John Rentoul: Blair's faith much misunderstood

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One of the common misconceptions about Tony Blair is that, because he is the first Labour prime minister to be a devout Christian, he must be an irrationalist.

On the contrary, his theology is liberal, ecumenical and centred on the historical reality of the person of Jesus – rather than the literal truth of the Old Testament. He would not therefore be interested in the Creation story except as allegory, and has no obvious difficulty reconciling his technocratic enthusiasm for science – including genetic modification, which the Prince of Wales said "takes us into areas that should be left to God" – with his Christianity. For him, the Bible seems to be more a way of approaching universal ethical questions than a divine revelation.

As was manifested in his response to the tragedy of 11 September, he is not big on the supernatural. His address to the families of the victims in the Episcopal church of St Thomas in New York a few days later did not draw on the consolation of an afterlife. On the contrary, his message was that loved ones live on in the memory of those they leave behind. He took as his text the final passage from The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novel by Thornton Wilder that meditates on the cruelty of random death and that describes love as "the only survival, the only meaning".

The somewhat secular character of his beliefs is also often obscured by a simplistic reading of his marriage to Cherie, as devout a Roman Catholic as he is an Anglican. The common ground of their theology seems to be their liberal ecumenism, rather than any crypto-Catholicism on Mr Blair's part.

When Jenny Tonge asked the Prime Minister about state schools teaching creationism, his equivocation in reply was not, therefore, because he has any secret sympathy with the literal-truthers of the Christian fringe.

He is practised enough in the compromises of politics to know that he has absolutely no interest in provoking an open confrontation with evangelical creationists. He also knows that the issue of faith schools is a sensitive one on his own back benches. Hence the dead bat, retreating into a defence of "diversity".

Of course, he would not condemn creationists with the fury of an atheist or agnostic rationalist who regards it as dangerous to teach children myth as scientific fact. They are, after all, only Christians who take symbolism too far.

The only kind of creationism in which Mr Blair believes is the myth of his own creation of New Labour: for six days he laboured to give form to the void, and on the seventh day he rested.

John Rentoul is author of 'Tony Blair: Prime Minister'