Blair was once a true Christian; now, alas, he has strayed

In and out of the homes of the liberal intelligentsia, you can hear the worried whispers: "He's got God." They are making out that Tony Blair has suddenly transformed himself into a holy-roller, at the helm of legions of white-hooded, barefooted flagellants. Supposedly, he was prompted into his damascene conversion by the movement that has Republicans across the Atlantic allying themselves to Christian fundamentalists in a "compassionate conservativism" (there is little compassionate about these folk, though: last week they allowed the listing of abortionists on the web, which is tantamount to turning doctors into target practice for millions of gun-toting Bible-thumpers). Yet Blair did not need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration to come out as a Christian; he always was one. Listen to this: "The Christian message is that self is best realised through communion with others. It places a duty, an imperative on us to reach our better self and to care about creating a better community to live in. It is not utilitarian . . . it is judgemental. There is right and wrong."

These words of faith were written in 1993, when George Bush Jr was but a recovering alcoholic and compassionate conservativism was just a mouthful. They are from Reclaiming the Ground: Christianity and Socialism, a booklet that included the thoughts of the late John Smith ("politics ought to be a moral activity") and of the present Culture Secretary, Chris Smith ("Christians [believe in] a passionate linking of environmental awareness with action for social justice") - and a foreword from Blair, who was then the shadow home secretary. Blair was a paid-up member of the Christian Socialist movement, a group with which he maintains close ties - and indeed, whom he addressed last week, thus giving rise to media speculation about his "new" religious fervour.

By the time he was elected leader of his party, this man had left a clear paper trail of his religious convictions and the influence they wielded on him. The bien pensants must have been paying no attention - or else they were praying that Blair would have some secular sense beaten into him by his pals Peter and Ali. But while the Hampstead liberals chose to ignore his persuasions, the rest of the country knew about his Christianity - and voted him in for that very reason. This is not because Britons are still a God-fearing nation - less than 8 per cent attend church services regularly - nor is it because they saw Christianity as delivering community on the cheap, and better schooling on the sly. Rather, it is because they still recognise that Christian principles offer the kind of guidance and inspiration of which they approve.

Those principles cannot be summed up, as critics would have it, in "pro-life, anti-gay, anti-Semitic". A far better summation includes equality, freedom, service and charity - the same principles that inspired socialist action for generations, and the very ones that Blair placed at the heart of his agenda in 1997. Voters then believed that he was committed to the radical religion that, for 2,000 years, has lobbied on behalf of the poor, the marginalised, the victim. The electorate was weary of Godless Thatcherism, and there is nothing more socialist than a good Christian.

Today, the voters find evidence all around them that the Prime Minister's actions have not lived up to their expectations. Real Christians are out there waging war against the widening gap between the rich and the poor, championing Jubilee 2000 (the Christian group that campaigns for the cancellation of third-world debt) and clamouring for an ethical foreign policy that is about giving more in aid, rather than selling more guns.

"There is good and bad," Blair wrote in Reclaiming the Ground. "We all know this, of course, but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language." Woe to the prime minister who cuts his cloth to suit the fashion of the day: he should remember that what is "in" in Hampstead is "out" in Brixton, Leeds, Liverpool . . .

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube