Tony Blair's piece in last week's New Statesman (Why we must all do God) has - somewhat predictably - been met with significant degrees of cynicism and suspicion - particularly by those on the left. Why? I think the main reason relates to a deep-seated unwillingness of many left wing politicians and social commentators to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives. Whether we are people of faith or not I strongly believe that anyone who espouses a "progressive" political agenda must surely see the need to debate just how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
Britain is not alone in struggling with this issue. In the United States, Barack Obama has consistently argued that his own party has been reluctant to engage in serious debate about the issue of religion. Speaking in 2007 he said: "At best, we [Democrats] may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands." Obama recognises that the reality of political engagement is that we have to meet people where they are - even if we do not agree with or even like where they are. If, as a progressive nation, we are to communicate our hopes and values in a way that is relevant to the lives of others, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse. Obama has often argued that secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into public debate. Indeed, he makes the case that the majority of great reformers in American history - he cites Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.
Democratic engagement makes demands of religious believers. It demands that those who are religiously motivated act to turn their concerns into universal, rather than faith-specific, values. Democratic engagement demands that the values espoused by people of faith be subject to argument and debate. For example, if I am opposed to abortion on religious grounds and would seek to see the time limit for abortions reduced from 24 to 20 weeks, it is not sufficient to simply invoke the teachings of the Catholic church to support my views. I will also need to explain why abortion violates some strongly held principle or set of values that are accessible to people of all faiths and none.
Politics, and in particular democratic politics, involves the art of compromise, the art of what's doable, what's achievable and what's possible. For some people of faith this is the greatest challenge that living in a democracy raises. For some people, having faith is having certainty; what matters is not what can be done given the circumstances, not pragmatism, but principle. Therefore what is needed is a sense of proportion and a willingness to engage openly and fair-mindedly. During his campaign to become a US senator, Obama received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago medical school saying: "Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you." The doctor described himself as a committed Christian who understood his own beliefs to be "totalising". His faith had led him to a strong opposition on abortion and gay marriage. But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for Obama was not simply the would-be senator's position on abortion. Rather, it was because he had read an entry that Obama's campaign had posted on his website, which suggested that he (Obama) would fight "right wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose". The doctor went on to write: "I sense that you have a strong sense of justice ... and I also sense that you are a fair-minded person with a high regard for reason ... Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded." This had a profound effect on Obama. Re-reading the doctor's letter he felt a pang of shame. He wrote back and thanked the doctor for his advice and the next day he changed the language on his website to state, in clear but simple terms, his pro-choice position. According to Obama, it is people like the doctor who emailed him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion and politics. The doctor represents many (possibly a majority) who may not change their positions on issues such as abortion, the death penalty or gay rights, but are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words.
This then is the challenge for those who describe themselves as progressive politicians. They too must become more "fair-minded", more willing to engage with people of faith so that they might recognise some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of modern Britain.