It was striking to hear the similarities in the speeches that Tony Blair and Barack Obama gave at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. They each told their personal stories of growing up in nonbeliever households and finding their way to faith. They each quoted “Golden Rule” type scriptures from different faiths. They each spoke more of faith-inspired service to the world than the inner life of prayer and the soul. And they talked about interfaith cooperation as an antidote to religious extremism.
As Blair said, “If faith becomes the property of extremists, it will originate discord. But if, by contrast, different faiths can reach out to and have knowledge of one another, then instead of being reactionary, religious faith can be a force for progress.”
The coincidence did not escape President Obama. He told his Faith Advisory Council in the Oval Office last Thursday that he and Blair had basically the same message at the Prayer Breakfast, even though they had not coordinated speeches.
But even more interesting than the commonality of vision is the fact that both Blair and Obama have made commitments to realize their vision. Blair has set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to bring faiths together to serve others. Amongst TBFF’s first projects is a major initiative on preventing deaths caused by malaria.
And President Obama stated that his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives will not only support nonprofits (secular and faith-based) serving American neighborhoods, but also reach out across the world to advance interfaith cooperation. As he put it, “If we can talk to one another openly and honestly, then perhaps old rifts will start to mend and new partnerships will begin to emerge.”
So we have a former British Prime Minister and a new American President each articulating a vision of interfaith cooperation and building institutions to make good on that vision.
Here’s my prayer: that Blair and Obama are only the first world leaders to build real institutions to interfaith cooperation. Who’s next?