Mr Blair has a strong belief in mixing religion and politics
By Rachel Sylvester
It was Alastair Campbell who famously forbade Tony Blair to end his television address to the nation in the run-up to the Iraq war with the words: "God bless you." "We don't do God," he told one journalist sternly.
At a time when Posh and Becks have taken the place of Mary and Joseph in the Madame Tussauds nativity scene, when the Bethlehem manger has been banned from Red Cross shops, and when most ministerial Christmas cards make no mention of Christ, it looks as if he was right - not just about the Government but (as our poll today suggests) the nation. There is a perception that ministers are so sensitive to our multi-cultural society that they will support any religion except the one whose beginning was celebrated on Saturday. The Home Office is blamed for backing the Birmingham Repertory Theatre's decision to halt a play that had offended Sikhs while doing nothing to condemn a Channel 4 poster satirising the Last Supper. The Government's proposal to outlaw religious discrimination is criticised as an attack on free speech designed to appeal to Muslims.
And yet this Government is, in fact, more Christian than any of its recent predecessors, of either political persuasion.
There is a divide on the Left between those who adhere to Marx's view that religion is the opium of the masses and those who agree with Keir Hardie that Labour politics derive "more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined". The Blair administration is well and truly in the latter camp.
Much has been made of Ruth Kelly's links with Opus Dei, a Roman Catholic organisation that adheres strictly to papal teaching on abortion and contraception. There is a confusion among the media here: the same newspapers that lament the "death of Christmas" as "political correctness gone mad" are appalled by a minister's commitment to a "weird, secretive sect" involving God.
But, leaving that aside, the new Education Secretary is not alone. Many of the younger generation of Labour ministers - Douglas Alexander, Hazel Blears, David Lammy - are open about the way their Christian faith informs their desire for more moral values in politics. Several members of the Cabinet, including Tessa Jowell and Paul Boateng, go to church every week, at a time when church attendance generally is falling. And, of course, the political identities of the two most senior members of the Government were formed by a belief in the deity of Jesus Christ.
Gordon Brown once said that he acquired the socialist view that he should treat everyone equally when he was a boy sitting in a pew (five times every Sunday, one of his friends once told me) listening to his father's sermons. The Chancellor's formidable work ethic - as evident in his tax credit policies as in his own life - derives from the preacher's exhortation to his congregation to "live as those who are answerable for every moment and every hour". Tony Blair, meanwhile, is the first Prime Minister since Gladstone who keeps a copy of the Bible beside his bed. When he is abroad on a Sunday, he insists that his civil servants find a church where he can worship. In London, he is more interested in St Thomas Aquinas's just war theory than in waiting lists at St Thomas' hospital.
According to his biographer Anthony Seldon, the Labour leader thought seriously about going into the Church when he left university, and a political career is not that different, in his mind, from a religious calling. Private Eye's Vicar of St Albion is a satire that hits home. "My Christianity and my politics came together at the same time," he once said, explaining to The Telegraph that his Christian values led him "to oppose what I perceived to be the narrow view of self-interest that Conservatism - particularly its modern, more Right-wing form - represents". Naturally, his is an outward-looking faith that accepts the validity of other religions. What he does not have time for, however, is non-belief. "Religion should remain the bedrock of civilisation," he told a multi-faith service held to celebrate the Millennium.
Until now, the "God thing", as less devout Cabinet ministers call it in private, has been most evident in Mr Blair's foreign policy decisions. To him, international affairs are a battle between good and evil. Although President Bush was criticised for his description of the war on terrorism as a "crusade", it was in fact the Prime Minister who used the word first, in a Newsweek article about the Balkan war. His certainty about military action against Saddam Hussein derives from his analysis that the war was right in the eyes of God. His determination to "sort out" Africa is driven by the view that Christians must help the poor.
Perhaps the Almighty has less to say about pensions policy. Perhaps the ambiguity of triangulation is safer when you are talking about things that affect voters' daily lives. Pontius Pilate, Mr Blair once said, was "the archetypal politician, caught on the horns of an age old political dilemma... the struggle between what is right and what is expedient". But ministers have recently detected a new desire in the Prime Minister to apply the same moral fervour to domestic politics as he has done to events that happen abroad. The Government's campaigns on anti-social behaviour, parenting, truancy, obesity and binge-drinking are part of a Blairite vision of a world in which, as the Prime Minister once said: "There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We should not hesitate to make such judgments."
This is controversial stuff. Sometimes Mr Blair's certainty - particularly over the war in Iraq - is more than a little scary. Sometimes, there is no good or bad, no black or white; sometimes (as the Foreign Office always argues), the expedient solution is the right one. But the Prime Minister has usually been at his most impressive when he is arguing from the heart for something in which he really believes.
In Four Quartets, T S Eliot described Christmas as "the impossible union/ Of spheres of existence". His words could equally be applied to the tricky relationship between religion and politics. In the end, though, it is surely better to have political leaders who believe in something - whether you agree with it or not - than those who believe in nothing at all.
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