Is Tony Blair´s Talk of Religion for Real?

Church-State Partnership Plan Raises Doubts

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LONDON, APR. 7, 2001 ( Should the churches be more involved in Britain´s public and social life? According to Prime Minister Tony Blair, the answer is yes.

Blair addressed the Christian Socialist Movement on March 29 and called for religious charities and organizations to become partners of the government in promoting health and welfare provision, the Guardian newspaper reported the next day.

Those attending the conference came from a variety of religious organizations, Christian and non-Christian. The British leader told the representatives of these groups, «Your role in the voluntary sector, working in partnership with central and local government, is legitimate and important and where you have the desire and ability to play a greater role, with the support of your communities, we want to see you do so … we want you as partners, not substitutes. We want to take this partnership forward wherever we can.»

The idea of a partnership between government and the churches to help resolve social problems was recently proposed in the United States by the Bush administration. In the United Kingdom, both Blair and the opposition Conservative Party leader, William Hague, have made efforts to obtain the support of religious groups for their platforms.

In his speech, Blair admitted that the Labor Party has often been too suspicious of enlisting such groups and maintained that it was a «misguided and outdated set of values» that demanded a straight choice between state and voluntary aid. He also announced that an interfaith group, to be known as the Lambeth Group, is being set up to look at how government consults religious groups across a range of «shared interests.»

Blair is one of most openly religious political leaders Britain has had in recent years. His wife, Cherie Booth, is a Catholic and his children go to Catholic schools. In the past, Blair used to accompany the family to Sunday Mass.

A Christian relativist?

As in America, the proposal to increase religion´s role in public life has provoked controversy. Even before the speech´s delivery, some Labor Party members expressed their opposition, according to a BBC report March 25. Former Labor deputy leader Lord Hattersley said «evangelizing» was dangerous and could alienate sections of society.

A March 30 opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph, written by Daniel Johnson, was skeptical of Blair´s newfound enthusiasm for religious values. Johnson considered that Blair´s declarations had more to do with the forthcoming elections than with the Labor leader´s Christian fervor.

Moreover, Johnson affirmed that «Tony Blair is not so much a Christian socialist as a Christian relativist,» noting that the Blair´s favorite theological guest at 10 Downing Street is none other than Hans Küng. He also observed that soon after it took power, the Labor government trimmed the charities´ fiscal privileges, reducing their annual income by 10%. The government also has enthusiastically promoted such initiatives as eliminating Section 28, which prohibits homosexuality being publicized in schools, and it has recently approved cloning of human embryos for research.

If the conservative Telegraph was hostile to Blair´s proposal, so also was the left-of-center Guardian. In its commentary March 30 on the speech, the Guardian feared that the religious agenda would be limited to pro-life, bioethical issues and family questions, on which the position of the Christian churches in many cases is «deeply conservative.» The newspaper also opined that the privatization of welfare services would not work, though it didn´t offer any detailed evidence to support its assertion.

The Sunday Times saw things differently. In its April 1 edition, it said the interest in religion by political leaders «arises from deepening concern about the values driving our highly individualistic consumer society. There are increasing suspicions that secularism, or living in a world with no meaning, may be an important contributor to our soaring rates of crime, family breakdown, depression and suicide.»

The Sunday Times, however, feared that the churches would not be able to help resolve this situation in Britain, because, compared with the United States, religious fervor is much weaker and the Anglican Church, the «established» religion, «is far too feeble and apologetic to provide strong moral leadership; indeed, it has become largely secularized itself.»

The Sunday Times also fears that in cooperating with government, the churches would become even more secularized. This partnership proposed by Blair would in fact mean control of the churches by the state, the paper said. «Religious projects will be nationalized, losing their independence and freedom,» it warned.

The Sunday Times agreed the Telegraph about the religious relativism of Blair. In his statements after the March 29 address, the paper reported, it became clear that all religions would be treated as equal.

«He seems to believe in a new type of human being, a global free-floating composite who embodies brotherly love and denies the fundamental differences that divide us,» observed the Sunday Times. Such an attitude will «devalue the Judeo-Christian ethic on which the country´s values are based,» the paper added.

Catholic bishops´ document

The week before Blair´s speech, the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of England and Wales published a statement outlining some points the faithful should take into consideration before voting in the next elections.

The document, titled «Vote for the Common Good,» was preceded by a statement of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O´Connor. He noted that the commitment to follow Christ «can never be something wholly private, because the commandments to love God and our neighbor go hand in hand.»

The aim of the bishops´ declaration, the cardinal said, is to illuminate how Church members view society and evaluate public policy. «It is not a political program and committed Catholics are rightly to be found in all the main political parties,» declared the introduction.

What followed was a brief exposition of doctrine concerning key points, such as solidarity, common good, human rights and the family. On bioethical issues the declaration was very clear: «A matter of supreme importance is human life itself. The first and most basic duty of the democratic state is to protect the lives of all citizens without discrimination.» And while the bishops admitted that this issue is not the only one to be taken into consideration, they judged that «a stance on certain key issues can be very revealing of a candidate´s overall values and priorities.»

Reporting on reactions to the declaration, The Times noted March 23 that the bishops were criticized for playing party politics, given that the Tory candidates are much more likely to take a pro-life stance than their opponents. The Guardian, meanwhile, observed that «women´s sexual health groups reacted furiously» to the proposal that Catholics should vote against pro-abortion candidates.

Church-state relations remain a difficult subject. Criticism of Blair´s speech aside, it would be difficult to deny the need for a renewal of moral values in British society, one of the most secularized in the West. At the same time, the hostile reception to the bishops´ voting guidelines shows the impossibility of satisfying all when it comes to reconciling religion and politics. Overall, however, Britain seems to have far more to gain than lose by a re-Christianization of society.

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