By Dennis Gruending
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to debate acerbic writer Christopher Hitchens at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto on whether religion is a force for good or evil. Blair, of course, is the former three-term Labour prime minister who stunned most everyone by converting to Roman Catholicism just after he left office in 2007. He will argue that religious faith has a major part to play in shaping the values that guide the modern world, and can and should be a force for progress.Â Hitchens, also British, is a former leftist who now lives in the United States and is ill with cancer. He has become a fervent supporter of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and finds himself on the lecture circuits and at dinner tables of those on the political right. He is a harsh critic of what he calls “fascism with an Islamic face” — but his scorn embraces all world religions. He published a book in 2007 called, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
One knows what to make of Hitchens because of his many books, articles and appearances. Blair, as a politician and former prime minister, is at once familiar and more remote. He has just published a 682-page memoir called, A Journey: My Political Life. In it, he says, â€œI have always been more interested in religion than politicsâ€ â€“ a startling comment. A reviewer in the New Yorker points out that the admission comes on page 680 of a 682-page book. â€œIt is just about the only mention of religion in the book,â€ writes John Lanchester. “Blair nowhere says what his religious beliefs are, and nowhere discusses how they affect his politics or his decision-making or his daily life. It is a bizarre silence in a book of this type and title.â€
Why would Blair have kept quiet for all of these years about something that he now says was so important to him? Alastair Campbell, Blairâ€™s ex-spokesman and political alter ego, once told reporters, “We don’t do God”. Blair himself told the BBC that he did not talk about his religious convictions because he did not want to been seen a â€œnutter.â€ There are good reasons why an ambitious British politician would not publicly embrace Catholicism while in office. It just is not done in a country where King Henry VIII pulled the nation out of the Catholic church and where Queen Elizabeth remains the titular head of the Church of England.
One is tempted to say it is a shame that a politician cannot be honest about deeply held religious convictions. But it is really not so surprising. In addition to being an officially Protestant country, Britain is also a very diverse one. There is a great sensitivity in all Western democracies around religion and culture. Minority groups, particularly Muslims, feel fearful and insecure and many other people who are secular want their leaders to deal with health care, education and employment — and not to act as their priest or imam. In Canada, for example, Pierre Trudeau was apparently a deeply religious man in his personal life but he chose not to show that face to the nation.
A successful politician
Blair was by any description an extraordinarily successful politician. He led the moribund Labour Party to victory in 1997 then won twice again, something no British prime minister in memory has been able to do. His greatest domestic success was to craft what appears to be a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. He was able to do it by a combination of his ability to manipulate, charm and negotiate. We need skills in political leaders that often we would not appreciate as attractive in our friends. Blair was possessed of a sense of destiny and what one reviewer describes as â€œa staggering self-belief.â€ His mask drops occasionally in the book. Speaking of his relationship with the late Princess Diana, he says, â€œWe were both in our ways manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them.â€
His relationship with Gordon Brown, his long-time rival in the Labour Party, is reminiscent of the feud between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin in Canada, and Blair hardly comes out looking like a Christian gentleman. He writes condescendingly of Brown as a â€œstrange guyâ€ who just didnâ€™t get it. â€œPolitical calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence. Zero.”
American presidents, on the other hand, are held in high esteem. Bill Clinton is a close friend, â€œthe most formidable politician I ever metâ€. George W Bush is â€œstraightforward and directâ€ and a man of â€œgreat intuition.â€ Barack Obama has â€œsteel in every part of him.â€
Cheerleader for Iraq
Blair was a cheerleader for Bushâ€™s decision to invade Iraq. He tells a British interviewer that he prayed while deciding whether to send the troops. Despite those prayers and his admitted feelings of torment about having to send people to die, Blair is absolutely unapologetic for taking the decision. One reviewer accuses him of harbouring a â€œmessianic certaintyâ€.
Blair may really have believed that Iraq was hiding what everyone calls â€œweapons of mass destruction.â€ Certainly, he did all that he could to manipulate British public opinion to prepare people for war. There have been no fewer than three public inquiries to investigate what happened. But we all know, as did Blair and Bush, that Hans Blix and the United Nations inspection team had been able to find nothing and asked for more time to continue searching. Bush did not give them that time and Blair participated in a deception.
Blairâ€™s decision to promote war with Iraq on those terms crippled him as prime minister and has been the biggest stain on his legacy. The Guardian writes: â€œHe struggles to account for the terrible consequences when he hitched his liberal interventionism to Bush’s crude neo-conservatism. The Iraq chaptersÂ [of Blairâ€™s book] are the least revealing. TheyÂ are unlikely to change anyone’sÂ mind.â€
Â Actually, it is Christopher Hitchens writing in The Atlantic who provides one of the more sympathetic reviews of Blairâ€™s book. He talks about how, as a youth, Blair belonged to the Christian Socialist Movement. but he once confided to Hitchens that he didnâ€™t talk about religion because he didnâ€™t like politicians who exploit religion for electoral purposes.
Hitchens also writes that there was principle, and not merely calculation, behind the military interventions that Blair supported in places such as Kosovo and Liberia. â€œ[Blair] went to Chicago in April 1999 to deliver a significant speech, in which he stressed that internal affairs were not a disguise under which despots should be allowed to conduct genocide or rearmament,â€ Hitchens writes. â€œHe specifically mentioned the outstanding case of Saddam Hussein.â€ Hitchens is forgiving of Blairâ€™s position on participating in the war in Iraq because he, too, supports that war.
Hitchens quotes another writer about Blairâ€™s s â€œhalf-embarrassed religiosityâ€ as the tensions grew during his latter days as prime minister. He says that Blair â€œhad increasing resort to moral suasion and hints about faith as a means of defending some of his less popular positions. And he had barely retired from official politics when he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and set up a foundation in his own name with a vaguely ecumenical global agenda.â€
It will be interesting to see in the Toronto debate whether Hitchens, who is more sympathetic to Blair than most other critics, will express mild understanding or cold contempt toward the former prime ministerâ€™s belief that religion can, after all, be a force for the good.Â Â