The reaction to Tony Blair’s speech on faith has highlighted fundamentalism at both ends of the spectrum
Seven years ago Tony Blair invited 30 faith leaders to Downing Street and asked for their views on sending troops to Afghanistan. The responses were extremely feeble. “God bless you, Prime Minister, but could you make sure that no women and children get hurt?”
When it came to my turn to speak, I was feeling exceptionally exasperated and said that it was remarkable that the Prime Minister should waste his time on faith leaders, seeing that religion is involved in every trouble spot around the globe. We should get our acts together, condemn the extremism in our own ranks and nail our collective colours to the mast of working together for the good of humanity.
Seven years later, Tony Blair is no longer a listening, secular leader but an active exponent of religion, speaking in Westminster Cathedral on the need for the faiths to work together for the good of a globalised society. He prefaced his remarks by articulating how religious people are viewed today — as weird, as seeking to impose, as pretending to be superior and as claiming divine sanction for their particular agenda.
What Blair was, in fact, describing was the style and agenda of religious fundamentalism which has, since the 1960s, come to disfigure all the faiths but particularly the three siblings of the Abrahamic family.
The good name of Islam has been well nigh destroyed by Islamists who have brought the world to the brink of global conflict. Not comparable in scale but of the same mindset, Christian fundamentalists are a huge embarrassment to Christianity. Google “Abortion-related violence” for evidence. We don’t (baruch Hashem) have a Jewish fundamentalist movement dedicated to violence but we do have Charedim who seek political power in Israel and would impose their particular understanding on everyone else, given half the chance.
Much of the British Press reacted with surprise at the “new Blair”, spokesperson for religion, and could not hold back their derision. Jibes about having conversations with “the Man upstairs”, references to Alastair Campbell’s “We don’t do God”, and pointed comments about Iraq quickly followed.
As Tony Blair must have anticipated, his statement of faith was instantly tarred with the extremist brush, notwithstanding what he actually said in his lecture. Secular fundamentalism is very popular these days — understandably so in the light of how little mainstream religion has done to combat religious fundamentalism. New Blair is even more out of step than Old Blair.
In a Western secular democracy, the faith of the ruler has increasingly become a quasi–private matter. “We don’t do God” means that promoting collective values is the prime ministerial task. Interestingly, the United States has taken a different route in which the particular faith of the President is much more publicly articulated.
But this is Britain, a secular European democracy, and it is only since retiring from office that Tony Bair has had the opportunity to move from being a secular Prime Minister to being an active Catholic. Good luck to him. The agenda that he articulated is essentially that of Hans Küng, also a Catholic and the greatest living theologian of any faith: the peace of the world is dependent on peace between the religions; the faiths can no longer stand alone but must work together; the need for openness, humility and self-criticism is paramount.
But the responses to the speech — the amused yahooing and the strident demonstrating — point to a core issue of our day. Religious fundamentalists, with their conviction that they know it all and have a monopoly on truth are, at best, seriously misguided and at worst a danger to us all. But so too are secular fundamentalists who display the same arrogance and certainty and who also ride roughshod in their secularised religious zeal.
In truth, it is religious moderates and secular moderates who need to find a common platform — and fast. The Blair agenda is no bad starting point — whatever your views on Iraq.
Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield is Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism.