New archbishop to lead opposition to Iraq war

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Posted by andreas from ( on Saturday, January 04, 2003 at 7:00AM :

Blair's holy war on the home front

The new archbishop is set to lead opposition to attacking Iraq

Mark Lawson
Saturday January 4, 2003
The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher, who fancied herself as an amateur theologian, once offered an unusual gloss on the story of the Good Samaritan. In the exegesis of the then prime minister, the passer-by was only able to pay the mugging victim's hotel bill because he had been allowed to build up his own wealth by the state. What had generally been taken as a parable of high altruism was given a new moral of low taxation.
Perhaps Tony Blair should start working now on a sermon in which he explains that the real point about the bit in scripture where they turn swords into ploughshares is that it doesn't work unless you've built up a massive military infrastructure first. Because, for the first time since Thatcherism, a British prime minister seems about to go head-to-mitre with an archbishop. The Spectator article in which David Blunkett attacked the new man at Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, for his "misleading and selective" criticism of the government, suggests the level of the administration's irritation at Anglican opposition to the mooted war against Iraq.

The twist is that Margaret Thatcher would have expected to disagree with Robert Runcie and David Sheppard, her critics. They were liberals of a kind she ritually despised. What worries the Blairites about Archbishop Williams is that they expect him to sing from the same hymn book, a belief betrayed by Blunkett's irreverent reference to the troublesome priest as a "fellow hairy lefty". As Blair would probably regard Williams as something of a spiritual twin, this is potentially one of the most interesting phases in the relationship between British prime ministers and primates.

The Thatcher-Runcie stand-off was followed by a period when John Major was in Number 10 and George Carey in Lambeth Palace, in which neither incumbent seemed keen to turn the other into stone. Their politics met in the centre-right, and Archbishop Carey showed little appetite for public spats. Also, despite Major's use of the sign-off "God bless" in his Gulf war television address, which may have been colloquial rather than religious, he never, unlike Thatcher, gave off the incense of a believer. We now know a little more because of a bizarre entry in Edwina Currie's Diaries in which the lovers, during a post-coital bath, discuss the existence of God. Major seems to come out in the wash as an agnostic.

That conversation would have a different end if Tony and Cherie or George and Laura ever get theological in the shower. The general secularity of the age should never let us forget that there has probably never been another period in modern history in which a prime minister and a president were so certain that God was their running mate. George Bush, for whom the Bible was apparently important in conquering the bottle, is reported to pray regularly with his scriptural advisers.

But Bush, in this, is merely an extreme expression of a general tendency in presidencies. Because piety is as American as pie - and Christians are so politically organised - it's unlikely that a declared atheist or even agnostic could gain the White House. For all his sins, Bill Clinton was a man of great faith, although he was almost undone by his belief in the curious southern American heresy that adulterous fellatio is not a sin because the seed does not fall to the ground - Onan's specific offence. Clinton's emotional confession to a televised breakfast of prelates was, in American terms, a brilliant publicity move.

In contrast, Britain tends to think odd anyone who believes in God. If George Bush used Christianity to wean himself off alcoholism, Tony Blair employed it as an alternative to socialism. And yet, apparently under advice from the all-knowing, all-seeing Alastair Campbell, he has largely kept his prayer life silent, apart from one Easter Sunday interview which revealed that the biblical character who most interests him is Pontius Pilate because he imagined the Roman ruler torn between the conflicting advice of his aides. Hence even the gospels became, to the Blair administration, a story of spin rather than sin.

Once Blair's main foreign policy challenges became the threat from terrorists espousing Islam and a possible attack on Baghdad, it seemed certain that he would become a less openly Christian prime minister. For reasons of both tact and approval ratings, any suggestion of jihad in western governments' actions would be unwise. Even in God-fearing America, Bush's aides have expunged the word "crusade" from his post-September 11 vocabulary.

So what's fascinating about Dr Williams's interventions is that an administration desperate to avoid any suggestion of an external holy war may be plunged into one at home, forced to argue the Christian justification for what it is doing, unable to keep the driving religious convictions of the prime minister private.

It's unlikely that Iain Duncan Smith would ever tackle the prime minister theologically, even though he's unusually religious himself. As a Catholic leading a party which still has Unionist as part of its name, he has his own reasons for playing down what he does on Sundays. But, if the leader of the opposition won't get religious, Dr Williams threatens to become leader of a religious opposition.

Archbishop Runcie waited until the memorial service to make clear his opposition to the war for the Falklands. With strong signs that Canterbury will attack much earlier over Baghdad, Tony Blair may have found his Thomas Becket, although the state's response this time is less likely to be slayings on the altar than surreptitious briefings to Sunday newspapers about what a bearded Welsh weirdie Dr Williams is.

-- andreas
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