(photo credit: AP)
Former British prime minister Tony Blair's late-life conversion to Catholicism has given the world a more fitting Christmas tale than the typical sentimental stories that usually make the news pages this time of year.
That such a prominent figure would take this step speaks to the lasting power of religious faith, even in a part of the world where, as Matthew Arnold wrote already now over 150 years ago: "The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore. But now I only hear, its melancholy, long withdrawing roar."
But beyond one (important) man's quest for spiritual identity, the latest twist in the religious odyssey of the current envoy of the Middle East Quartet to this region does provoke some useful insights relating to his job of trying to move along the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The announcement Saturday that Blair had formally undergone conversion a day earlier, receiving Catholic communion at a Westminster chapel, was no surprise. His wife and children are Catholic; he has often attended church services with them; he has made three trips to the Vatican in recent years; and has long credited a priest from his university days as one of his main spiritual mentors.
The most interesting aspect of his conversion is less in the doing, and more in the timing.
All the political pundits and veteran Blair observers interviewed in the British media yesterday agreed that the ex-PM had very deliberately waited until leaving office before taking this long-awaited step. Blair, whatever his convictions, clearly felt that the UK was not ready for its first Catholic prime minister, or at least one that switches denominational horses in mid-term.
It's been more than a century since laws that forbade Roman Catholics from holding the highest office, customs which date back to the religious civil wars of the 1600s, were repealed.
But the Church of England is still the official faith of the UK, and the prime minister has a role in appointing its bishops, so the issue is far from clear-cut.
"The people still feel the Anglican Church is the church of the state, the church of the queen, and our politicians must respect that," commented veteran BBC reporter Nick Jones on Sky News yesterday.
Another factor was likely Blair's crucial mediation role in a dispute based largely on Catholic-Protestant enmity.
Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Catholic magazine The Tablet, told the BBC: "I understand that one of the issues he was concerned with, because he was so closely involved in negotiations over peace in Northern Ireland, was that perhaps some people there might have been uncomfortable with the prime minister converting to Catholicism at such a time. The situation is different [now]. Although he remains a public figure, and clearly has a role to play in the Middle East, it isn't perhaps quite the same."
Not the same - but perhaps not irrelevant, either. Now that we know the depths of Blair's spiritual convictions, it provides at least part of the answer as to why he so enthusiastically took the thankless job of Quartet Middle East envoy so soon after leaving office. Surely a desire to bring at least a measure of peace to the very cradle of the Christian faith he clearly holds so dear was a significant factor in that decision.
Blair's obvious religious side has long been viewed with suspicion, even hostility, by the largely agnostic or secular British intellectual and media elites.
But at least it lends him a greater understanding that such beliefs are not always simply an outward manifestation of some underlying economic or social causes; that they hold tremendous power in and of themselves, and must be dealt with as such. Perhaps that is why, among Western leaders, he has shown the greatest comprehension of and most justified concern about the threat that radical Islam - "an arc of extremism now stretching across the Middle East," in his words - now poses to global civilization, not hesitating to call it the key conflict of our age, a battle of values as much as force.
No one hoping to bring peace to this region, including in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can do so without that understanding.
Another particularly ironic aspect of Blair's post-premiership conversion is worth noting in relation to the situation here. Israel's insistence that it be formally recognized as a Jewish state, albeit a democratic one, has been sharply criticized in many arenas abroad, especially in the "chattering classes" of Blair's native England, as some kind of outdated, even primitive religious nationalism. Yet in what is often described as a secular Britain that still boasts an official state faith - the Anglican Church, widely viewed as feeble and irrelevant - the consensus is that a standing prime minister was correct in believing his nation was not ready to accept his conversion in office to the Roman Catholic faith.
When Israel insists on its right to be recognized as a Jewish state in any final-status agreement with the Palestinian, at least Tony Blair should understand all too well that there is nothing exceptional for any democracy - even the oldest one - to insist that religious heritage still be a major part of national identity, even in this day and age.
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