Blair Embraces Faith - but Not in Politics; Makes Rare Comments on Religion

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Byline: Al Webb, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a rare open foray into matters of faith, said yesterday that religion should play a greater part in his nation's life, but he warned against allowing it to assume the same role in British politics that it has in the United States.

Mr. Blair told an audience of religious and community organizations in London that although religion can make a "visible, tangible difference" in British society, it would be "unhealthy" if it moved to center stage on the country's political scene.

"I do not want to end up with an American style of politics, with us going out there beating our chest about our faith," the prime minister said - a remark not likely to go down well in the United States, where religion traditionally figures prominently in politics.

"Politics and religion - it is not that they do not have a lot in common," Mr. Blair added, "but if it ends up being used in the political process, I think that is a bit unhealthy."

His lecture was organized by the Faithworks Movement, which is pushing to make faith a hotly contested issue in Britain's upcoming general election, widely expected to be set for May. Mr. Blair is seeking election to a third consecutive term as prime minister.

Political experts say that Mr. Blair is far from keen on making religion a political issue, but that he has come under pressure from political opponents and church leaders to make so-called "life issues" such as abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research part of a national debate.

Michael Howard, leader of the major opposition Conservative Party, has turned abortion into a contentious issue by calling for a reduction in the maximum pregnancy period at which a termination would be allowed - from 24 weeks to 20 weeks.

Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor want abortion to become a major issue in the election campaign - the latter seeking an outright ban.

In his address to the Faithworks audience, Mr. Blair sidestepped any such specifics.

Religious institutions, he said, already make a "visible, tangible difference" in British society, adding, "I would like to see you play a bigger, not a lesser, role in the future. …