Tony to pope: grin and Blair it

Former British Prime-Minister Tony Blair and the British press do seem to be a match made...well, somewhere. The Catholic convert has been outraging conservatives ever since he left Downing Street in 2007. In a fascinating symbiosis between Blair and the press, he natters on about religion, which gains him publicity for himself and his foundation, and the media outlets publish his utterances, focusing on his many controversial statements (and perhaps attracting more readers).

What would happen if he shared his perspective on rugby, which some Brits take even more seriously? Riots would probably break out.

Recent articles in the London media outlets covered an interview Blair gave to the British magazine Attitude, which is targeted to the gay market. Ruth Gledhill's article, posted on Times Online, focused on the portion of the interview, relatively close to the end, that addressed historic and contemporary religious attitudes towards homosexuality in general and those of the Pope in particular.

Note that these comments actually take place in the context of a much longer interview, which you can find linked in Gledhill's blog. Naturally, Gledhill's lede pits one enormous public figure against another.

Tony Blair has challenged the "entrenched" attitudes of the Pope on homosexuality, and argued that it is time for him to "rethink" his views.

Speaking to the gay magazine Attitude, the former Prime Minister, himself now a Roman Catholic, said that he wanted to urge religious figures everywhere to reinterpret their religious texts to see them as metaphorical, not literal, and suggested that in time this would make all religious groups accept gay people as equals.

Asked about the Pope's stance, Mr Blair blamed generational differences and said: "We need an attitude of mind where rethinking and the concept of evolving attitudes becomes part of the discipline with which you approach your religious faith."

There's an awful lot going on here. First of all while Blair may or may not have intended to be specifically critical of Pope Benedict, he was responding to a question about Catholic "church leaders" in general.

Here's what he said when asked to respond to a question about why many of the "world's most senior religious leaders" in general and the Pope specifically disagree with his position.

To my mind, this is a tremendously revealing quote--and more interesting than suggesting that Blair was tossing a gauntlet at the Pope's feet (metaphorically speaking, of course, since Blair is apparently such a metaphorical kind of guy).

Again, there is a huge generational difference here. And there's probably that same fear amongst religious leaders that if you concede ground on an issue like this, because attitudes and thinking evolve over time, where does that end? You'd start having to rethink many, many things. Now, my view is that rethinking is good, so let's carry on rethinking. Actually, we need an attitude of mind where rethinking and the concept of evolving attitudes becomes part of the discipline with which you approach your religious faith.

Earlier in the Attitude interview, Blair dismissed a literal reading of the Old Testament. It's not even clear, from his point of view, what he thinks of the Hebrew Scriptures at all -- follow his arguments to their logical conclusion, and one might argue that the Hebrew Scriptures are a benighted relic of a less rational time. The lens he applies to traditional religious points of view on homosexual practice is the same lens he seems to apply consistently, that of the supremely rational, self-confident, "progressive" innovator: "rethinking is good, so let's carry on rethinking."

Religious thoughts and even texts can evolve over time, argues Blair. Evangelicals (like Saddleback megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who serves on Blair's Tony Blair Faith Foundation board) can change their minds about gay practice if they are "engaged" in dialogue. And then there is this sentence: "I think that for all religions, the challenge is how do you extract the essential values of the faith from a vast accumulation of doctrine and practice?"

That's an extraordinary sentence on so many levels. Who gets to define the "central values?" Does one get to ditch the "doctrine and practice" if one doesn't like it or feels that it is discriminatory? Yet neither Gledhill, nor her colleague Jerome Taylor at The Independent bring in any dissenting voices, or provide any context for Blair's statements.

One would expect that perhaps in a mainstream media piece his statements would receive some analysis or a challenge from another authority figure --possibly one with some credentials in the religious world. Instead, the media's usual obssession with personalities blinds them to the bigger story -- the self-confidence of a former head of state who seems to believe that if he and others talk persuasively enough, centuries of doctrine will be abandoned and the tide will flow inexorably their way.

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