Page last updated at 23:11 GMT, Monday, 13 April 2009 00:11 UK

Tony Blair's faith in new mission

By Christopher Landau
BBC religious affairs correspondent

Tony Blair lectures on faith and globalisation
Mr Blair says he is committed to his faith project for the long-term

As prime minister, he famously "didn't do God" but, having left office, Tony Blair is travelling the world to launch his new Faith Foundation. The BBC has had exclusive access to the foundation's early work.

On a cold winter's day in New Haven, Connecticut, Tony Blair is preparing for a new challenge – teaching.

His new inter-faith foundation has linked with Yale University and launched a new course, on Faith and Globalisation.

As we walk to the seminar, surrounded by photographers and tight security, the former prime minister tells me why he has entered the classroom:

"If globalisation is a force pushing people together, does religion become a force pulling people apart?

"In the light of what's going on in the world, they are important themes to explore."

In front of 25 handpicked students from diverse religious backgrounds, Mr Blair leads discussions about the complex dilemmas politicians face when taking account of religious belief.

I'm really and always have been in a way more interested in religion than politics
Tony Blair

He gives examples of controversial incidents during his premiership – including debates over euthanasia, gay adoption and abortion.

The questions from the students are tough, but Mr Blair clearly relishes the open debate – free of a party line which must be defended.

At one point, he says with a laugh: "I think I kind of got my whole life the wrong way round. I should have started with the conceptual debate first and then gone on to the practice."

The decision by one of the world's leading universities to partner with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is something of a coup as it begins its work.

The academic course is just one part of the planned work of the Foundation.

It has other educational programmes planned, including the production of impartial religious education materials, and the development of a new inter-faith centre in London.

What makes the foundation's work distinctive is its emphasis on uniting people of different religious traditions in practical action – with the eradication of malaria a key priority.

'Committed'

Young people are being recruited to work for the foundation as "Faiths Act Fellows", promoting the fight against malaria across religious divides.

So what has motivated Mr Blair to devote much of his time to a cause that could hardly be described as fashionable?

"I'm really, and always have been in a way, more interested in religion than politics," he tells me.

The concept of an inter-faith foundation pre-dates him becoming leader of the Labour Party or prime minister, he says.

And the launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is a response to him being "really, really committed to finding a way of making religious faith relevant to the modern world".

Mr Blair says the secular world needs to understand religion, and religions need to understand each other.

Tony Blair with Muslim students
Mr Blair says people from diverse religions must unite in practical action

"I believe this whole issue to do with inter-faith is absolutely where the 21st Century needs to be in social and cultural terms," he says.

"So I've got a very clear strategic sense of it as well. A powerful sense of mission on it. Every bit as powerful as I felt in politics."

Some are unconvinced by this transformation from politician to religious campaigner.

Huda Jawad, director of the Muslim charity Forward Thinking, says she has doubts about levels of support from Muslims, given Tony Blair's foreign policy record while prime minister.

She says it is difficult to reconcile Blair the prime minister and Blair the leader of a faith foundation.

But Mr Blair says that some of the best response to the foundation has been from the Islamic world.

And he is keen to point out to his critics that whatever early problems he may encounter, this is not a short-term project.

"This is not for me a 'this year and next year' project. This is a rest of my life project. So over time people will be able to see you in a different light," he says.

Blair's Faith Foundation will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 14 April 2009, at 2000 BST.



Print Sponsor


RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific