Not the Faith of Their Fathers

June 1, 2004 Topic: Society Tags: BusinessIraq War

Not the Faith of Their Fathers

Mini Teaser: Two unlikely adherents to their respective faiths, Bush and Blair find peace in war.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

On Thursday, March 20, 2003, when the American stealth bombers launched the war a trifle ahead of schedule with the decapitation attempt on Saddam Hussein, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair told his staff that he wanted to end his televised address to the nation with the words "God bless you." The staff erupted in protest until Blair grumbled, through brushes and sponges as his make-up was applied, "You are the most ungodly lot I have ever…." His speechwriter, Peter Hyman, who is Jewish (and less than fully employed since Blair writes his important speeches himself), objected "Ungodly?--count me out." Somebody else on the staff suggested it was not quite the same God. "It is the same God", said Blair firmly. In the end, Blair closed his speech with a tame "Thank you."

Shortly before the "God bless you" suggestion, which would have startled British viewers accustomed to hearing such invocations of the Almighty only in the speeches of American presidents, Blair had asked his staff how he should begin the broadcast. His then-press secretary and close adviser Alastair Campbell dryly suggested "My fellow Americans…."

Blair did not even dignify that jest with a reply, but this anecdote, recorded by the former editor of the Times, Sir Peter Stothard, who was enjoying fly-on-the-wall status with Blair for a period of thirty days, neatly encapsulates two of the salient characteristics of Blair's time in Number 10, Downing Street. First, he is the most openly and devoutly religious prime minister Britain has known in a century. Blair is a member of the Church of England, but his wife and children are Roman Catholics, and Blair in his ecumenical way would on occasion take Holy Communion with them. Eventually Cardinal Basil Hume, head of the Catholic Church in England, wrote to Blair asking him to desist from taking the sacrament when he attended a Catholic mass. Blair complied, but in his reply wrote a mild theological rebuke, asking the Cardinal, "I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?"

Second, even his staff is uncomfortably aware that Blair's support of the highly unpopular President George W. Bush is not just a political liability, but reflects a widespread suspicion in Britain that Blair is far too pro-American in general. More than any prime minister before him, Blair runs Downing Street as if it were the White House, depending to an unusual degree on personal and party loyalists rather than the customary apolitical civil servants, and on his skill in raising campaign funds from wealthy donors rather than subjecting himself to Labour's traditional debt to the trade unions. Critics complain that Blair is far too casual in his dealings with the Labour Members of Parliament, relying instead on his quasi-presidential relationship with the British voters, and that his economic policies tend more to the entrepreneurial American model rather than the traditional welfare state dependence that characterized previous Labour leaders and many of Britain's partners in the European Union.

Onward Christian Soldiers

It is an extraordinary trick of fate that as the War on Terror got under way, and as Britain (along with Israel and the United States) found itself on the receiving end of Bin Laden's jihad, the United Kingdom should be led by a man so openly devoted to the American alliance and to the Christian faith. The Christianity was an act of mature choice; he first took Communion at the age of twenty and was admitted to the Anglican Church by the chaplain of St. John's College, Oxford. This was unusual in the early 1970s, particularly for an undergraduate who played in a rock band and at least once played strip poker until both he and a female friend had shed their entire clothing. But one of Blair's great college friends was Peter Thomson, an Australian mature student and Anglican priest in his thirties. Thomson's inspiration (and subsequently Blair's) was John Macmurray, a Scottish thinker of the mid-20th century. Macmurray argued that the individual was shaped by the family and community in which the person grew and acted, and that strong families and strong local communities that demanded responsibilities from their members built a strong and supportive society. "We are not stranded in isolation, but owe a duty both to others and ourselves", Blair wrote in 1993. The idea of community lay at the heart of Christianity. "The act of holy Communion is symbolic of this message. It acknowledges that we do not grow up in total independence but interdependently."

This he wrote in a short book, the purpose of which was to convince the British voters that Labour had indeed learned its lesson and rethought its political message, while also suggesting to party activists that the old traditions of Christian socialism had much to offer a modernized Labour ideology, especially after having lost four elections in succession. Labour's commitment to society (the very existence of which Margaret Thatcher famously doubted) was for Blair a foundation of his political belief. The core values of the Labour Party, he maintained, were "closely intertwined with those of Christianity."

Both Peter Stothard's Thirty Days and the excellent new biography of Blair by Philip Stephens, a Financial Times columnist, rightly focus on Blair's religious faith as an unusual and distinctive characteristic of the first Labour leader to win two successive full terms as prime minister. Stephens, however, goes into much greater depth and argues persuasively that Blair's faith provided a crucial political breakthrough. In 1993 the abduction by two older boys of a two year-old child was filmed by a shopping center's security camera. The little boy was then gruesomely murdered, and the haunting image of the trusting child being led to his doom became a staple of television news, stunning Britain. Blair's response, which gave him prominence as a different kind of politician of the Left, contrasted sharply with the traditional view of the Labour Party that crime was the fault of an unjust society.

"I have no doubt that the breakdown of law and order is intimately linked to the breakup of a string sense of community. And the breakup of community in turn is, to a crucial degree, consequent on the breakdown of family life, [Blair said]. It is largely from family discipline that social discipline and sense of responsibility is learned."

Together with his striking and memorable sound bite, that he would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", this stance, more than anything else that Labour did in its 18 years in the political wilderness, made the Party electable again. At the time, Blair did not make any overtly religious argument, but subsequently he put the case for Labour's robust new approach to law and order within a clear religious context by addressing the concept, now notably out of fashion, of sin. "Yet the concept is simple and important. In theological terms, it is alienation from God. In everyday terms, it is acknowledgement of right and wrong", Blair said. "This is an area that will become of increasing importance in politics."

Politicians in Britain had not spoken in such terms for decades, and even longer. Stephens suggests that not since the great Liberal statesman William Ewart Gladstone, who along with Disraeli dominated British political life from the 1850s to the 1880s, had the twin themes of morality and religion been so prominent in the speeches and actions of a prime minister. Many political commentators, products of a more secular and irreverent time, found Blair's beliefs hard to take seriously, despite their rather obvious postmodernist twist. One notably aggressive TV interviewer asked Blair, live on camera, whether he and Bush prayed together, in tones that implied he had scored a devastating hit.

The almost-Catholic Englishman and the born-again American no doubt practice very different styles of Christianity. It is hard to imagine Blair praying on the telephone with the family of a serviceman, as then-Governor Bush prayed with the family of Steven Gonzales when he was captured by Serb forces. Perhaps Blair would not have been quite as self-effacing as Bush in 1999, when the then-Governor of Texas returned from fundraising in Michigan to join a memorial service for the seven worshippers killed by a gunman in a Fort Worth church. Bush refused to speak or go onto the podium, saying it was a religious event, not a political one. Instead, he sat and prayed with the crowd. But the two men share a profound religious conviction, and a clear sense of the way that faith illuminates their political lives and actions. It should, therefore, come as less of a surprise that Bush and Blair have forged such a close personal bond, reinforcing all the deep institutional ties through intelligence and nuclear and military cooperation that have given "the special relationship" its unique and mutually useful character throughout most of the past sixty years.

It has become fashionable in Britain to mock this bond. And while I have yet to meet any serious British journalist or official who has worked in Washington who has not been impressed or even awed by its durability and potency, it is easy to understand why. Britain's commercial and institutional ties are increasingly with the European Union. Blair's Foreign Office last year produced a White Paper on British foreign policy in which two telling charts defined the direction in which British self-interest currently points. The eu provides 48 percent of Britain's inward investment, while the United States provides only 35 percent. And while the United States accounts for 15 percent of British trade, the eu now accounts for 53 percent, a figure likely to approach 60 percent after the eu's May 1 enlargement with ten new member states.

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