Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation - treating religions as secular?

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme last night about Tony Blair and the work of setting up his Faith Foundation. The programme can be heard online, and is due for a repeat broadcast on Sunday at 17.00 (UK time).

One impression I took away from the programme was that there is a real sense in which religious belief comes "second" in the project of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. I do not intend by this any suggestion of hypocrisy in the project; the programme did communicate the sense that Tony Blair has a strong and personally genuine commitment to the project. However, key to the whole idea of the project is an idea of "people of faith coming together in the service of progress" [I cite from memory, but Tony Blair uses a phrase like this early in the programme]; that if people of "faith" come together on practical projects such as fighting malaria and working for the Millennium Development Goals, then progress and harmony will be encouraged. In the principle underlying the Foundation, there is a complete abstraction from the specificness of the different religious beliefs held by the participants in favour of common action, and common action on goals that themselves lack a specifically religious content.

There was an interesting observation in the programme from a student at Yale University, who is following the course on faith and globalisation on which Tony Blair teaches. What he found interesting and challenging in following the course was the question of working out how he, with his Muslim faith, could live in the modern world. This, of course, inserts into the discussion a reference to a specific religious belief, which is precisely what the principle underlying the Foundation tries to leave aside.

I think Tony Blair, throughout the programme, refers only to "faith" and not to "religion" or to "religions". We are talking about the question of "inter-faith". And this is expressed, too, in the title of the Foundation: the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. I recall, soon after Tony Blair was first elected as Prime Minister in 1997, reading about the "new left" project, of which "new Labour" was the manifestation in the United Kingdom. Roughly speaking, this project is one of economic conservatism combined with social liberalism - and, seen in the context of Leninist pragmatism, it is more left-wing than may be commonly appreciated. One of the books I read at that time was Anthony Giddens The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. Anthony Giddens was at the time, I think, one of Tony Blair's gurus (for want of a more suitable term). And he is a sociologist - this not meant as an insult. I do not think his book makes any reference to the part that religious communities can play in society. However, during the Radio 4 programme, Tony Blair comments that he had felt that the question of "inter-faith" was an important part of the situation from early in his political career, and I found this particularly interesting.

It is interesting to place this observation alongside the project of the "new left" of which Tony Blair is an archetypal figure, and to then re-read the project of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in that light. Can we see religious belief being "co-opted" in the service of an essentially sociological/secular agenda? In which case the adoption of the language of "faith" and "inter-faith" rather than that of "religions" and "inter-religious" does communicate something of significance. Is it the "new left" agenda that is coming first and the question of religious belief that is coming second in the principle underlying the Foundation? Is there a spectacular failure to recognise religion as religious, and instead a reduction of religion to the sociological and political alone?

I think Pope Bendict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est provides us with a message of caution for any engagement that Catholics might have with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. As Cardinal Cordes pointed out during his visit to Britain, Pope Benedict deliberately placed the consideration of God as love before his consideration of the pastoral and charitable activity of the Christian in the Church. And he pointed out that it is not possible to separate the pastoral and charitable activity of the Church, and of Christians in the Church, from its alignment to the manifestation of the love of God. The abstraction from the specificness of religious belief, precisely as religious, that is in its relation to God and how we come to know God, that underlies the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is not permissible for the Catholic. For other religions, I would suspect that the same applies.

The problem does come very much to the fore if the work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is looked at from the point of view of specific elements of Catholic teaching. John Smeaton has posted on this: here and here.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Very interesting comments!
T.B. is a wily politician and some of us wonder whether his motivation in setting up this foundation is political, rather than stemming from religious belief.