It was, perhaps, an ill-kept secret. as Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair was officially an Anglican. Unofficially, though, he was a practicing Roman Catholic. "My wife's Catholic, my kids are brought up as Catholics, I've been going to mass for 25 years," he told NEWSWEEK last week. Blair's dual identity, obviously, was awkward. Catholic-Protestant relations in Britain have historically been troubled.
The P.M. has traditionally followed the Reformers. (Even Benjamin Disraeli, who was born Jewish and served twice as prime minister in the 19th century, was baptized in the Anglican Church when he was a boy.) As part of his job, the prime minister appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury in the name of the Crown. This would be a tricky role for a Catholic.
Even before his tenure as P.M., Blair had a great deal of experience living at once in diverse religious worlds. He is the Christian son of an atheist father who became a Christian politician in a secular country. He got himself into what he calls "an imbroglio" two years ago when he tried to defend his decision to join America in its war against Iraq by citing his Christian faith. Critics pounced, saying his support of the war was un-Christian. For all these reasons, Blair waited until he was out of office to convert to Catholicism, which he did in a private ceremony last year. Six months later, he announced the launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, an organization that aims to promote interfaith cooperation in a globalized world. Now officially Catholic, Blair continues to eschew orthodoxy. Though a devout believer, he stands in opposition to his pope on issues like abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research and the rights of gay people to adopt children and form civil unions. "I guess there's probably not many people of any religious faith who fully agree with every aspect of the teaching of the leaders of their faith," he says.
In a way, Blair's foundation is the culmination of his life as a double agent. Last week, the day before he finished his first semester at Yale University, where he was teaching a course called Faith and Globalization, we met to talk about his plans. Having launched the course at Yale, Blair will set up a small office there and create similar courses at other universities worldwide. His organization is poised to do more polling and research. It will sponsor internships, expand its Web presence, publish its own books and periodicals. All this work comes out of Blair's conviction that as globalization pulls the world and the people in it closer together, religion could pull us apart. "We have an obligation to present spiritual faith as something that is positive and progressive and solves problems and does good, rather than something that people only read about because people are killing in the name of it," he says.
Blair criticizes other interfaith groups, indirectly, for too much talk and not enough action. What he wants is "product," another word for "results." He cites his foundation's efforts on behalf of fighting malaria, in which church and mosque groups work together in Africa to distribute bed nets and medicines. "To me what is important is that the whole faith area gets some what I would call muscularity, and certainly strategy." What, then, of the inherent tensions in his endeavor? For at its root, "interfaith understanding" runs counter to any religion's understanding of itself as the best or only path to God. Blair firmly says he wants to put doctrinal issues aside. Religious people must recognize "that other people feel that they have the one true faith, and you see how you can come together." Beyond this, he won't expand. Blair knows that he's on thin ice here—for, as Benedict XVI preaches, religious relativism is the enemy of orthodoxy. But then orthodoxy has never been what Tony Blair is about.