- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a rare open foray into matters of faith, said yesterday that religion should play a greater part in his nation’s life, but he warned against allowing it to assume the same role in British politics that it has in the United States.

Mr. Blair told an audience of religious and community organizations in London that although religion can make a “visible, tangible difference” in British society, it would be “unhealthy” if it moved to center stage on the country’s political scene.

“I do not want to end up with an American style of politics, with us going out there beating our chest about our faith,” the prime minister said — a remark not likely to go down well in the United States, where religion traditionally figures prominently in politics.

“Politics and religion — it is not that they do not have a lot in common,” Mr. Blair added, “but if it ends up being used in the political process, I think that is a bit unhealthy.”

His lecture was organized by the Faithworks Movement, which is pushing to make faith a hotly contested issue in Britain’s upcoming general election, widely expected to be set for May. Mr. Blair is seeking election to a third consecutive term as prime minister.

Political experts say that Mr. Blair is far from keen on making religion a political issue, but that he has come under pressure from political opponents and church leaders to make so-called “life issues” such as abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research part of a national debate.

Michael Howard, leader of the major opposition Conservative Party, has turned abortion into a contentious issue by calling for a reduction in the maximum pregnancy period at which a termination would be allowed — from 24 weeks to 20 weeks.

Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor want abortion to become a major issue in the election campaign — the latter seeking an outright ban.

In his address to the Faithworks audience, Mr. Blair sidestepped any such specifics.

Religious institutions, he said, already make a “visible, tangible difference” in British society, adding, “I would like to see you play a bigger, not a lesser, role in the future.”

But the role of religion in politics came to the fore when, during a question-and-answer session, the prime minister was asked about a remark once made to an interviewer by his former communications chief, Alastair Campbell, that Mr. Blair and his Labor government “don’t do God.”

Mr. Blair replied that Mr. Campbell’s comment was actually a warning about the danger that politicians could be misunderstood or misinterpreted if they began talking openly about their religious faith.

The prime minister is often described by associates as a committed Christian, a member of the Church of England, who often attends Roman Catholic services. His wife, Cherie, is a practicing Roman Catholic.

But he seldom makes public comments about religious matters. Yesterday’s Faithworks address was an exception, although, even then, he avoided mentioning topics such as abortion — he touched on it indirectly during the question-and-answer session in discussing the controversial issue in Britain of single mothers.

“We are piling up problems for the future,” when teenage — and sometimes sub-teenage — women begin families when “very, very young.”

“It is important,” Mr. Blair said, “that they get role models at school and in the community, where they see it is not a great life, trying to bring up a single parent family aged 17 or 18. Actually, it is pretty miserable.”

Still, some concerns were voiced that Mr. Blair’s speech was an attempt to win over religious voters in the run-up to the spring election.

The religion correspondent for the Times of London newspaper, Ruth Gledhill, reported that although churchgoing in Britain is on the decline, the most recent census showed that more than seven out of 10 people identify themselves as Christian.

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