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Religion in Britain in the Blair era

Tina Beattie
10 January 2007

Britain has become increasingly secularised since the 1960s, although the 2001 census showed that some 72% of people still describe themselves as Christian. Under Tony Blair's leadership, the entrenched secularism of modern British politics has been undermined, as religious communities have been encouraged to play an increasingly active role in civic and political life.

This was true even before the events of 9/11 catapulted radical Islam to the forefront of global politics, introducing a complex new dimension to the Blair government's political/religious alliance. Secularists have been dismayed by what they perceive as the growing influence of religion on government, while many Christians have welcomed the return of faith to politics.

Blair is a church-going Anglican who traces his religious reawakening to his time at Oxford University. His wife, Cherie, is a practising Roman Catholic, and there are rumours that he is likely to become Catholic himself when he leaves office. He is a member of the Christian Socialist Movement, and he has appointed a number of practising Christians such as David Blunkett, Paul Boateng, and Ruth Kelly to prominent roles in his cabinet.

In 2003 he set up the Faith Communities Liaison Group to encourage partnership between government and religious communities. His government has extended the funding of faith schools, despite widespread opposition from those who argue that these have a divisive influence on society.

Tina Beattie is reader in Christian studies, Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002) and New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005)

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and jihad: beyond words" (18 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate"
(24 October 2006)

Notwithstanding all this, Blair has expressed a desire to avoid the kind of religious influence which is such a controversial feature of American politics. In 2003 his then press secretary Alastair Campbell famously intervened in a media-questioning session to declare that "We don't do God".

In a television interview with Michael Parkinson in 2006, Blair displayed considerable ambivalence when questioned about the relationship between faith and politics in his own life. When interviewers such as Jeremy Paxman and David Frost asked him whether or not he prayed with George W Bush when meeting to discuss the war in Iraq, he avoided the question (see Callum Brown, "'Best not to take it too far': how the British cut religion down to size", 8 March 2006).

An unholy trinity

There are three main issues concerning the relationship between religion and politics under Blair's leadership:

  • the influence of religion on government policy
  • faith schools
  • issues relating to Islam

The first issue might be best understood in the broader context of Blair's communitarianism. This leads him to advocate shared responsibility between government and community organisations, including religious communities, with regard to values in public life and the provision of services which have traditionally been the responsibility of the welfare state.

Yet these communitarian tendencies sit uneasily alongside Blair's equally strong commitment to encourage business investment in social spending, which some see as contributing towards the creeping privatisation of health care and education.

The second issue, faith schools, has resulted in the sponsorship of a number of city academies by the wealthy Christian entrepreneur Peter Vardy. Vardy supports the teaching of biblical accounts of creation alongside the theory of evolution, raising the spectre of "creationism" becoming an educational controversy in this country as it has in the United States.

More recently, in October 2006, Blair's government capitulated overnight to pressure from the Catholic church when it withdrew its proposal to introduce a mandatory requirement that all faith schools reserve 25% of their places for pupils from non-religious backgrounds.

 

Also in openDemocracy on the British prime minister's legacy:

Roger Scruton, "Tony Blair's legacy"
(18 December 2006)

Norman Fairclough, "Tony Blair and the language of politics"
(20 December 2006)

Felix Blake, "Blair's foreign-policy legacy" (21 December 2006)

Brian Brivati, "The Blair audit: war, human rights, liberalism"
(8 January 2007)

The primary target of this proposed legislation was Muslim schools, which have become eligible for government funding (previously restricted to Christian and Jewish schools) under the Blair government. There are concerns that segregated schooling leads to the ghettoisation of Muslim communities and creates conditions which encourage extremism.

This is the third and most complex religious issue which Blair has had to address during his time in government - how to reconcile the freedoms and rights of Muslim citizens with the influence of a resurgent Islamism whose followers pit themselves against the democratic values and institutions of western society. The result has been a campaign by the government to liaise with so-called "moderate"Muslims and marginalise their "extremist" counterparts, while seeking to eradicate the conditions under which the politics of violence and confrontation flourish.

But, as with many aspects of Blair's leadership, his political achievements in this field are overshadowed by the war in Iraq, his uncritical endorsement of American foreign policy, and the apparent failure of political will to find a solution to the Palestinian crisis. These factors undermine his credibility in the eyes of many British Muslims.

Blair's rhetoric suggests that he may see himself in the image of a messiah figure, called to liberate people from darkness and oppression, and willing to subject himself to the judgment of God and of history. But some may think that it would be better to look to Greek tragedy than to scripture for an appropriate archetype: for here is a potentially noble leader whose one great mistake has wreaked death and destruction on a grand scale, and which may yet be shown to have contributed to his own downfall.

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