Tony Blair, double agent?

blairbigbenTony Blair's faith has long been the subject of speculation, analysis and even controversy. The buzz has continued since Blair converted to Catholicism last year after leaving office as Prime Minister of Britain. More recently, he's started the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, an organization promoting faith as a force for good in a globalised world.

Free from the perceived or real constraints of office, Blair's been talking about faith in general, and his faith in particular.

See him gamely (and a bit bemusedly) playing straight man with Comedy Central host Jon Stewart last September.

Read an article by Tim Walker on the Telegraph.co.uk website, where Blair confesses that he may have been too reticent to talk about his Christian beliefs while Prime Minister.

"I think it is sad in the way that people feel you can't talk about something that is obviously important to who you are," he says in an interview with Martin Popplewell for Christmas Voices on BBC1 on Sunday. "Maybe I became too sensitive to that or too cautious about it, but I just came to the conclusion that [if] I started talking about religion...it was going to be difficult."

The British press seems intrigued by the inside baseball game of whether or not Blair was influenced by former communications chief Alastair Campbell, who famously said "we (the P.M.'s office) don't do God." But writers on this side of the pond are greatly intrigued by parsing Blair's faith.

For those curious about how Blair sees himself, a few articles bear a look.

This week's edition of Newsweek has a succinct and provocative interview with Blair by Lisa Miller.

Miller starts with the assertion that Blair had, for much of his life, moved in what the Renaissance writer Sir Thomas Browne could have called "divided and distinguished worlds."

It was, perhaps, an ill-kept secret. as Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair was officially an Anglican. Unofficially, though, he was a practicing Roman Catholic. "My wife's Catholic, my kids are brought up as Catholics, I've been going to mass for 25 years," he told NEWSWEEK last week. Blair's dual identity, obviously, was awkward. Catholic-Protestant relations in Britain have historically been troubled.

The P.M. has traditionally followed the Reformers. (Even Benjamin Disraeli, who was born Jewish and served twice as prime minister in the 19th century, was baptized in the Anglican Church when he was a boy.) As part of his job, the prime minister appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury in the name of the Crown. This would be a tricky role for a Catholic.

Blair's Catholic practice doesn't seem to have been much of a secret. While it's true that Catholic-Protestant relationships in Britain have been troubled historically, as Miller writes, they've improved considerably over the past 50 years. I suspect that some of Blair's apparent evasiveness about his faith was due more to his own ambivalence about what he revealed and did not reveal than the reality of the political situation.

As Blair says in the Walker article about the possibility of having a Catholic P.M., "I don't think it makes any difference to people at all, politically."

Here's an intriguing quote from Miller's column:

Now officially Catholic, Blair continues to eschew orthodoxy. Though a devout believer, he stands in opposition to his pope on issues like abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research and the rights of gay people to adopt children and form civil unions. "I guess there's probably not many people of any religious faith who fully agree with every aspect of the teaching of the leaders of their faith," he says.

In a way, Blair's foundation is the culmination of his life as a double agent.

Yanno, if I was Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who received Blair into the Catholic Church last year, or the ex-P.M. himself, I wouldn't be very happy to read this paragraph. A "double-agent"? As in a spy -- or a renegade? Yikes.

Miller's absolutely correct in noting that some of Blair's positions fly in the face of Catholic doctrine. Read this Religion News Service commentary by Phyllis Zagano to find out more.

So why did the Catholic Church receive him? A BBC article from last year says that the Vatican "welcomed" his conversion. It's hard to believe that Pope Benedict XVI finds all of his views palatable. How can Miller say (accurately) that while he "eschews orthodoxy" he is a "devout believer"?

(By the way, if I could I would forcibly retire buzz words like fundamentalist, evangelical, liberal and orthodox from the vocabulary of journalism and force writers to find more accurate ways of describing people and groups -- they obscure more than they reveal.)

Miller plays it relatively straight for most of this article. But the last few sentences befuddle:

Religious people must recognize "that other people feel that they have the one true faith, and you see how you can come together." Beyond this, he won't expand. Blair knows that he's on thin ice here--for, as Benedict XVI preaches, religious relativism is the enemy of orthodoxy. But then orthodoxy has never been what Tony Blair is about.

For some, the Blair quote is a clear signal that he's one of those "many roads to the same God" type of gents. But for all readers know, he was making a statement of fact -- many faiths believe they have the one and only answer. NBD. Who has a clue?

Apparently Miller knows what Blair was talking about, because she calls his statement "religious relativism" -- fighting words if ever I heard them. And then she reintroduces the "o" word. If reader's are greatly confused as to what anyone in the Blair conversion drama (Cardinal, Blair, Pope) was really about, I wouldn't blame them.

Now there's a story worth writing -- but I suspect it's one for the history books. But at least it's easy to know which side you are on. "Relativist" versus "orthodox" -- where would you like to find yourself?

Readers can take a stand -- and they will, of course.

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