When God and politics collide

Former British PM Tony Blair on the rights of the religious to be heard
When God and politics collide
Photograph by Christinne Muschi

So Tony Blair, former prime minister of the Queen’s England, home of the shoe bomber and the London subway terror bombings, a country riven by tension over a growing Muslim population, walks into a Quebec hall to talk about reasonable accommodation.

Fish-out-of-water daydream? Set-up to a tasteless joke? No. The former British prime minister actually did as much in Montreal last week. Blair, at once a devout Catholic and ex-prime minister of notably secular Britain, has spent much of the last three years promoting the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which aims to show how “faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.”

“I became Middle East envoy for Israel and Palestine, so that’s been quite challenging. And then I decided to try and bring religious faiths of the world together and create an understanding, so that’s been quite a challenge, too,” Blair, sitting in an ornate red leather chair, said to a crowd of about 400 gathered in a downtown ballroom. “And then I decided to do some work on climate change, so this is probably an indication of Napoleonic delusion.”

Delusion or not, Blair’s foundation recently picked McGill University as one of seven international academic institutions to participate in his Faith and Globalisation Initiative; for the next three years at least, 50 undergraduate students from the university’s religious studies faculty and beyond will study what Blair calls “the role and impact of religion in our globalized world.”

“It’s not that religious people should dictate policy, but they should have the right to speak in the public sphere,” he told the crowd made up mostly of McGill students and alumni. “The question is how to do that in a way that doesn’t go to the other extreme: people of religious faith trying to dictate.” (Blair, who said his own faith steeled him in his decision to send British soldiers to Iraq in 2003, isn’t expected to teach.)

“My sense is that Quebec and Montreal really present a wonderful range of case studies of religion in public life, today and historically,” says Ellen Aitken, dean of McGill’s religious studies program. “I think that the way in which an adamantly secular society emerged out of the most religious place in North America is very important when learning about secularism.”

Certainly, Quebec seems an odd place to teach the intricacies and splendours of religion in politics. Modern Quebec society has anti-clericalism in its blood. Vestiges of its religious past have either been erased, such as religious-based school boards, or, as with the illuminated crucifix overlooking Montreal, mostly stripped of religious meaning to become a quaint part of Quebec’s “heritage,” like snowmobiles and tourtière. A 2002 Statistics Canada study suggested that while time may have mellowed Quebecers collective ire toward their own religion—they are more likely to profess their religion than, say, British Columbians—they certainly aren’t filling the pews: 26 per cent of Quebecers say religion is of low importance to them, seven percentage points higher than the national average.

Language and culture have arguably become the province’s religion, and the survival of both is embedded in its laws: Bill 101 dictates that both private and public affairs, from education to business, must happen in French, while its immigration policy favours French-speaking countries.

Complications arise, of course, when cultural issues, broadly defined, and this professed desire for secularism collide with other modern realities. Earlier this year, the provincial government introduced a bill banning face coverings when receiving government services—the first of its kind in the country—as well as year-long public hearings into reasonable accommodations of religious minorities. According to polls, Quebecers are more squeamish when it comes to immigration, in large part because of a widespread belief in the caustic effect of religion on language, culture and Quebec’s vaunted secularism. Far from being distinct, however, Blair says Quebec is facing the same challenges as everyone else in the free world.

“Believe it or not, you’re in no different position than most Western societies at the moment. We are being changed by globalization. We’re becoming societies that are multi-faith, multi-ethnic, multi-racial,” Blair said in an interview with a handful of journalists after his speech. “Even if you personally think that religion is a bad thing, you’ve got to understand that it’s an issue. The purpose of my foundation is to understand it, analyze it, work it out and research it, because this is a big force in the world today.”

Yet as much as he championed the importance of religion in politics, Blair was largely mum on specifics of how a place like Quebec, a tiny French minority in a sea of English, can protect itself. He artfully dodged a sticky question about Quebec’s proposed face-covering ban—“In Britain we take a different position, but I defend completely your right to have that debate,” he said, smiling uncomfortably—before dashing off to yet another grip-and-grin. He may be a proselytizer these days, but he still knows the politician’s way around a question.