Paul Vallely: Not doing God, the American way

by
24 May 2007

A politician separates his beliefs from his policies at his peril

HE WAS RIGHT, but for the wrong reasons. The former US President Jimmy Carter caused a stir this week by characterising Tony Blair’s relationship with George Bush as “abominable, loyal, blind, apparently subservient”. Britain’s “almost undeviating” support for “the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq has been a major tragedy for the world”. It was quite a broadside.

But then, when it was put to him that the root of the problem was that a “religious fervour” had entered into politics because of Mr Bush and Mr Blair, Mr Carter concurred. In his day, he said: “I was very meticulous in completely separating my religious faith from any element of politics or governance in the White House. I believed in what Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers, said that we should build a wall between Church and state.” In any case, the former President added, he worshipped a prince of peace, “not a prince of pre-emptive war”.

There was, of course, a non-sequitur in that. For in his judgement that pre-emptive war was unchristian, the ex-President was allowing his religious beliefs to intrude across the wall he claims should stand between faith and politics.

That is precisely what many secularist commentators have done in their analysis of the war in Iraq. The approach was epitomised by Jeremy Paxman in the infamous interview — re-broadcast last week — in which he harried Tony Blair over the question whether the Prime Minister had prayed together with George Bush. Paxman had prefaced one remark with the phrase “with respect”, indicating that respect was the one thing he lacked.

But he was more than disrespectful: he was ignorant; for it took at face value a view of Blair more familiar from Private Eye’s caricature of him as an Evangelical Charismatic vicar who hears the voice of God in his ear, presumably whispering: “Invade Iraq.” It is a parody that secularists often project on to believers in general.

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There are many ways of being a Christian, some altogether more intellectual, others more concerned with the transcendental or even mystical. But the mainstream way of “doing God”, I would suggest, is more assimilated and internalised. It is about being part of a community and a shared moral tradition that, through regular exposure to the gospel, shapes the kind of person you are. It informs and moulds your conscience and creates your moral world-view.

It is against that background that you make decisions based on evidence, the advice of others, and your own rational judgements. Prayer is about making yourself open to a greater reality rather than waiting to hear instructive voices in your head.

That, I suspect, is the kind of Christian that Tony Blair is. It means that there is a moral vision at the heart of his decision-making, albeit one shot through with a political pragmatism that is altogether less appealing. Unless we can truly compartmentalise our faith into a single hour on a Sunday morning, the notion of a wall between Church and state is meaningless.

Having a moral vision, of course, does not mean that you always do what is right. A moral compass can be thrown off true by other magnetic influences. In Tony Blair’s case, what subverted his ethical balance was the consideration that, for strategic reasons, it was in Britain’s best interest to stay close to America, and “stand shoulder to shoulder”, “through thick and thin”.

He forgot that being a good friend sometimes means saying no. Instead he convinced himself that he was doing the right thing, and was prepared even to produce dodgy dossiers to justify that bigger truth.

He was wrong, but for the right reasons. In politics that is the greater tragedy by far.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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