08 March 2008

What do Big Bird, Doonesbury and Tony Blair all have in common?

It is with some interest that I read this morning that Tony Blair is joining the schools of Divinity and Management at Yale in the autumn to teach a course in faith and globalisation.

Politics and religion have long been intertwined; my own interest in both stems from my Masters work on 'Angelology After Milton', charting the effect that Milton's purely political allegory 'Paradise Lost' had on the image and understanding of angels in later religious belief. As a 25 year old student, I readily dismissed modern-day belief in the literal existence of angels as a product of poor education, but watching the rise of the evangelical religious schools, home schooling and private Christian colleges in the US over the last ten years, from which so many political appointees in the current administration are drawn, I would now concede that literal belief is more recently the product of mis-education.

Much has been made of Bush's ties to the Christian right, with everyone from Bob Woodward to Jeremy Scahill highlighting the role his faith played in his decision to go to war twice against Muslim nations. Craig Unger sees the Bush presidency as a power struggle between the theocons (evangelical religious conservatives, the base that got Bush elected) and the neocons (the ultracapitalists he surrounded himself with in office), with Iraqis the ultimate losers when both groups saw an opportunity to jointly push their radial agendas. Indeed, with Blackwater existing in the mind of its owner as a Christian Army, and the US happily outsourcing more and more of its heavy lifting to such groups, its difficult to dispute Muslim claims that a holy war is being waged against them.

While much has been made in the media of Bush's reliance on the Christian right, little is said about the faith of those on the nominally opposite side of the political spectrum, particularly Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair. Little has been printed about Hillary's long-standing membership of The Fellowship, a conservative Bible study group in Washington that includes other more openly conservative politicians, such as Senators Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Her early membership of the Republican party (campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964) also brought her into contact with the evangelical movement, and though she highlighted Paul Tillich as a personal inspiration in the past she tends to view his writing through a very conservative lens; Werner Jeanrond, one of my professors in Trinity and current Dean of Theology at Lund, studied under David Tracey in Chicago. While this was after Tillich's death, he cast a large shadow over the school, and I somehow doubt that either Tracey or Jeanrond would be approve of Clinton's appropriation of Tillich (though given the recent edit war on his Wikipedia page, it seems there would be many who would disagree). Her conservative religious beliefs, whether real or appropriated for political purposes, combined with her longstanding attacks on the labour movement (she was on union-busting WalMart's board for six years) make it difficult for me to see any difference between her and many of the Republicans she campaigns against.

Tony Blair in contrast kept his religious convictions under wraps for many years. His main spin doctor Alistair Campbell famously declared 'We don't do God" when an interview with Blair turned to the subject. English religion, in contrast to American, has in modernity been more subtle, focused on private convictions and personal morality rather than grand public displays. While the American nation is founded on the separation of church and state, a reaction against the state Anglicanism of England in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the modern religion-obsessed US exists in stark contrast to the secular UK, still with it's official religion and the head of state as head of church. In this climate the thought that a political leader would take his country to war based on his belief that he was doing God's work would panic the electorate and destroy all political credibility. The British electorate will happily accept that you are hungry for oil, or miss your long-lost place in the sun, just don't tell them you hear voices telling you to convert the heathens. Wisely Blair avoided mention of his faith, and did not officially convert to Catholicism until after his career as Prime Minister was over. Now, however, he is certainly making up for lost time, with the launch of his new Faith Foundation to promote cultural understandings between Islam, Christianity and Judaism certain to cast suspicion on the neutrality of his actions as Middle East envoy for the Quartet (UN, EU, US and Russia) in the minds of many Muslims.

This will not be the first Blair to grace the streets of New Haven, for Tony's son is currently doing a Masters in International Relations there. This brings back many fond memories, for while I did not attend the school of IR I regularly audited IR 701, one of its more popular courses, for two years at GPSCY's (it is worth noting that the Very Understanding Girlfriend got honours in this course). A frequent sight on campus at the time was a panicked secret Secret Service detail running around asking if anyone had seen Barbara Bush, who had a penchant for ditching class and heading to New York for a booze-up, sans her minder, think "Chasing Liberty" with less Europeans and more Wild Turkey. I doubt that young Mr Blair has provoked similar antics.

The true winner in all of this is of course my Saturday morning, for rarely do the stars align so well as to deliver me a story in the Guardian that encompasses politics, religion and New Haven, a formula so perfect for blogging that it almost suggests the movement of an unseen hand in the background. But as a devout and practising atheist from the Statler and Waldorf School of Theology, I must dismiss this notion as simpleminded and naive.


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