Sunday, December 23, 2007

Blair's Conversion

So, Tony Blair has finally come out. No, sorry, not that news. I mean come out as a Roman Catholic.

Personally, I don't really see why this has dominated so much of the news over the weekend. Aside from not seemingly particularly significant it was also, as at least one reporter I saw admitted, not unexpected. Technically, it's being said he converted, but I think he was already effectively a closet Catholic, even if it's only now been made official (a view backed up in comments on that BBC story).

Blair's wife is Catholic and he's regularly attended mass. In fact, what I find slightly more disturbing is hearing it reported today that he'd never hidden his faith, despite this story just last month, which reports "Tony Blair avoided talking about his religious views while in office for fear of being labelled "a nutter""

Anyway, while I wouldn't be particularly happy to be governed by a Catholic PM, and even less so to be governed by a Catholic PM who lies about his faith in public, I'm baffled why it leads so many political commentators (again, see above news link) to question his voting record. Sure, the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is wrong, but does that mean it is wrong for the PM to uphold the legal right?

Something like what Rawls calls the 'liberal principle of legitimacy' - i.e. the idea that state coercion must be justifiable to all who live under it - is taken as axiomatic by many political philosophers. The state's purpose is not to enforce some controversial 'comprehensive' conception of the good (religious or otherwise), but uphold only principles of justice in our dealings with each other.

A reasonable Catholic, therefore, should not use political power to foist Catholic moral ideas on others, regardless of whether or not they accept them. If Blair thinks abortion is immoral, he is free to do all he can in his private life to prevent it (not having one himself, counselling his children, etc). You would not, however, expect him to legally ban others from having abortions, any more than banning contraception or other religions. That's simply a consequence of living in a liberal democracy.

(Of course, I'm leaving aside many potential problems, such as drawing the line between a reasonable view of justice and comprehensive good. If Catholics are right that the foetus is a person, then abortion is murder, and the pro-choice brigade seem little better than members of the KKK who'd kill blacks because they deny that they have a right to life. My point is simply that Blair isn't obviously a hypocrite for not imposing his own moral standards on the rest of us, because that isn't what politics is about).

p.s. See Chris Brooke's discussion of Blair on Catholicism and community.

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