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The American Blair

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With whom, I ask, does he discuss matters of faith, other than Cherie?

“Actually,” he says, “what’s interesting is I’ve spoken to several European leaders—I won’t name them—who I didn’t really think were religious at all, and was rather surprised. They know I’ve started this foundation. And they’ll say, ‘That’s really interesting, because you know,’”—and here he lowers his voice a bit—“‘I am actually a practicing Christian.’” Turner adds that prominent business executives have told him the same thing.

Blair’s opening lecture at Yale. His students love him. They say he’s easygoing, schmoozy. Before class starts, he introduces himself to everyone by name; during the break, he will linger and continue chatting with students who are having a debate.

“I would identify three aspects to faith when we talk about it as an objective force,” he says. “One is that faith can become a means of self-identity: This defines my culture; this defines my political attitude.” One can intuitively understand this statement in the context of wars with religious components: I’m Sunni, and you’re Shia; I’m Catholic, and you’re Protestant.

“A second aspect,” he says, “is that it’s just part of my tradition: ‘I grew up in a certain type of society that was defined by my faith.’” My father’s father’s father practiced this faith, in other words, and that’s why I’m a Catholic/Hindu/Jew.

“And then there is a third way,” he says, “faith as spiritual awakening: faith as it defines my values and beliefs, not in a cultural sense but in a personal sense.”

And this final aspect of faith, if you think about it, best describes Tony Blair’s. His faith is personally and deeply felt, something he’s studied and thought hard about, something that’s quietly animated his life choices and provided a code of values to live by. The second aspect doesn’t describe him—he hardly had a faith tradition in his family if his father was an atheist—nor does the first: Faith couldn’t have distinguished his political identity if he couldn’t even talk about it when he was in politics.

George W. Bush may also experience faith as spiritual, a force that defines his values and beliefs. We should grant him that. But faith absolutely distinguishes him politically. Though he may never have said outright that he’s the leader of a Christian nation, he reportedly told Palestinian leaders that he believed God told him to end the tyranny in Iraq, and he has described, now infamously, the war on terror as “a crusade.”

“I call it ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ religion,” says Miroslav Volf, Blair’s co-teacher at Yale this past semester. “‘Thin’ is a cultural resource that provides a canopy over who we are, and it functions to legitimize, to sacralize, what we would have done in any case. Whereas a ‘thick’ religiosity has commitment, a sense of values, a sense of historical depth. And my theory,” he says, “is that when you have a thinning out of religion, it’s more likely to promote violence.”

Both Blair and Bush took their nations to war in Iraq. And we’ll never know how, or if, their faiths played a role in making their decisions. Blair chafes whenever anyone suggests it did, noting that outsiders can choose to interpret all choices made by a believer through the prism of his faith, even if other principles were in fact guiding the way. “The reasons for the conflict,” he told me, “were the reasons that were given.”

But at the very least, Blair’s analysis does show how two very different kinds of politicians who call themselves Christians can get to the same place. Blair believes in just wars. It was he, ultimately, who convinced Bill Clinton to intervene in Kosovo and halt the ethnic cleansing of Albanians. “You can put it this way,” says Volf. “Blair is standing at the center of faith, and he’s asking, ‘How can this faith and the good of that faith be socially promoted?’ Whereas Bush stands almost at the boundary of the faith, meaning, ‘How do I defend from incursion from the outside?’”

It’s this distinction that perhaps explains why so many of us, myself included, still have affection for Tony Blair, and manage to see him as different from George W. Bush. But if God is the ultimate judge, will He factor in good intentions, when so many lives were lost in Iraq? For now, Blair believes he did the right thing, and as a leader he was obliged to make a choice. So he continues to explain that decision to us with articulate precision, just as he continues, with CinemaScope vision and a thousand-watt smile, to explain the wide array of forces now shaping the world. But how he’ll move through that world—at cruising altitude or with his long legs planted firmly on the ground—will be something to watch in the years ahead, just as it will with Obama, whose high-flown oratory now needs earthbound translation. Bush will vanish without a trace, and good riddance to him. But Blair will not. If he figures out how to make real amends—to contribute something to the world that goes beyond the lovely pageantry of words and ideas—he may, at long last, have found the true Third Way.


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