“In some sense, his interfaith work is the same attempt to do to faith what he did for social democracy,” says Matthew Taylor, Blair’s former chief strategy adviser. “Faith has given itself a bad name, and it has to turn outwards, talking to people besides its own flock, so to speak—just like the Labor Party did.”
Which is, of course, a noble goal. But what does that mean in practical terms? How does one give this idea legs? Blair emphasizes the tangible goals of the foundation, like helping religious groups dedicated to the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals to end poverty (it currently works with Malaria No More and Interfaith Youth Core to distribute mosquito nets, for instance). But there are quite a few organizations that already do that. Blair argues that his role as Middle East envoy is also an extension of his commitment to religious reconciliation. (“If you achieve something in the Middle East,” he says, “you are giving it legs.”) But his Iraq legacy could clearly limit his effectiveness in the region.
In the end, says Blair, he hopes to give religious reconciliation a platform and profile, and he believes strongly in fighting zealotry, no matter where it is. But in this way, Blair’s reasons for launching his faith foundation start to seem like his reasons for going into Iraq—defined by, if not trapped in, abstract ideals.
Which is not to say that faith isn’t extremely meaningful to Blair. It was faith, in fact, that lured him into politics: As an undergraduate at Oxford, he became beguiled by the Scottish moral philosopher John MacMurray, who believed the path to spiritual fulfillment was through helping others. His interest in faith is ecumenical, intellectual. He travels with a Koran as well as a Bible, often pointing out to Christian audiences that Islam reveres Jesus as a prophet. Though he never believed his personal views had any place in the public square—his family pastor from Sedgefield, Father John Caden, recently told me, “He was very much against abortion, but his conscience never allowed him to force others into his line of thinking”—he was steadfast in his practice. While in office, he always insisted on going to church on Sundays, wherever he was, and whenever possible.
There are those in Britain who say that Tony Blair’s presence in America is a form of exile. But he shows no signs of dislocation or bitterness.
It’s hard to convey how unusual this level of religiosity was from a British public official—and, by extension, what an unusual choice Blair’s interfaith foundation is as a post-political project. In his lectures, Blair is fond of noting that only 30 percent of all Europeans consider religion an important part of their lives, compared with over 60 percent of all Americans and 90 percent of those living in Muslim countries. Blair’s own father was an atheist. Whenever I discussed Blair’s faith with M.P.’s or former aides, they invariably said the same thing Taylor did: “His faith is a complete mystery to me—but that’s the nature of faith, isn’t it?” A number of them, and friends too, went so far as to discourage him from starting a faith foundation, even though he’d stepped down from public life. While he was in office, any discussion of religion was strictly forbidden: In 2003, when David Margolick asked Blair about his faith for a story in Vanity Fair, Alastair Campbell, Blair’s colorful communications man, famously cut in before he could answer: “We don’t do God.”
“Look, you can make the case extremely convincingly for why religion is an absolutely terrible thing, and you’ll be right in every single respect,” says Turner, now the chief executive of Blair’s faith foundation. “Except for the fact that it’s not only like that,” she says, “and anyway, it’s not going to go away.” (As she was saying this, it occurred to me that the two blockbuster books about atheism of the last couple of years, God Is Not Great and The God Delusion, were by two Brits, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, respectively.)
Shortly after Blair stepped down from office, he finally converted to Roman Catholicism, the faith of his wife and his four children. This conversion was surely something he couldn’t have done while he was still in office; it would have been endlessly parsed by the public and the press (especially in a country where Catholics still can’t ascend the throne). After class at Yale one day, I ask if he’s relieved to be talking about faith openly now.
“Absolutely,” he says. “First of all, in our political culture … talking about religion is not a good idea”—he waves his hand in dismissal—“and secondly, it can distract. People start talking about your religious faith when they should be talking about your health-care policy. And I’d been interested in the interfaith notion for years, even prior to September the 11th.”