God, man and Tony Blair

One question my students always ask is this: "How do journalists decide what parts of a speech are most important? How do you know what goes at the top of the story?"

Actually, that's the same question stated two different ways.

But we have a prime example of his dilemma going on right now with mainstream coverage of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's soul-on-his-sleeve speeches setting up the new Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The key speech -- "Faith and Globalisation" (text here) -- was given on April 3 at Westminster Cathedral as part of the 2008 Cardinal's Lectures. There was a follow-up speech, but most of the media reports grew out of the first text.

This led to the cover of Time, in the European editions, and to a lengthy feature in the U.S. edition. Several readers have written me, asking why GetReligion hasn't written about it.

Well, there is actually a pretty good reason. I was trying to work in a column on the subject myself for the Scripps Howard News Service. That's done now, so I will offer some commentary. But I am mainly interested in what GetReligion readers have thought of the different takes that journalists have had on this speech. There's a lot in it and we all have varying amounts of space in which to cover pieces of it.

Time had the most room, in this case. The piece of the story that I found the most interesting was its emphasis on how Blair's new interfaith diplomacy fits into his own interesting life story and faith. While many assumed he was raised in a religious home, that turns out not to be true. Here is a big chunk of the Time report by Michael Elliott:

... John Rentoul, Blair's first biographer, pointed out years ago that Blair's faith had been noted by those around him since he was a small child. Blair "rediscovered" his Christianity, he told me, while a student at Oxford in the 1970s. He was part of an informal late-night wine-and-cigarettes discussion group led by Peter Thompson, a charismatic Australian student and Anglican priest then in his 30s. (Thompson, who now lives in Melbourne, does not talk about his relationship with Blair.) I went up to Oxford just before Blair did; it was absorbed with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, with a sprinkling of student politics on top, and to espouse religion of any sort was to mark yourself as something of a freak. ... Those in Oxford's "God squad," Blair remembers, were at "the cutting edge of weirdism." Thompson, by contrast, Blair told me, was "an amazing guy -- the first person really to give me a sense that the faith I intuitively felt was something that could be reconciled with being a fun-loving, interesting, open person." In 1974 Blair was received into the Church of England at his college chapel.

Blair's faith took on an extra dimension when he met and married Cherie Booth -- like him, a young lawyer -- after graduating. Blair's wife is a devout Catholic; not a posh Catholic, but a Liverpool-Irish, working-class, convent-educated girl with cousins who became priests. In her recent memoir, Cherie makes plain the centrality of religion to their relationship. Of the young Blair, she says, "Religion was more important to him than anyone I had ever met outside the priesthood." She and Blair would spend hours "talking about God and what we were here for. I don't think it would be too strong to say it was this that brought us together."

Their four children have been brought up as Catholics, and Blair has worshiped at Catholic churches for more than 20 years.

However, Blair was leading the post-Christian, secularized version of an officially Protestant nation. Thus, he waited until he was out of office to join his wife and family in the Roman Catholic fold.

Time makes it clear that part of what drew Blair to Catholicism was it's sense of global reach and community. It is, in a way, an ancient example of religious globalization -- which is Blair's new turf. And there is conflict there, for sure, conflict that is ancient, modern and postmodern.

That's where it is hard to sum up the reality of what Blair is saying. He is trying to criticize both religious orthodoxy (with a small "o") while also defending it. He is trying to criticize militant secularism, while continuing to say that one does not have to be a believer to live a moral life. Yet he also says that, while he cannot prove it, he believes that religious faith -- pick a faith, any faith -- provides strengths that mere humanism cannot.

blairpope23june07That's hot stuff. I tried to get that into my article, but could not in the short length while trying to cover what I thought were the major points of the address.

You end up having to make tough decisions. Here is one piece of my own column, the conclusion, noting that Blair tried very hard to stress that he wanted to work with traditional members of various world religions, while avoiding true extremism.

"Let me be clear," he said. "I am not saying that it is extreme to believe your religious faith is the only true faith. Most people of faith do that. It doesn't stop them respecting those of a different faith or indeed of no faith. ... Faith is problematic when it becomes a way of denigrating those who do not share it, as somehow lesser human beings."

Still, it's hard to argue for justice without some core belief that some things are right and some things are wrong. This is one reason, Blair concluded, that very few people want to live and raise their children in a faithless world.

"Faith corrects, in a necessary and vital way, the tendency humankind has to relativism. It says there are absolutes -- like the inalienable worth and dignity of every human being -- that can never be sacrificed. It gives true moral fiber. We err, we do wrong, we sin, but at least we know it and we feel the compunction to do better and the need to seek God's forgiveness."

Meanwhile, former White House scribe Michael Gerson looked at the same material and also got to talk to Blair, which is what happens when you are a columnist for the Washington Post and used to hang out in the Oval Office. It's interesting to note the piece of this puzzle that he elected to open with:

The American kickoff of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation last week unintentionally revealed the mountain of misunderstanding the former British prime minister has undertaken to scale. At an event designed to further mutual religious sympathy, two of the panelists -- including the president of Yale University, Richard Levin -- casually asserted that religious Americans who support pro-life restrictions on international family planning aid are as doctrinaire and exclusionary as Saudi extremists. Pro-life Catholics and evangelicals? Wahhabi extremists? What's the difference?

Clearly, mutual religious sympathy has a ways to go in places such as Yale.

Speaking to me after the event, Blair was patient, arguing that that "could not be what they intended." He admitted that on issues such as the rights of women, things "will be difficult," but he insisted that "there is a larger unity." He has no intention of being distracted from his mission.

And part of that new Blair mission is teaching a series of seminars -- at Yale -- that will attempt to create new models for interfaith dialogues and education projects, work that will teach people everywhere what these conflicting world religions really teach and how they should relate to one another. Good luck.

Lots of ground to cover, so read the speech for yourself.

What do you think is the lede? Oh, by the way, do you think it is fair ground to note that this new Catholic, while in office, backed policies that clash with some of his new church's moral teachings. Should that be mentioned, even in passing?

Please respect our Commenting Policy