Whatever the private man’s been up to, the public Tony Blair has been flirting with religion for a while. While was PM he was quiet at best about it, but now, if the spin is to be believed, he’s freed from the shackles of office and he can concentrate on what he really finds interesting: “I’m really and always have been in a way more interested in religion than politics”.
I don’t pretend to be a political animal. I’m not interested in analysing what Mr Blair believes or doesn’t believe. I hope he and Jesus are talking, but at the end of the day that’s a matter between the 2 of them.
What is interesting is Mr Blair’s new project, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Has Mr Blair simply identified something that government should’ve engaged a long time ago: the potential to harness the power of faith communities to facilitate social transformation?
In a way, I’m delighted by the Foundation. It has to be right that we should seek peace, engagement, and cooperation across faiths, and it’s great to see a high profile public figure engaging in promoting what faiths share over rather than what divides them.
But the idea raises questions and challenges too. In a video outlining the Foundation’s aims, Mr Blair says he aims to draw together people of different faiths as a force for common good. But why pick people of faith rather than people of none? Is this just a strategy to take advantage – albeit for good causes – of the fact that religious communities tend to have strong identities and strong views? Or is there something about “faith” that identifies religious groups as fundamentally different from other common interests?
And what of the differences between faiths? It has to be good to encourage cooperation, understanding and working together on global issues, and the rise of political unrest with apparently religious undertones is certainly sinister. But can the Faith Foundation embrace diversity without falling into the trap of relativism and individualism? Or will it fall foul of the temptation of affirming my right to believe anything unless it challenges what you believe? Something in the video makes me uncomfortable: does the face of the Foundation threaten to eclipse the distinctive nature of my faith – the core difference between the hope of Jesus and the gods of other faiths? Or do I simply need to trust that God’s big enough to deal, and to use whatever is done to his good?
Perhaps the bottom line is that cooperation is good, to be encouraged and embraced. The danger is in the temptation to dumb down differences, and the challenge is to do the opposite: not to paper over the cracks but to engage in addressing those issues with love and humility. I wonder how it’ll go…