Alex Massie

Religious politicians: kooks or not?

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Rod Dreher asks:

I agree that it was stupid that Romney should have had to have given that speech, but American political culture really left him little choice. As silly as that may seem -- as silly as it is -- is Britain really better off? This, from Jeff Jacoby's column on Romney today:

It was on Sunday that the Romney campaign announced the forthcoming speech, saying the candidate would discuss how his "own faith would inform his presidency if he were elected."

On the same day in Britain, as it happened, the BBC broadcast an interview with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said that his Christian faith had been "hugely important" to him during his 10 years in power - but that he had felt constrained to keep it a secret for fear of being thought a crackpot.

"It's difficult to talk about religious faith in our political system," Blair said. "If you are in the American political system . . . you can talk about religious faith and people say, 'Yes, that's fair enough,' and it is something they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter."

Apparently that was more than Blair was willing to risk. The fear of being thought ridiculous was why his press secretary had snapped, "We don't do God," when an American reporter asked the prime minister about his religious views in 2003. It was why Blair's advisers vehemently protested when he wanted to end a televised speech on the eve of the Iraq war with the words "God bless you." American presidents routinely invoke God's blessing on the nation, but Blair's spinmasters warned him against annoying "people who don't want chaplains pushing stuff down their throats." (Blair told his flacks they were "the most ungodly lot," but bowed to their demand and ended the speech with a limp "thank you.")

Rod concludes:

Personally, I'd vote for a wise and trustworthy atheist over a brother in Christ who struck me as neither. But I'm in the minority here. Still, I prefer a political culture where politicians are expected to make some kind of respectful gesture toward God than one in which they are afraid to do so for fear of being thought a kook.

Well. There are a number of things here. First, from a political view Blair's press handlers were quite right to stop him "doing God". The consequences would have been calamitous. It is not insignificant that when Private Eye was looking for a successor to its splendid Adrian Mole rip-off The Secret Diary of John Major Aged 47 and 3/4 they settled for lampooning Blair as The Vicar of St Albion. Blair always had this trendy vicar side to him (the sort of vicar, incidentally, that I think Rod would despair of) and it is hard to imagine him failing to make the worst of that had he taken to talking about religion in public.

(As for being a kook: well, the Blairs are a little kooky. Cherie believes in crystals; they go in for re-birthing and spiritually cleansing mud-baths and all the rest of it. For a particularly mean  - vicious in fact - compendium of Cherie's eccentricities see this Daily Mail piece subtly headlined Is Cherie Blair Misunderstood or Bonkers?)

More importantly, however, Blair was only the hired help. Who is he to proselytise in this or any fashion? The only non-ordained person in Britain who can invoke God without fear of ridicule is Her Majesty herself. Her Christmas message each year frequently touches on religious themes and always ends by asking that "God bless you". The Queen can get away with this not just because she's the Head of the Church of England, but because when she does talk about religion she does so in a way that is modest and unassuming and, above all, transparently sincere (a trick, frankly, Blair could never have managed). She has the authority to do this, but also the sense to know her limits: Britain has no desire to see a televangelist in Buckingham Palace.

Then again, other politicians have found it possible - even in modern Britain - to talk about faith-based issues without seeming kooky.  People, I think, generally accept Gordon Brown's Church of Scotland background, just as they did Margaret Thatcher's small town Methodism. (Which reminds me of that famous old line about how the British Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism: true.)

But Brown and Thatcher had the good sense to keep their religion private. In part this is simple good manners. Religion, after all, is one of the three subjects you're not supposed to talk about at table. But it's also a recognition that religion is easily counterfeited and never more so than when it enters the public realm. At that point - as, surely, the American political system helps demonstrate - religion easily becomes just another form of advertising. Worse still, it's cheapened by the campaign process and, surely, risks seeming little more than a perjurous character-witness for shameless hucksters peddling the latest miracle cure.

Give me the modesty and sincerity of private worship over that.

PS: Blair's handlers were also right to prevent him signing off a war address with the words "God Bless You". Given that Blair was suspected, however unfairly, of being in George Bush's pocket, the last thing any sensible, non-crazed Prime Minister would do is start importing American religio-political rhetoric on the eve of war. To do so would have risked people assuming that he and Bush had indeed agreed that th ewar was God's wish and all the rest of it.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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