Should politicians entertain faith in God -- and if they do, should they ever be even mildly open about it?
That question has hit the major papers in Britain today after Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in a Michael Parkinson interview about his belief that God would ultimately judge his sending troops to Iraq.
Some commentators -- and some parents of young men killed in Iraq -- have jumped on Mr. Blair's comments, saying that his somewhat subdued profession of faith is at best innappropriate in modern political life and at worst using God to support his decision to go to war.
The comments I've read suggest nothing like the latter, at least not directly.
In fact, I think they were very mild.
From the previews we've seen (the interview is aired tomorrow), the Prime Minister did not say that God told him to go to war, though some may draw that inference. He said that, 'The only way you can take a decision like [going to war] is to try to do the right thing according to your conscience.'
'I think,' he continued, 'if you have faith about these things, then you realise that that judgement is made by other people... and if you believe in God, it's made by God as well.'
It is totally understandable that parents of the fallen will be upset for a decision to go to war, whatever the reasons given. They may also take umbridge at comments in which a national leader shows the subjective side of those decisions.
Of course, such momentous decision must first be strategic decisions; based on the presence of viable threats to national and international security and on logical assessments of all the available options. You cannot instigate a war on a whim.
However, strategic decisions -- especially those involving something as horrific as war -- are seldom just a matter of logic. Values, subjective experience and conscience will come into them whether we like it or not -- unless we'd prefer to be led by robots than feeling, subjective human beings.
There's no doubt that the incursion into Iraq has proven to be a very messy affair. (Some would use the word 'disaster', though I think we need the benefit of more time passing before we can go quite that far.)
I suppose most people expected the initial invasion to be messy, but few perhaps foresaw just how ugly would be the aftermath. Our prayers and goodwill should go out to the servicemen and women of the allied nations who continue to work in the hazardous environment of post-Saddam Iraq.
There are still many problems both on the ground and in the area of regional geo-politics.
Whatever our view of the war -- and just about everyone has a passionate view -- I think it is perhaps refreshing to hear a politician talk about conscience, especially in an age of rampant political correctness.
It is even a little surprising to hear such talk from a politician who, rightly or wrongly, has often been accused of leaning too much on the power of spin to carry his arguments on many issues.
And, given that Mr. Blair is nearing the end of his premiership it may be that, as one Labour parliamentarian put it, he was simply being 'painfully honest' and vulnerable as a human being.
BBC political reporter Terry Stiasny said: 'Tony Blair was very reluctant to actually say that he did pray to God about these decisions, and it's a reluctance we've often seen in Tony Blair in the past when it comes to talking about his own private religious faith...'
'This is the nearest we've seen for some time of Tony Blair admitting a little bit that his actions were guided by his own private religious faith.'
Tony Blair did not take his nation to war on his own, nor did he do so solely, we hope not even predominantly on the basis of his private conscience. There were many factors at work and many players in the decision-making process.
In the end, though, it was the PM who made the choice and made the case most strongly for public support.
In doing so, he was not flying in the face of most of the conventional wisdom of the time; nor did he appear to be acting in defiance of the best available intelligence (though historians will judge that more clearly in years to come).
Once the strategic threats and options were weighed up, there was nothing any man or woman would have done but fallen back for strength on the beliefs they hold most dear; in Mr. Blair's, an avowed faith in God.
Blair has not said that God condoned his choices, nor that he heard from God to go to war. He has simply said that, at the end of the day people will judge his actions and, because he has a faith in God, he believes he will be judged by that higher power as well.