Alex Massie Alex Massie

On not doing God

From Tony Blair’s speech to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this morning:

I believe restoring religious faith to its rightful place, as the guide to our world and its future, is itself of the essence. The 21st Century will be poorer in spirit, meaner in ambition, less disciplined in conscience, if it is not under the guardianship of faith in God. I do not mean by this to blur the correct distinction between the realms of religious and political authority. In Britain we are especially mindful of this. I recall giving an address to the country at a time of crisis. I wanted to end my words with “God bless the British people”. This caused complete consternation. Emergency meetings were convened. The system was aghast. Finally, as I sat trying to defend my words, a senior civil servant said, with utter distain: “Really, Prime Minister, this is not America you know.”

Well, it wasn’t always America either. As James Fallows has documented, neither Lincoln, nor Washington, nor FDR ever felt the need to tack the hokey “God bless the United States of America” onto the end of their speeches. Nor, for that matter, did Fallows’ old boss Jimmy Carter, probably the most personally devout of all recent Presidents. Reagan was the first to do so and ever since every other President has felt duty bound to copy the Great Communicator. And so everyone thinks it has alway been thus. But it hasn’t.

In any case, the civil servant was doing Blair a favour and saving him from mockery that would have diverted attention from the substance of his address. At a time when rather a lot of people thought Blair was blindly, indeed slavishly, following the American lead, regardless of the British national interest, copying a distinctly American rhetorical tic would have, fairly or not, bolstered that impression.

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