NEW YORK -- The American kickoff of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation last week unintentionally revealed the mountain of misunderstanding the former British prime minister has undertaken to scale. At an event designed to further mutual religious sympathy, two of the panelists -- including the president of Yale University, Richard Levin -- casually asserted that religious Americans who support pro-life restrictions on international family planning assistance are extremists comparable to the Saudi Arabian brand. Pro-life Catholics and evangelicals? Wahhabi extremists? What's the difference?
Clearly, mutual religious sympathy has a ways to go in places such as Yale.
Speaking to me after the event, Blair was patient, arguing that "could not be what they intended." He admitted that on issues such as the rights of women, things "will be difficult," but insisted that "there is a larger unity." He has no intention of being distracted from his mission.
That mission, as usual, takes the form of a sophisticated intellectual argument and a third-way rejection of ideological extremes. As the only European politician who still seems to take 9/11 seriously, Blair is highly critical of "extremist and exclusionary" religion. He draws a stark global dividing line, not between left and right or north and south, but between pluralists and totalitarians. His new foundation intends to support people who oppose extremism, especially among the young.
But Blair is also critical of an "aggressive secularization," which, he told me, makes it easier to "forget a higher calling than the fulfillment of our own desires." Religious faith, at its best, not only encourages idealism, it provides an explanation and foundation for human rights and dignity, "an inalienable principle, rising above relativism and expediency." This does not "eliminate the painful compromises of political existence," Blair recognizes. But it does mean that "not everything can be considered in a utilitarian way." Blair defends a pluralism without relativism, a tolerance consistent with a belief in religious and moral truth -- indeed, a tolerance that arises from within those convictions.
It could not have been easy for Blair to embrace this calling as "the rest of my life's work." In British politics, religious conviction is tolerated as a private vice -- like the collection of rare Victorian pornography. It may be understandable, but why would one talk about it in public?