‘Doing God’ in Number 10: British prime ministers and religionBy Kevin Theakston on 24 April 2014
Many media commentators and prominent public intellectuals seem shocked and dismayed to have discovered that a Christian is currently the prime minister of Britain.
David Cameron has triggered a big media storm by recently describing Britain as ‘a Christian country’ and by going further than he has done before in talking about his personal religious beliefs. The prime minister was sowing sectarianism and division one group of writers, scientists and humanist campaigners argued; he and the government, they said, had no right to ‘actively prioritise’ religion or any particular faith. Others questioned his motives and timing: was he trying to distract attention from the damaging Maria Miller resignation, or ‘dog-whistle’ to reassure disgruntled church-going Conservative activists antagonized over gay-marriage, or hoping to win back religiously-inclined UKIP voters ahead of the European elections?
What the commentators have not realized is that it is in fact not very surprising to find a perfectly sincere religious believer serving as prime minister in modern Britain. For all the downward trend in recent decades in declared formal religious belief and in church attendance in the wider society, the occupants of Number 10 Downing Street since the 1960s have, with a few exceptions, been a group of people with pretty definite personal Christian faith-commitments.
Up till now the media have barely noticed that Cameron has delivered an Easter message every year and is the first prime minister to have an annual reception for every major faith during their festivals. He originally presented himself as a fairly vague and wishy-washy Church of England type, whose belief in God he described (in 2008) as a ‘bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes.’ But he has now used this year’s Easter reception at Number 10 and an article for The Church Times to make his strongest and most explicit religious intervention to date.
Cameron said he was ‘a member of the Church of England, and, I suspect, a rather classic one: not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith.’ But fellow believers will have registered his vocabulary: his reference to ‘our Saviour’ and what he said was his personal experience of the church’s ‘healing power’. He spoke up for the church’s ‘national role’ but argued that being a Christian country did not mean ‘doing down’ other religions or ‘passing judgment’ on those with no faith at all.
In an increasingly ‘secular age’ Christians need to be even ‘more confident’ and ‘more evangelical’ about their faith, he said, and ‘get out there and make a difference to people's lives’. He said he wants to ‘infuse politics’ with Christian ‘ideals and values’ such as ‘responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love’. In a phrase sure to be endlessly lampooned he insisted that ‘Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago.’
Nearly every British prime minister of the last half-century has been a self-professed Christian, their faith important to them even if they did not (in office) speak as openly about it as Cameron has now done. Cameron’s Tory predecessors Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath were all strong religious believers. Labour’s Harold Wilson – from a non-Conformist background – had a low key Christianity-as-practical-good-deeds outlook, while James Callaghan’s upbringing as a Baptist seems to have shaped his world-view and character even though he lost his faith as an adult and was not a churchgoer.
Margaret Thatcher’s strong and life-long religious faith was a massively important aspect of her personality, thinking and politics. She had no qualms about describing herself as ‘a Christian and a politician’ or talking about right and wrong and good and evil, and she frequently drew on the Bible in her speeches. ‘Although I have always resisted the argument that a Christian has to be a Conservative’, she said, ‘I have never lost my conviction that there is a deep and providential harmony between the kind of political economy I favour and the insights of Christianity.’ For Thatcher personal responsibility and individual freedom of choice were the key religious ideals that led to and justified her commitment to minimal state intervention and her emphasis on the importance of wealth creation, self-help and philanthropy. She clashed loudly with liberal bishops (who were critical of her tone and of her policies and their social consequences), however, insisting that the churches should stay out of politics. In contrast, her successor John Major said he was wary of ‘politicians who parade their faith’. He was embarrassed when interviewed on the radio in 1990 about his religious beliefs. In his memoirs, however, he admitted to being ‘a believer at a distance . . . a believer in the message more than the rituals of the Church’.
Gallons of ink have been spent on Tony Blair’s religious views. Few PMs – Gladstone in the 19th century, Baldwin and Thatcher in the 20th century – have been so strongly moulded and influenced by their religious beliefs. The ideas about personal responsibility and community he took from the Bible, together with a black-and-white, good-versus-evil world-view, fed into his policies at home and internationally. Yet Blair was more open about his religious convictions and how they informed his political views before he became prime minister and after he left office (when he converted to Catholicism and set up his Faith Foundation) than during his time in Number 10, when his spin-doctor Alastair Campbell tried to close down the subject (‘We don’t do God’) and Blair himself came to feel that if ‘you talk about religion in our system, people think you’re a nutter.’
The son of a Church of Scotland minister, Gordon Brown seemed keen to keep his faith a relatively private matter but talked about his ‘moral compass’ and made powerful speeches about child poverty and the developing world peppered with references to justice, responsibility and fairness. He also went out of his way to emphasise the shared moral sense and ethical principles shared by Christianity and other faiths: Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam. Out of office he has spoken eloquently about the relationship between faith and politics in modern societies, regretting that he did not as prime minister go further in drawing on and speaking out about his own faith.
In the end, it is likely that few votes will be swung either way by Cameron’s public profession of his Christianity. The details of the controversy he engendered may well have gone over the heads of the public, leaving only an impression that Cameron is after all a politician with certain values; the fuss has probably only done him harm with people who were not going to vote for him anyway. At a deeper level, Gordon Brown was surely right when he suggested in 2011 that prime ministers should not be asked to leave their religious beliefs at the door of Number 10 and in so doing bring a ‘diminished version’ of themselves into the public square. It is best if they are open and honest to themselves and to the public about their beliefs and ideals. But they shouldn’t thereby claim a moral superiority or immunity from the need for rational deliberation about politics and policy and the demands of robust democratic contestation.
Kevin Theakston is Professor of British Government and Head of the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. He is the author of After Number 10: Former Prime Ministers in British Politics (Palgrave Macmillan 2010) and, with Timothy Heppell, co-editor of How Labour Governments Fall: From Ramsay MacDonald to Gordon Brown (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He is currently working with Andrew Crines on a project on prime ministers, religion and political rhetoric.
Image: Brett Jordan (CC BY 2.0)