Frankly, my initial reaction, as a Yale lecturer, on hearing that Tony Blair will spend 2008-09 at Yale as the Howland Distinguished Fellow (he’ll be teaching a seminar on “faith and globalization”) was that it puts us one up on Harvard. My second was to predict to myself that while Blair will receive a rapturous reception from the students, a few of his faculty colleagues will likely be no more than civil. This new position will not make Blair any better liked by his enemies at home, among whom his interest in matters of faith was almost as unpopular as his friendship with President Bush. Indeed, the two were often linked. The comment forums of the various British newspapers are already lighting up with predictable abuse, and the tinfoil hat brigade is asserting various implausible connections between the university, assorted multinationals, President Bush, Blair, and, inevitably, the Iraq War.
Blair’s choice of seminar subject must be seen in light of the fact that, later in the year, he will launch the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which will promote interfaith dialogue and understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But it’s possible to doubt his thesis that the central problem in the Middle East is the relationship between the “Abrahamic religions,” as he prefers to call them. The real problem, I’d say, is that the Middle East is largely ruled by dictators who see no law larger than themselves.
But Blair’s arrival is a contribution nonetheless. Over fifty years ago, William F. Buckley decried the retreat of faith at Yale. By the late 1990’s, it was no longer discussed here in any serious way: indeed, it was simply never mentioned. Since 9/11, interest in faith as a force in human affairs has begun to return at Yale. Blair’s seminar marks a further, higher-profile reinforcement of that vital trend. Even if you disagree with his diagnosis of the Middle East, he will be teaching the young and eager about things that truly matter.
Welcome to Yale, Mr. Prime Minister.