What Tony Blair Can Teach Mitt Romney About Faith in Politics

Pundits say a politician can't run for office successfully while running away from his religious beliefs. The former prime minister offers a surprising counterexample.

British Prime Minister meets with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in 2003, prior to his public conversion to Catholicism. (Getty Images)

"When will we talk about Mormonism?" asks Politico's Dylan Byers. Judging by the Romney campaign's communication strategy to date, the answer would appear to be "never." The candidate has studiously avoided discussing his religion in all but the most general terms, no doubt out of fear of backlash against his unusual and sometimes controversial faith. But a growing chorus of commentators on both sides of the political aisle has begun questioning this exercise in avoidance.

For some, Mitt Romney needs to tackle the topic in order to connect with religious voters; for others, it's a question of the candidate's honesty and ability to demonstrate core convictions rather than simply strike opportunistic poses. But all agree that for Romney to succeed, he'll have to substantively address his Mormonism.

"He needs to come out of the closet on his religion," argues liberal MSNBC contributor Jimmy Williams. "Why would you not embrace your own religion?" Conservative columnist Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times that "Romney would stand to gain if he spoke more directly and in more detail about a worldview ... that provides one of the most authentic and deeply felt influences on his often inauthentic-seeming personality. In one form or another, there will be plenty of attempts to define Romney's religion for him, and he might be better off doing his own defining first."

The shared implication of these arguments is that Romney cannot run for office while running away from his potentially problematic religious beliefs. But recent history offers a powerful counterexample of a very successful politician who quite transparently soft-pedaled and sidestepped his own religious convictions: former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Like Mitt Romney, who has been profoundly shaped by his faith, Blair is a deeply religious man. According to his press secretary Alastair Campbell, he would often consult the Bible when making major political decisions -- including when he took Britain to war with Iraq. His biographer Anthony Seldon writes "Where some politicians turn to drink, Blair ... turns to prayer and religious reading." Seldon and other observers partly attribute Blair's muscular interventionist foreign policy to his faith-based outlook. (Thus, in celebrated British screenwriter Peter Morgan's script for BBC Films' The Special Relationship, the prime minister lobbies President Bill Clinton to support NATO intervention in Kosovo by deeming it "a battle between good and evil" and "our Christian responsibility.") Since leaving office, Blair has spearheaded the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, devoted to harnessing religion as a force for good in the world, and even debated Christopher Hitchens on the merits of belief.

Yet for all these commitments, Blair never told the whole truth to the electorate about his personal convictions -- for reasons of political expediency.

In the midst of resigning and handing over Labour Party leadership to Gordon Brown in June 2007, after serving 10 years as prime minister, Blair converted to Catholicism. The move surprised no one. It had been an open secret that Blair was Catholic in all but name for decades -- he attended Catholic churches, took communion, had Catholic mentors and spiritual advisers who frequented Downing Street, and raised his children as Catholics with his Catholic wife, Cherie. But Blair never publicly acknowledged his faith while in office, due to the precarious position of Catholicism in Britain. As The Guardian reported upon Blair's official conversion:

[W]hy has it taken so long? Almost certainly because of Mr Blair's sensitivity about the place of Catholicism in British public -- and particularly its constitutional -- life. The only positions specifically barred to Catholics are marriage to the sovereign or heir to the throne, or becoming sovereign themselves, a legacy of the Act of Settlement that followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the deposition of the last Catholic monarch, James II; there has never been a Catholic prime minister ....

But the motives of Catholic politicians have traditionally been regarded with suspicion by non-Catholics, both here and in the US, based on the allegation that they take their orders from the Vatican rather than the electorate.

Blair, in other words, carefully avoided voicing his true religious convictions -- that is, his Catholicism -- until he left office, so that his unpopular faith wouldn't adversely impact his electoral prospects. And it worked. When reporters attempted to press Blair on his beliefs, Alastair Campbell famously shut down the discussion with the words "We don't do God." And when Blair himself wanted to end a public address on the eve of Iraq hostilities with the words "God bless," his advisers revolted and persuaded him to omit the phrase. By sidestepping the subject of religion in all but the most general terms, Blair and his team managed to separate his political life from his controversial faith commitments.

The parallels to Mitt Romney's Mormon problem are evident. Like the Catholic Church in Britain, the LDS Church is viewed with suspicion by sectors of the American electorate -- some, both on the religious right and secular left, view it as a "cult," while others have raised the (spurious) specter of a "Mormon theocracy" dictated not by the Pope, but by the church's Prophet. Gallup polls show that 22 percent of voters -- including 19 percent of independents -- would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.

Given the detrimental electoral effects of his Mormon affiliation, it is not surprising that Romney's advisers have taken a page out of the Blair playbook and opted to downplay it. But can they duplicate Blair's success?

The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, Blair's example shows that a campaign can sidestep the religion issue if it persistently refuses to address it. Voters will ultimately base their decision on more immediate and consequential concerns, like the economy. On the other hand, Romney operates in a very different political and media climate than Blair did during his prime ministership, which makes him a hard act to follow.

First, unlike Britain, America has a long tradition of civil religion, with politicians expected to pay homage to its tropes and tenets -- like closing speeches with "God bless America" -- in their rhetoric. It is far more difficult to avoid talking about religion in this sort of atmosphere than it was for Blair in largely secular Britain. Indeed, Romney has made frequent reference to the touchstones of American civil religion in his paeans to American exceptionalism. But with each invocation of this tradition, he opens the door to questions about what he really believes.

Second, the media environment has changed dramatically since Blair occupied 10 Downing Street. With the advent of Twitter, other social media, and viral videos, a stray incendiary remark about Mormonism can quickly overtake the news cycle when it previously would have languished in obscurity. In this climate, the Romney campaign will be bombarded with far more questions and soundbites about the candidate's religious views than Blair ever was.

Lastly, Romney's personality and positions -- or lack thereof -- make his religion a far more enticing topic for journalists and voters. Unlike Blair, whose New Labour platform and easy charisma lent focus and coherence to his campaign and personal narrative, Romney comes across as lacking definition and core convictions. Nature abhors a vacuum; faced with a blank canvas, reporters and interested onlookers will seek to fill it. From this vantage point, Romney's religion presents a tantalizing target for such investigations -- a window into the soul of a supposedly soulless candidate.

For now, it looks like Team Romney is betting that the electorate is more concerned with the economy than with media-fueled frenzies over their candidate's church, and that the Tony Blair strategy can transplant to America. Whether they are right remains to be seen.