Our ex-prime minister thinks we must all do God. This comes up in a column for an edition of the New Statesman guest edited by Tony Blair’s former chief apparatchik Alastair Campbell, so maybe the commissioning of this is part of the new cuddly Campbell routine. He used to bully and swear, now he’s all smiley-smiley and did-I-mention-my-nervous-breakdown. And the man who announced that “We don’t do God” now gives Blair a platform to tell us all why we should, in fact, be doing God.
I suppose that’s because religion is such an undeniably sympathetic thing. If Campbell’s open to doing God now, he really must be reformed. And God is a nice salve for the damage that the Iraq war should properly have done to both Campbell and Blair. After all, how can a man who prayed to God to do the right thing really be ill-intentioned – even if he ignored the evidence, then misrepresented the case for war, and caused the deaths of thousands of people, at least he can say he’s got it all squared off with a highly implausible Judeo-Christian deity. At least he meant well.
There’s a very thin glaze of usefulness to Blair’s observations. Diplomacy – and basic courtesy – requires that governments be sensitive to the beliefs of the states they deal with. But that doesn’t mean that religion needs to become ever more important. And Blair sounds depressingly enthusiastic when he talks about what he perceives to be the growth of faith in politics – like a man who thinks he’s picked the winning team:
Religious faith and how it develops could be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th.
Or religious faith had in the middle ages? That worked out well, didn’t it? Anyway (and you’ll have to get the full version from the print edition to find this out), all this is leading up to a description of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, set up “with the aim of promoting greater respect and understanding between the greater religions, to make the case for religion as a force for good, and to show this in action by encouraging interfaith initiatives to tackle global poverty and conflict.”
I’m all for prompting greater tolerance and respect. I’m super keen on tackling global poverty and conflict. I think “making the case for religion as a force for good” is massively self-serving and indulgent. If religion generally is generally good, then it can go right on and show that by acts instead of words – or it can carry on demonstrating its capacity to damage lives with unsubstantiated dogma. Blair, though, seems terrifyingly positive about religion’s influence:
The 21st century will be poorer in spirit and ambition, less focussed on social justice, less sensitive to conscience and the common good, without a full and proper recognition of the role that the great faiths can and do play.
I don’t think this is slightly true. Even without getting all choked about receiving instruction on conscience and social justice from (well, you know), I’d say that nothing anyone does is done better for believing in hugely unlikely things. And the more we let scripture and liturgy divert us from humane and rational considerations, the worse our decisions and actions are likely to be. Which, interestingly, is something that Tony Blair is qualified to lecture people on.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009