does the same thing with the quote in the last paragraph. Blair never states that he is a relativist. He just acknowledges that, in order to do what he wants to do, one has to work with people who do not share the same foundational beliefs. Only through Miller’s interpretation does that become a rejection of orthodoxy.

    You’d think that after Blair pointedly refused a request to expand on his comments, Miller would feel some reticence about filling in the blanks. Obviously, she doesn’t.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Dale, I tend to agree with you –although obviously we weren’t flies on the wall. I expect that, given Blair’s reticence in other arenas, he doesn’t bare his soul to Miller or to any other reporter, for that matter.

    I wanted to link another article on Blair in my post, but it would have gone on even longer. Here it is: a thoughtful profile by longtime Blair-watcher Michael Elliott. This is from last spring in Time.

    http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1810020,00.html

    In defense of Lisa Miller, it’s hard to work within the constraints of 600 words without choosing a theme (the double-agent) and going for it. I just don’t think that’s the correct theme.

  • Dave

    Dave, are you a card-carrying member of the Unitarian Jihad?

    No, but thanks for the URL. It’s a hoot. It’s also very good satire, in that it captures the gist of something before exaggerating it. UUism meets Monty Python.

  • Peter D.

    Phoney Tony opposed Catholic teaching before he was ever elected as my MP, yet alone as Britain’s PM. He openly said he opposed the Churches teaching on abortion rights for women when he was questioned at my Church Hall before being elected as MP for Sedgefield.
    If readers had followed Hansard ( the official record of Parliamentry Business) they would descover that Mr. Blair stated his agreement in Parliament with the Equal Rights Bill for homosexuals and lesbians, abortion,and embryonic research. He also opposes the Churches teaching on contraception, married priests, devorced and remarried Catholics being excluded from receiving Holy Communion, women priests and celebacy for Catholic priests.He also believes in a church based on multi faiths, a hotch potch of religions to please all and sundry.
    He did not join the Catholic Church because he beleives in what she teaches, he joined the Catholic church because he and Cherie Blair opposes the Church on these points also.
    They realy do beleive they have the power and influance to change what is in effect the law of God. His spin doctor spoke the truth when he said “We do not do God.” Sadly, the Hierarchy in England are like dumb dogs save for one Bishop who has the currage to speak out.


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