It was an unusual preliminary to the war. No British prime minister before Tony Blair has set the scene for a military campaign with a visit to the Vatican for a blessing by the Pope. Admittedly it was not a state visit. Tony Blair's trip to the Vatican was apparently in the capacity of the spouse of a practising Catholic. Nevertheless, it was very striking indeed that the Prime Minister, visibly exhausted by a demanding schedule, should find the time on the eve of war.
It is now conventionally held that Tony Blair is the most religious prime minister since Gladstone. 'There is no doubt,' writes the Sunday Telegraph columnist Matthew d'Ancona, 'that he seeks authorisation for war, as well as personal spiritual solace, in the Gospels.' D'Ancona is one of many who see Blair's Christian faith as the key to understanding his personality as prime minister, insisting that it lends a special moral dimension to everything he does, setting him apart from less devout politicians. D'Ancona, who has spoken at length to Blair about his religion, asserts that the Kosovo war also was inspired by the Prime Minister's Christian commitment. Indeed, Tony Blair was the first to use the term 'crusade' in connection with the Balkans, a regrettable phrase later appropriated by President Bush in the aftermath of 11 September.
Religion is a difficult subject. History shows that it has served as a cloak for the most monstrous abuse, as well as inspiring great holiness and simple goodness. Tony Blair's Christianity has always been taken on trust. But the Prime Minister asserts, time and again, that this war goes to the core of his personal convictions. So what exactly is going on when Tony Blair turns to the Gospels for truth and solace?
The first point to note is that even though the Prime Minister once said, 'I can't stand politicians who wear God on their sleeve,' he himself has often done precisely that. Not long after becoming Labour leader he allowed himself to be photographed in church. He likes to be photographed outside churches. He enrages Conservatives by claiming that the Labour party, and in particular his own modernising faction, has some special connection with Christianity. In an article in the Sunday Telegraph, published at Easter 1996, the future prime minister wrote, 'My view of Christian values led me to oppose what I perceived to be a narrow view of self-interest that Conservatism - particular its modern, right-wing form - represents.'
But what are these Christian values? It is difficult to say. In an interview given shortly after becoming Labour leader, Tony Blair declared, 'If you really want to understand what I'm all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray. It's all there.' Macmurray, a Christian Socialist who joined the Society of Friends after the second world war, was a pacifist who is remembered for inventing the concept of 'communitarianism', though how well Tony Blair really grasped this cloudy doctrine is open to dispute. A recent article in the journal Political Quarterly argues that he failed to understand it at all; indeed got completely the wrong end of the stick.
What has certainly remained with Blair is an evangelical tone. It comes across in his preachiness, a characteristic accurately noted in Private Eye's Vicar of St Albion's column. His comments often have biblical echoes. 'What the electorate gave, the electorate can take away,' he told Labour MPs the week after their 1997 landslide. Before that election he said this: 'One cross on the ballot paper, one nation reborn.' To some this came close to an impious insinuation that Britain had been crucified under the Tories.
But this evangelical style is by no means matched by evangelical substance. Indeed some Christians come close to despair when they contemplate Tony Blair's policies. On issue after issue they are baffled by his failure to convert Christian belief into action. Back in 1993 the Prime Minister insisted, 'Christianity is a very tough religion. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad.' Yet on practically every key moral issue of our day - family, abortion, cloning - the Prime Minister falls on the side of the secular, liberal consensus rather than that of robust Christian teaching.
Take abortion. The Prime Minister has never once voted with the pro-life lobby and has voted 14 times for the pro-choice lobby in Parliament. In 1990, during the debates leading up to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, he voted on three occasions to extend the time limit for abortion to birth on grounds of handicap. In December 2000 he gave personal backing to regulations permitting stem-cell research on human embryos; and his government enthusiastically promotes the morning-after pill.
This approach frustrates many practising Christians. Before the 1997 election the Prime Minister came under sustained fire from the Churches, in particular from Cardinal Winning, primate of Scotland. Tony Blair's response was to try to have it both ways. He insisted that privately he was against abortion but that 'as a legislator' the question was not about personal belief. It was about 'whether in cases where women face very difficult and agonising decisions the criminal law is the right instrument to make that decision for them.' Faced with the choice between the Church and the powerful feminist lobby, the Prime Minister came down on the side of the feminists.
It is interesting here to contrast Tony Blair with George Bush, who shares his strong Christian faith. Tony Blair has never had a problem with the fact that the West promotes the use of abortion in the Third World. Neither did Bill Clinton. But President Bush, when elected to office, put an immediate stop to US involvement in this field.
A yet more egregious case is the family. Christian teaching is strong on family values, and Tony Blair has enthusiastically embraced the rhetoric. 'A young country that wants to be a strong country,' he proclaimed in 1995, 'cannot be morally neutral about the family.' In government Tony Blair has been led by feminist rather than by Christian teaching. The married-couples allowance has been abolished, funding has been switched from groups backing marriage to those taking a relaxed view of any kind of relationship, the benefits system has been changed to target all money for children regardless of family structure, etc., etc. Far from being morally neutral on the family, the Blair government has actively discriminated against it.
Doubtless there is much to be said for all of Tony Blair's policies. The problem in this context is simply this: none of them squares with his avowed Christianity. One of the key tests of being a Christian is witness. This means doing something for your faith to your own personal disadvantage. Tony Blair has not pressed forward with a single policy for reasons of faith to his material, political or personal cost. Viewed from this angle, the Prime Minister's Christianity is strikingly similar to his socialism. Every awkward matter of doctrine or substance has been stripped out, leaving merely the glow of well-meaning but carefully undefined sentiment.
Back in 1996, not long before he died, I spoke to Lord Soper, the co-founder of the Christian Socialist movement. He was in despair about Tony Blair, who had joined the Christian Socialists in 1992. 'There is an imperative need,' the old man told me, 'for him to put as quickly as possible suitable clothes on the body of Christian belief that he cherishes. It is not enough to talk about family relationships without spelling out what you mean.'
Soper told me he had 'every reason to think that Mr Blair is a sincere Christian and I have no doubt that in his political life he is largely directed by his religious beliefs'. But Soper was troubled by the fact that 'he talks about his faith and principles, but fails to explain how he would translate his beliefs into action if he were e lected.'
That is just as true today. The Prime Minister takes from Christianity only those parts that suit him. The trait is illustrated by an episode before the 1997 election. As an opposition MP Tony Blair was accustomed to take communion at his local Roman Catholic church of St Joan of Arc in Islington. But doing so conflicted with rules forbidding non-Catholics from taking part except in cases of 'grave and pressing spiritual need'. The fact that the non-Catholic in this instance was a likely future prime minister caused Cardinal Basil Hume to write to Tony Blair asking him to desist. It was Blair's reply that was so striking. He indicated that of course he would comply, but showed dissent by adding, 'I wonder what Jesus would have made of it.' The Prime Minister's biographer, John Rentoul, judged that this letter 'revealed a theological presumption greater even than Margaret Thatcher's lecture to the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988'.
There is no doubting the sincerity of the Prime Minister's faith. But it is accompanied by arrogance. Unluckily for those who believe that Mr Blair will one day convert to the Church of Rome, he occasionally lays claim to the kind of direct relationship to Christ that is more readily associated with the Protestant than with the Roman Catholic Church. He once, in casual conversation, identified the Saviour with New Labour. 'Jesus was a moderniser,' he asserted.
It may be the Prime Minister's evangelical confidence that he enjoys a direct, unmediated connection with God which enables him to lay claim to be a Christian while neglecting Church teaching. The area where this disjunction is most apparent today is the war in Iraq. Tony Blair's apologists, such as Matthew d'Ancona, have yet to explain fully how religious belief can be at the core of the Prime Minister's conduct of the war at a time when pretty well every Church leader, from the Pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been opposed to it all along.
The great religious figures of our age feel a repugnance for this war because they understand that at the heart of Christianity is a set of moral absolutes or rules: in the context of Iraq the most relevant of these is the biblical injunction 'Thou shalt not kill.' Tony Blair's readiness to propound fresh doctrines of his own has been a striking feature of his premiership in all sorts of areas. He has occasionally brooded in public about the balance between natural law and utilitarianism. On two occasions he has even claimed that he is more attracted to the stern and immutable imperatives laid down by natural law than to clumsy calculations about the greatest good of the greatest number. But natural law comes down heavily against this war in Iraq, just as it does against abortion.
Ultimately the argument for invasion is a pragmatic one. It boils down to the utilitarian criterion that coalition forces will ultimately kill fewer Iraqis than will Saddam. The Iraq imbroglio threatens to illustrate in the starkest way possible the pitfalls of utilitarianism: that it is not merely wrong to break with the rules of religion, but doing so can have all sorts of unintended and undesirable consequences.
It is characteristic of those who feel that they have an unmediated line to the Lord that they think that they can make the law themselves. Tony Blair rewrote the rulebook for the Labour party. And this is what he and George Bush are doing in Iraq: their readiness to ignore the procedures of international institutions such as the United Nations is a manifestation of the same sort of arrogance. According to the precepts of natural law, the humility and discipline of religion express a wisdom that is deeper than individual men and women can readily understand. These are boundaries which, as Mr Blair may be about to discover, are impertinent to transgress.