‘My good friend’: Barack Obama applauds Blair’s speech to the Prayer Breakfast in Washington
By Michael Lea
Tony Blair famously ‘didn’t do God’ during his decade in Downing Street, fearing he would be viewed as a religious fanatic.
But the former Prime Minister lectured the world yesterday on the need to put faith at the heart of global affairs.
In an impassioned ‘sermon’ in the U.S. he made no fewer than 31 mentions of God, and declared: ‘In surrendering to God we become instruments of his love’.
Mr Blair also scored a diplomatic coup as the first ‘world leader’ to shake hands with President Barack Obama, who hailed him as ‘my good friend’.
He said Mr Blair ‘did it first and perhaps did it better’ and had been an example to so many people around the world ‘of what dedicated leadership can accomplish’.
The exchanges will cause frustration in Number 10, where Gordon Brown is still awaiting an invitation to Washington.
The former Premier was speaking in the U.S. capital at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
In a sharp departure from his days in power – his spin doctor Alastair Campbell once told reporters ‘We don’t do God’ – he spoke passionately of his faith.
Although traditionalists will welcome the remarkably frank and passionate speech, others will also point out that for 10 years Mr Blair led a Government addicted to the casual lying that comes with political spin and took the country into a disastrous war on the flimsiest of evidence.
Mr Blair, who converted to Roman Catholicism after leaving Downing Street, gave a revealing insight into how he felt unable to discuss religion there.
He said: ‘I recall giving an address to the country at a time of crisis. I wanted to end my words with “God bless the British people”.
‘This caused complete consternation. Emergency meetings were convened. The system was aghast. Finally, a senior civil servant said, with utter disdain: “Really, Prime Minister, this is not America you know”.’
Yesterday he threw off those inhibitions and said: ‘I believe restoring religious faith to its rightful place, as the guide to our world and its future, is itself of the essence.
‘The 21st century will be poorer in spirit, meaner in ambition, less disciplined in conscience, if it is not under the guardianship of faith in God.’
Mr Blair, now the international peace envoy to the Middle East, said his new job meant he spent a great deal of time in the Holy Land.
He said: ‘It is a good place to reflect on religion – a source of so much inspiration, an excuse for so much evil. Today, religion is under attackfrom without and from within. From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other.
‘From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict.
‘Thus the extreme believers and the aggressive non-believers come together in unholy alliance.’
Mr Blair recalled an incident when he was just ten and his father Leo suffered a stroke. A teacher wanted to pray for him, but Mr Blair confessed that his father did not believe in God. The teacher reassured him: ‘That doesn’t matter, God believes in him.’
The former Premier said: ‘That is what inspires – the unconditional nature of God’s love’. Leo Blair, now 85, survived the stroke.
A humorous Mr Blair charmed his audience with self deprecation but also by displaying his passionate Christianity.
He told Mr Obama: ‘As you begin your leadership of this great country, Mr President, you are fortunate, as is your nation, that you have already shown in your life, courage in abundance.
‘But should it ever be tested, I hope your faith can sustain you and your family.’
By return, the President praised ‘my good friend Tony Blair – who did it first and perhaps did it better’ at the head of a list of personal acknowledgments.
Mr Blair ended his speech: ‘By the way, God bless you all.’