Sunday, 13 December 2009

The man who did (for) God

The present British government is notoriously faith-friendly. Communities Secretary John Denham, despite claiming to be a secular humanist, has taken to giving speeches lazily singing the virtues of "faith", while (after a brief hiatus under Hazel Blears) his department has gone back to its bad old ways of bunging large wads of cash at radical Islamists. Meanwhile, the drive to expand religious schooling continues apace. And this weekend, memories of Tony Blair's faith-drenched time at the top were revived by his saccharine, yet curiously revealing, interview with Fern Britton which I forced myself to sit through this morning.

Blair was careful not to blame God for the decision to invade Iraq. His religious faith, he noted, merely have him the strength to take difficult decisions, however they turned out. What was ringingly clear as always, however, was the moral certainty with which he pursued his goal of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and that certainty was indeed driven by religion. Blair exemplifies the phenomenon described recently by researchers at the University of Chicago for religious believers to be strengthened in the opinions they already hold by the conviction that they are shared by God. In Blair's case, even if the invasion of Iraq didn't have explicit divine sanction it fitted in with his general worldview, which did.

That worldview, we are led to believe, teaches him that the way to deal with dictators like Saddam Hussein (or, indeed Milosevic) is to invade their countries and remove them from power. At least, that's what he felt at the time. Perhaps he's mellowed. Recently, Blair was in Azerbaijan, picking up a cool £90,000 for opening a formaldehyde factory - one whose environmental sustainability he was anxious to assert - and heaping praises on the government of President Aliyev, despite what is generally admitted to be a lamentable human rights record. I can't help wondering how much he might have collected from Saddam Hussein for opening an oil refinery in Iraq, if only the Baathist dictator were still in power. Missed opportunities, Mr Blair.

It was hard not to recall the Blair years when trying to make sense of Rowan Williams' latest pronouncements on the alleged sidelining of religion in modern politics. According to the Archbishop, who was speaking to the Telegraph's George Pitcher,

The trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it’s an eccentricity, it’s practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities. The effect is to de-normalise faith, to intensify the perception that faith is not part of our bloodstream.

Given that religious leaders are consulted by this government to a degree unprecedented in modern Britain, and even a non-religious Cabinet minister subscribes to a central role for "faith" in the political process, Williams' frustration with Labour's use of "faith initiatives" seems a bit strange. Surely the government ought to concentrate on dealing with the problems that religion causes - and where it isn't seen as a problem, leave it alone.

While that quote was the most eye-catching in the interview, he also had some broader comments on the relationship between politics and religion. He appears to think - like John Denham, like Blair - that religious belief ("faith") is most important as a source of motivation and strength, and that therefore politicians ought to have, and talk about, their own personal faith. This way, religion would be "normalised". Yet he also claimed that "we, curiously, have three party leaders, all of whom have a very strong moral sense of some spiritual flavour". Even the openly atheist Nick Clegg, who "takes it seriously"(!). Williams went on:

I think it’s important for politicians not to be too protected, to be able to establish their human credentials in front of a living audience... Part of establishing their human credentials is saying 'This is where my motivation comes from ... I’m in politics because this is what I believe.' And that includes religious conviction.

As always with Dr Williams, it's possible to read that in several ways. But he seems to be saying that discussion religion is another form of the "transparency" expected of modern politicians, like coming clean about their expenses claims, perhaps. The logical conclusion of this line of thought would be a Register of Members' Religious Interests, in which MPs were compelled to list the churches, mosques or whatever with which they were affiliated, what donations they had made (since we are paying their salaries, it's Our Money, after all) and how often they conversed with religious professionals. It might, indeed, be very revealing. Something similar goes on in the United States, informally at least. Before last year's presidential election Barack Obama was forced to devote an entire speech to explaining his relationship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose Chicago church used to attend, while one of Sarah Palin's former religious contacts turned out to have a sideline in Witch-finding. Do we really want to see that here?

Williams seems to want a sort of celebrity politics, where who the leaders are (which includes what supernaturalist belief-system they subscribe to) matters more than their policies. But political decisions should be based on evidence and open democratic debate, not private conviction. And if, as is probable, religious beliefs don't translate into political decisions anyway, merely providing the politician with personal consolation, then what they believe has little actual relevance. There are exceptions - like abortion - where specific beliefs can have direct influence on political decision-making, but even here most British politicians have been able to separate their personal convictions from the wider interests of society.

Tony Blair, of course, that master of ambiguity, managed to be simultaneously open and private about his faith. The official position was that he "didn't do God"; but unofficially, his God-doing was obvious and unabashed (or fairly unabashed: he recoiled in horror from Jeremy Paxman's notorious question about whether he prayed with George Bush). In any event, there was never any doubt about the centrality of religion to his political mission. "I only know what I believe," he once announced, as though that were a virtue. Presumably Rowan Williams would approve. But I find it hard to imagine (perhaps I'm wrong) that Christians generally in this country took great pride in the fact that Tony Blair, while he was in Downing Street, was overtly devout. When, shortly after leaving office, he went over to Rome I could detect no deafening chorus of jubilation from Britain's Catholics, although some Anglicans expressed themselves glad to be rid of him.

When he first came to office, Blair's religiosity was generally seen as a plus, largely because "having faith" is still generally seen as an indication of decency and moral conviction. It was only towards the end that he became widely ridiculed for it. Indeed, it's possible that much of the current hostility towards politicians "doing God" owes less to a traditional British reluctance to emote about religion than to the experience of ten years of Tony Blair. If so, then it may be one of his few positive legacies.