Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Blair Must Be Thankful That He Had Better Writers

I imagine that, save for George Bush and maybe one or two others, people would find it more than a bit painful to have Michael Gerson put words into their mouths. Speaking of the "American kickoff of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation", Gerson's word-insertions start almost immediately:
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 aid are as doctrinaire and exclusionary as Saudi extremists. Pro-life Catholics and evangelicals? Wahhabi extremists? What's the difference?
Gerson share's Tony Blair's reaction to his spin, as,
Speaking to me after the event, Blair was patient, arguing that that "could not be what they intended."
It sounds like Tony Blair was trying to tell Gerson that he got it wrong. But Gerson didn't provide a quote for the statements that supposedly constituted the casual assertion, nor did he even deign to quote Blair's full sentence. But Gerson wants to tell us what people said, not show us, and we're supposed to take him at his word that he's getting things right.
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.
The worst thinking, of course, falls outside of the quotation marks. For example, the idea that religion, and by implication religion alone (and perhaps only the particular Christian beliefs of Gerson... and Blair?), "provides an explanation and foundation for human rights and dignity". Yet it's pretty simple to find and articulate entirely secular explanations of, and foundations for, human rights and dignity. Just as it's pretty simple to find examples of religion, not "at its best", undermining both.

On top of that, to put it mildly, neither the administration led by Blair nor the administration exalted by Gerson, can justly claim to have expanded the "foundation for human rights and dignity", either at home or abroad. Their anti-terror security rules at home pared back domestic liberties. Support for indefinite incarceration without charges, denial of habeas corpus rights, mistreatment of prisoners, use of techniques such as waterboarding that have been traditionally classified as torture, and rendition of prisoners to other nations that will use torture? But it's all worth it if in a decade or two, or four, or ten, Iraq becomes a somewhat non-repressive Shiite-dominated authoritarian democracy of some sort? Is all of this one of the "painful compromises of political existence"?

To speak of "pluralism without relativism, a tolerance consistent with a belief in religious and moral truth" seems misguided. Is this Gerson's way of saying, "My particular religious and moral beliefs are superior to yours, but enable me to tolerate your inferior beliefs"? Or, "As long as you respect the superiority of my beliefs, pluralism is great"? How can you hold those beliefs and sincerely believe that you support a pluralistic society? For the leadership of a state to champion its own religious beliefs while branding others as inferior is the opposite of pluralism. Even assuming it's what he said, Blair's certainly smart enough to see the inconsistency.
But his main argument is public and visionary. Religion, Blair argues, is not going away, as secularists have expected and predicated for centuries.
This game again - okay, Michael - name names. Which specific "secularists" are you referencing? But beyond that, isn't it far more accurate to say that religious leaders have feared for centuries that secular elements of society will cause religion to wither and die? Isn't the gist of your very column that religion is at a disadvantage in what you see as "a faithless world"?

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