Thursday, November 08, 2007

Why It Matters That Tony Blair Is A Catholic

On the surface, this might seem to the casual observer to be a bit of a non-story. It was reported today, leaked really, that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007) is just about ready to convert to Catholicism.

For those who watch British politics and politicians, this surely came as no real shock. It had been speculated for some time that Blair, who's wife Cherie and children are all Catholic, would officially convert after years of genuflecting in private.

O.K. Great, so he's a Catholic. So what?

The speculation over this matter proffered several reasons why he would not just do it when he was still resident at No. 10 Downing Street: the situation in Northern Ireland, possible constitutional problems related to the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, would be seen as an unpopular and divisive act in what is more and more a secular country.

While these reasons (and others) seem plausible if debatable, I think the real importance lies in the fact that it became such a public concern in the first place.

It does bear repeating that, on the whole, Great Britain is become a more "secular" country, a process that has been ongoing for, oh, a hundred years or more. Secular in the sense that less people profess a belief in any certain religion, attend any religious service and don't think that faith of any sort informs other parts of their lives. See this BBC story for more details on this score.

This seems strange, given that a large part of the UK (Northern Ireland) has been wracked by sectarian violence for thirty-five years (in its current form). Perhaps this is not so odd, though. If your country (or at least part of it) were inhabited by people ready to kill each other and religion was one of the reasons why, wouldn't that cause you to rethink your beliefs in general?

Northern Ireland may be the exception that proves the rule, but Northern Ireland is always treated as a sort of asterisk after any blanket statement about anything in the UK.

So, in a (largely) secular country with lived experience of the violence that religion sometimes causes between people, why is the fact that a former PM is converting to another religion a big deal?

For me, the real importance lies in the fact that this is a public concern at all. It says a lot not only about how Britons relate to their politics and society generally, but also about how history really dies hard in how it shapes perceptions.

It is a curious relation that the average Briton has to the government and institutions of society. It can best be described as a love-it-but-can't-live-without-it sort of arrangement. They complain about how useless the monarchy is, yet polling data suggests that most would keep it, given a choice. Same goes for the Church of England, which is an arm of the state (the monarch is also the head of the church).

It is this strange relationship that lies at the center of the "Tony Blair's a Catholic" foofaraw.

This leads into the second reason why this is important: the persistence of history. People like to think that history is, well, history. It is old news, forgotten, swept away in the march of progress. As most of you know, however, history retains a strange hold on people and their world views. How many of you think that the British are staid and proper, the French are snotty, the Irish are drunks, the Italians/Spainards/Greeks are passionate and violent and the Germans/Russians are authoritarian?

Probably more than a few. These perceptions are couched in historically determined conceptions of "national character," an idea that emerged from the eighteenth century. It is just this sort of thing that informs the reaction to Blair's conversion.

The British (the English in particular) seem to have a deep-seeded distrust of anything that smacks of Catholicism. For a country that went through the Reformation in the manner that England did (fits and starts and wars and most of Europe), this memory is part of the national story.

On the other side, the story of Catholics in Britain is a story, after about the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) of an underground religious culture that was distrusted and marginalized. This is not even mentioning how Catholicism developed and reacted to British domination in Ireland (which one could write about for the rest of one's life and not reach a conclusion).

This historical mistrust seemed to rear its head when, even before he left office in June of this year, there were hints at Blair being a "crypto Catholic." This mistrust of Blair's religion seemed to awaken the old demons of sectarianism and division that were supposedly laid to rest.

It could just be (and I think there is something to be said for this) that some people just didn't like Tony Blair and found any percieved difference to pounce upon. It could also be that this rise in negative feelings toward a Catholic leader is but a part of a complex interaction of perception, reality, policy and public opinion that intersect in the life of a lot of public figures (a lot of everyone, really).

I think that there is a lot at work here: perceptions of a public figure's private life; old prejudices rearing up; dislike of a controversial leader; questions over the faith of an ever more diverse people; the role of faith in public life.

These are questions that, rightly or wrongly, we will keep asking of our leaders and interpreting their answers to our liking. While the inclination to do this is strong indeed, I just hope that people for once stop and consider why they believe what they believe and see if it makes any sense given the situation.

This may be too much to ask of anyone, but I think it should be considered by everyone.

These are the "big questions" that we all must face, like it or not.

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