God and Tony Blair

For more than 20 years, including while prime minister, Blair attended Catholic Mass with his wife and children, who were being raised as Catholics. Last year, Blair himself converted to Roman Catholicism, because, he says, he finally wanted to receive Communion with his family. Some of his views, such as support of abortion rights, conflict with Catholic doctrine. Others, like his commitment to development in Africa, are very much in keeping with the Catholic Church's teachings about working for the common good.

He'd held off on conversion while in office, Blair says, not just because of some residual anti-Catholic feeling in the UK but also because he sensed that such a public act of faith might be widely misunderstood.

"If you are a person of faith and you are publicly engaged, people seem to think that everything you do is because of some special relationship you are claiming with God," he told his class in a session in October.

He went on: "But, for example, if you take a decision, as I took on several occasions, to engage in military conflict, to go to war -- leave aside whether you agree or you disagree with individual decisions -- there isn't a transmission where your faith tells you that this is the right way to decide this issue. But in your assessing of whether you are going to do it or not going to do it, the issue of right or wrong is important, and actually in my view should outweigh the issue of constituency -- or indeed, I would even say, constitution. I put that up as a question.

"I had a discussion with another political leader whether this was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do" -- to engage in military action -- "and he said, 'I'm not really concerned about that. I'm sure it's in the interests of my country to do it.' And we had this rather curious debate where I was saying, 'If that is the only reason you think it should be done, you shouldn't be doing it.'

"I think that faith in that sense can be progressive. Not -- and you must understand what I am saying here -- not because the decision is necessarily the right decision. But progressive in the sense that issues to do with right and wrong are part of the decision-making process.


Despite Blair's own faith, "religious tensions have increased markedly" under him, says Tristram Hunt, a historian at Queen Mary University of London.

Early in his tenure, Blair won over British Muslims by giving them the kind of public respect they had never seen from British politicians, according to Sirajul Haq Khan. Blair's decision to intervene militarily in Kosovo also helped his standing with Muslims. But the Iraq War intensified feelings of isolation among second- and third-generation British Muslims, Hunt says, and also increased hostility toward Muslims from the larger society.

American Muslims who interact with Blair, like Qadhi and Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core, disagree with his decision to go to war in Iraq (as does his co-teacher, Volf), but they are largely more pragmatic than their British counterparts.

"There's a new category emerging of interfaith activist, along the lines of human rights or environmental activists," says Patel, who works in partnership with Blair and his foundation. "I'm now consistently speaking to several hundred or several thousand people, when just five years ago I was talking to seven people in a church basement. And Tony Blair is the first leader of this stature to take this issue this seriously."

Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, who manages faith-based projects for Malaria No More, also has serious misgivings about Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. But, she says, "my goal is to increase malaria control, and if he can push the needle on this issue, it is incumbent upon me to work with him." Blair has committed to raise money for 1 million of the 250 million bednets needed in sub-Saharan Africa. His foundation is also funding the 30 young men and women who will work in the field with Malaria No More and then take the issue back home with them. "They will help to spread this on the grassroots level," Abdul-Ghafur says. "It's like planting 30 seeds."

Those 30 seeds; a class of 25 students at Yale; plans to develop curricula for secondary school students -- all might seem like whispers against the daily din of rage and violence in God's name. But not to Blair.

"I don't feel puny before this," Blair says. "I have a complete belief that what most people want is a sense of spirituality and a sense of purpose derived from spirituality in their lives, and they don't want to exclude other people.

"If you do have religious faith, it is incredibly important to rescue faith from becoming the property of those who see it as a means of shutting themselves off from others. There is a huge constituency for peaceful coexistence."

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