Faith in Globalization

God & Blair at Yale

Tony Blair’s students no longer laugh when he is introduced as “Professor Blair.” Even Blair seems significantly more comfortable with the title than he was in September 2008, when the former British prime minister began teaching his seminar “Faith and Globalization” at Yale University.

The final class meeting, which I am observing via a closed-circuit feed set up for the press, finds Blair sitting at the front of the classroom. He fidgets with his glasses as he considers questions from the class of twenty-five students (selected from an applicant pool of nearly three hundred). The scene is quite a departure from Blair’s first seminar, which was more politics than pedagogy.

Then, the confident politico stood at a podium—in his suit and tie and without his glasses—and fielded polite questions, press-conference-style. He answered with the level of generality we have come to expect from politicians. Now he has lost the tie, along with the deference of his students. He rests the earpiece of his glasses between his lips as students challenge him on everything from the philosophical concepts studied in the seminar to his position on the Iraq war. Like any good teacher, he does his best to answer with clarity and minimal equivocation. This change testifies not only to the power of the classroom, which every teacher knows can be a transformational space, but also to Blair’s genuine concern about the state of the world and his determination to contribute positively to the process of globalization.

After leaving office (and converting to Catholicism), Blair launched the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to promote a positive relationship between religion and globalization. The international scale of the current economic crisis has demonstrated the negative consequences of globalization, but Blair believes globalization can be a force for justice and a path to unity. As a visiting professor at Yale, he has participated in a rigorous discussion about how religious identity functions in an interconnected world—one that has exposed some weaknesses in Blair’s outlook, and has perhaps helped him refine his vision for the future.

At a press roundtable before class, Blair articulated the premise of his foundation. “The thesis is that globalization operates to push people together, to blur distinctions between different nations and cultures, and to create a multifaith society,” he said. “And faith, in those circumstances, either becomes a constructive and progressive force that can provide globalization with a human face and some spiritual capital, or, alternatively, it can be a reactionary and destructive force that pulls people apart.” In the hope of promoting the former outcome, Blair’s foundation has announced four practical goals.

The first of these is to facilitate interfaith dialogue through the production of educational materials, to be made available online as well as through the foundation’s own publishing imprint. Blair sees the Yale seminars as part of this educational effort—the foundation’s U.S. headquarters will be on the Yale campus, partly because of the success of his first semester there. Second, Blair hopes to mobilize faith communities around the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which include, among other things, providing medical supplies to fight malaria in Africa—an initiative that has brought the foundation into partnership with Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren (author of The Purpose-Driven Life). The third component of the foundation is Abraham House in London, which, with the help of Cambridge University, is designed to be a “world-class center for education” with encounters among the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The last, and least well-defined, piece of the foundation’s mission is to support “people of good faith” in combating religious “extremism.”

The vagueness of this last goal may be symptomatic of an initiative founded on the nebulous relationship between “faith” and “globalization.” It has been the task of the Yale seminar to give some determinate content to these cornerstones of Blair’s foundation. The course is cosponsored by the Divinity School and the School of Management, and the class of twenty-five includes six graduate students from each of these schools, plus six undergrads and seven students from Yale’s other professional and graduate programs. Over the course of the semester, students heard from leading theologians, sociologists, philosophers, historians, economists, and business leaders in readings, panel discussions, and case studies prepared by the School of Management. Miroslav Volf, a professor of systematic theology in the Divinity School, presided over the majority of the thirteen class sessions (Blair attended five).

As interconnected global markets crumble and reveal stark divisions between rich and poor, the premise that globalization is a neutral process that leads to greater unity is far from obvious. Blair acknowledged this at the media roundtable before class, when I pressed him on the role that agents of globalization (transnational corporations, governments, etc.) must play in ensuring that the “process” is indeed humane. “You might have said a year or two ago that globalization is an impersonal impulse that basically goes where it wants to go and operates at a purely material level,” he said. “One of the things we’ve learned through this global economic crisis is the importance of key values—trust, confidence, the ability to rely on the word of the other person—and I think that’s one developing part of this.” “Former Prime Minister” Blair was able to answer my journalistic question with a political response, but “Professor” Blair’s students won’t let him off the hook so easily. In the short walk from the press room to the classroom, Blair must prepare to let go of his prepackaged answers and embrace the often freewheeling nature of academic questioning.

In the final class, Blair presents a ten-point summary of what he has learned from the course. A student immediately takes him to task on two of his points: (1) globalization needs values in order to be both just and effective, and (2) the shared goal of both faith and globalization should be human flourishing. The student argues that, from an economic standpoint, globalization processes already have capitalist values, like profit maximization, embedded within them. Furthermore, these values directly contradict both the values of justice that Blair seeks to promote as well as any vision of human flourishing that most faith traditions would endorse. If the incentive for corporations to globalize is unfettered access to capital and unfair trade agreements with foreign markets, then globalization necessarily exploits developing economies. Blair is quick to respond, questioning the degree to which values of profit maximization are “embedded” in globalization. Attention to language is certainly one of his professorial virtues. Another, perhaps unsurprising, is his ability to call on specific examples from his work around the world to bring immediacy to theoretical discussions. It is this wealth of experience that Yale clearly hopes will be of greatest benefit to Blair’s students.

Blair contextualizes this student’s concern by relating it to the case of mining concessions in Sierra Leone. The exploitative potential of granting foreign mining companies access to African diamond resources was dramatized in the recent movie Blood Diamond. Blair has devoted much of his time to working with the government of Sierra Leone to regulate this industry. In class, he argues that the problem in Sierra Leone is not the result of opening up the diamond market to foreign mining companies, who have resources to extract precious minerals that the people of Sierra Leone lack. Rather, the problem is poor business practices. If the diamond market can be properly regulated, he says, opening the mines to foreign interests will actually help the people of Sierra Leone by making it possible for them to profit from their natural resources.

The student continues to push, however, revealing one of Blair’s unquestioned assumptions: the notion that openness is always a virtue. The student points out that the terms of this “openness” are usually set by the corporations seeking access to resources, and not by developing nations like Sierra Leone. It is the foreign mining companies and the international diamond market that will determine the terms under which Sierra Leone will have to open its borders. If maximizing profits means that the people of Sierra Leone will have to work the mines for pennies and endure hazardous working conditions, so be it. Blair is convinced that such injustices can be avoided through the cultivation of ethical business practices. But, as a number of his students point out, many of the architects of modern capitalism, like the famed University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, see profit maximization as the one and only moral imperative placed on any corporation. Blair insists the global economic crisis has shown that financial markets need values to pursue not only the “romantic” demands of justice but also the “practical” goals of business. The question lingers, however, as to whether the demands of justice exceed the minimal ethical requirements of capitalist efficiency.

The next question comes from a student who left Wall Street to serve in Iraq, and is now at Yale’s School of Management. He questions Blair’s credibility as an advocate for democracy around the world, since, as prime minister, he went against the apparent majority position in the UK by joining the United States to take military action in Iraq. This student seems concerned that Blair’s involvement in Iraq might handicap his recent efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Both Volf and Blair believe that democratization and globalization go together, but the unpopularity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seems to undermine the idea of a government run by and for the people.

Blair identifies two issues raised by the student’s question. First, he argues that the legitimacy of a democratic government does not lie in following the will of the people at all times and in all decisions, but rather in “standing for election at the appointed time.” Blair goes on to suggest, as he has in many interviews, that his will to “do the right thing,” even when going against popular opinion, was strengthened by his faith. “What faith can do is not tell you what is right but give you the strength to do it,” he told Time magazine last summer. This instrumental view of religion, which reduces its value to its ability to motivate people toward ethical action, is a theme that runs through Blair’s thought on these matters. It seems to lead to a troubling lack of regard for the specific faith claims of various traditions, including Catholicism. In Blair’s discussion of the Iraq war, there is no mention of just-war theory. When he was asked about Catholic social teaching at the press roundtable, he seemed unfamiliar with the tradition and simply referred to his own stance on life issues, like his support of embryonic stem-cell research. This inability, or unwillingness, to engage the doctrinal aspects of faith is one thing Blair will need to address if he is going to be taken seriously as someone concerned as much with faith as with globalization.

This problem appears again in Blair’s discussion of the second issue related to the student’s question about Iraq. Like many defenders of the war, Blair maintains that a majority of Iraqis feel they are better off without Saddam Hussein and that the Middle East is a safer place as a result of the intervention. One of the political consequences of globalization, Blair argues, is that what goes on inside any particular state becomes the concern of the entire global community. In this way, Blair suggests, politics needs to “catch up with globalization.” He advocates the establishment of strong international governing bodies that can effectively intervene to help the citizens of oppressive or failed regimes.

In the absence of such international governance, Blair is prepared to continue defending the unilateral action taken in Iraq. Another student, working on a PhD in Islamic Studies, challenges Blair even more forcefully. He asks, “What, honestly, is the potential for success in mediating the tensions in the region when there is already a biased view of people like yourself and your role in the Iraq situation?” In his most emotional response of the afternoon, Blair acknowledges the “prevailing orthodoxy” that maintains that the actions taken in Afghanistan and Iraq were actions against the Muslim world. But, he insists, this is “an orthodoxy in the face of which we should not apologize.” Blair argues that this narrative should be replaced with another story—the “real story.” He rehearses the events of the two conflicts as they have so often been recounted by their proponents: the removal of oppressive regimes, the provision of aid for rebuilding, the establishment of security against fringe insurgencies, and the return of governing responsibility to the Afghan and Iraqi people. The student—who has studied Islamic theology in Saudia Arabia—interrupts: “All I can say is, That is not the view that would be shared by most people in the region.” Blair suggests that the question is not what they think, but whether they are right. “I think it is overly simplistic, Mr. Blair,” says the student, “to say that you are either with us or against us.”

At this point, Blair, perhaps rightly, calls foul. But the exchange has exposed a fundamental disagreement about how the competing religious narratives should be adjudicated. Blair proposes distinguishing between the “loudest” and “best” voices in a debate. In this, he shows at least a theoretical commitment to engage the underlying visions of human flourishing articulated by various religions. But at a practical level, Blair seems hesitant to study the specifics. In the press roundtable, I asked him how he thought the Catholic Church was contributing both positively and negatively to the process of globalization. “The Catholic Church does fantastic work on the ground,” he said. “The Vatican has been taking up a number of interfaith initiatives—but there’s always, in all religions, a lot of nervousness about the interfaith idea. The worry being that, if you are out there talking with other people about their faith, does that diminish your own?” He gives a similar response in class when a student asks why he thinks many faiths are reluctant to embrace the political and economic processes of globalization. Blair suggests the reason is a fear of diluting doctrine. He cites a sparsely attended Mass led by a less-than-enthusiastic priest he witnessed in Italy as evidence that some religions are allowing this fear to render them irrelevant.

Lackluster Masses nowithstanding, Pope Benedict XVI wrote positively about the potential benefits of globalization in Deus caritas est:

We now have at our disposal numerous means for offering humanitarian assistance to our brothers and sisters in need, not least modern systems of distributing food and clothing, and of providing housing and care. Concern for our neighbor transcends the confines of national communities and has increasingly broadened its horizon to the whole world. The Second Vatican Council rightly observed that “among the signs of our times, one particularly worthy of note is a growing, inescapable sense of solidarity between all peoples.”

In the course’s discussion, resident theologian Volf refers to forward-looking visions of human flourishing in seminar readings from John Paul II (Centesimus annus) and the Dalai Lama. But there is also a substantive critique of globalization within many religious traditions that goes beyond mere nervousness. Helaine Klasky, Yale’s director of public affairs, acknowledged that the course did not focus very much on these voices.

If genuine interreligious understanding and dialogue is a goal of Blair’s foundation, then the course may want to look more closely at specific doctrinal issues that globalization raises. For instance, in the first class meeting Blair attended, one student asked, “How can different religions truly love those they consider to be outside of God’s grace?” Blair suggested looking at various faiths to see whether such exclusionary views arose out of doctrine or attitude. He said he expected that the latter was primarily responsible for exclusionary religious identities, and that there are ways for people to affirm the truth of their own tradition while feeling comfortable with the truth of another’s. However, if Blair is unable to substantiate this, either theologically or philosophically, then it is just a comforting platitude. One student puts it quite succinctly in the final seminar: “Mr. Blair, you have said that organized religions should support genuine respect for other traditions by allowing faith to evolve away from exclusionary identity formation. How?” With a nervous laugh, Blair looks to Volf. “Can we refer her to the textbook?”

Another issue raised by globalization is the undermining of religious authority structures. The degree to which modern communication amplifies particular religious voices (including minority or dissenting voices) presents a unique challenge. In response to the democratizing forces of globalization, theologies may increasingly be debated and constructed on the liberal political model of consensus building. When I spoke to Volf earlier in the semester, he said, “The conditions of globalization also provide the ability for informal charismatic leadership to emerge, so that a person, even from a cave, with modern communication can reach just about anybody. Situations like this provide bottom-up ways for religious adherents to insert themselves into the processes of globalization.” This is a particular challenge for strict hierarchies like the Catholic Church. But Volf’s reference to a “person in a cave” suggests that the challenge to established hierarchy is only half the story. There is also the threat that extremist voices could co-opt faiths, like Islam, that have more diffuse authority structures. “The authority of ‘formal authority’ is decreasing, and the authority of ‘acquired authority’ or ‘charismatic authority’ is increasing,” according to Volf. “And in that sense, in a globalized situation, anyone potentially has the authority to speak to the concerns of their faith.”

Plans for the future of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at Yale remain ambitious. Klasky’s office recently released a thirteen-point plan to expand the Faith and Globalization Initiative into a “university-wide effort” that will be housed at the Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, which is directed by Volf. Blair will place a small team from his foundation in permanent residence at the center. Blair and Yale also intend to partner with other universities to franchise the “Faith and Globalization” course.

Today, though, class time has run out. Blair thanks the students for helping him appreciate the importance of allowing conceptual analysis to run alongside practical considerations. With a smile, he acknowledges that many of the students might have hoped such an epiphany would have preceded his service as prime minister. But, he says, “I did not have the opportunity to participate in a class like this. After all, I only could go to Oxford.” Blair seems to be slyly suggesting that he doesn’t really consider himself unworthy of his new academic position. But for now, it is back to the world of politics, as he rushes off to deliver the last of five public speeches on faith and globalization. Blair takes the podium in Yale’s Battell Chapel—tie on, glasses off—and addresses the packed sanctuary. He regales the audience with anecdotes from his world travels, attempting to paint a picture of an increasingly interconnected global community. Yale President Richard Levin asks polite questions, and Blair answers with all the charm and eloquence of a seasoned politician.

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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