Saturday, December 22, 2007

Blair, Clegg, and Religion

Tony Blair, in his recent series of softball – and unbearably tedious – interviews with the absurdly self-important David Aaronovitch, favourably compared the United States with the UK vis-à-vis public attitudes towards religion. He said that in the USA the open discussion of one’s faith is acceptable, but that in the UK he, as Prime Minister, was reluctant to talk about his faith in case people thought he was a “nutter”.

These remarks are utterly disingenuous for two reasons. First, despite Alistair Campbell’s oft-reported comment that “we don’t do God” Blair did in fact “do God”. His religious beliefs were well known, and widely reported, and on occasion he himself commented on them (most notoriously in the Panorama interview when he said he was answerable to God for the decision to go to war in Iraq). His religious beliefs were no barrier to high office. Nor are they for Ruth (Opus Dei) Kelly, nor were they for David Blunkett, nor (under the Tories) for Ann Widdicombe, Whatshisname Gummer, nor anyone else.

And this is the second reason why Blair’s remarks were – to be charitable - disingenuous. For in the United States publicly expressed non-belief is a barrier to office. It is not that politicians can discuss their faith, it is that they must; and if they do not, or if they express disbelief, they will be hounded from public office. Blair got things precisely the wrong way round; in this matter Britain is a fairly liberal society (most people don’t really care what a politician’s religious views are) and the USA is most decidedly not.

One is reminded of this by Nick Clegg’s recent disavowal of religious belief. Admittedly, he is an odd kind of atheist, and subsequent to his original admission he has backtracked somewhat. We now learn that he is more “agnostic” than “atheist”; that he brings up his children as Catholics; and, of course, he has nothing but the utmost respect and esteem (blah, blah) for those of a religious bent. Even so, if Clegg were a politician in the USA his career would now be over. Instead, even the Archbishop of Canterbury is relaxed about Clegg’s non-belief; and it will probably do him no harm at all (it won’t do him any good, but it won’t do him any harm). That is the difference, in this matter, between Britain and the USA, and I know which I prefer.


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