Why are British PMs (Prime ministers) always so religious?
What is going on in British politics?
Is God having the last laugh?
Theresa May, now the second female prime minister in British history is a regular churchgoer and is open about her Christian faith. Every recent prime minister has spoken of their faith as being important to them and for some, it’s the reason they got into politics in the first place.
But why is this?
I’ve always been interested in the connection between faith and politics and the answers I’ve found will surprise you.
What’s not influencing religious belief in our PMs.
I’ll deal with a common explanation for religiosity. One that I think is nowhere near the truth.
That is to be a prime minister you need to be religious to capture votes and trust.
That would’ve been the case fifty years ago when the country had viewed itself as a ‘Christian country’. But it’s not so now. With far more people saying they have ‘no religion’, you’d think we’d have fewer leaders who were openly religious but instead we keep seeing the opposite, consistently.
So, another explanation is needed.
Might these leaders be appealing to their members by playing up any Christian conviction they have, no matter how small?
There’s some truth in that, for the Conservative party at least. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats have always preferred a strongly secular view of political life and feel deeply uneasy about talking about sharing a common Christian culture.
And the Liberal Democrats? Former leader, Tim Farron is an evangelical Christian. Yes, a socially liberal party was headed by a leader whose own faith is strongly connected with conservative social values. It didn’t work out well.
But there’s another question that begs to be looked at. Does being a Christian make you a better politician; more moral, more selfless and therefore a better and more trusted leader?
Not necessarily. It may on occasion have an opposite effect.
So here are some explanations as to why so many Christians rise to the top and become leaders of their parties.
Anyone, even if not religious, should take note.
Religious PMs live moral clarity.
The first reason is moral clarity.
Who goes into politics with a wishy-washy policy platform?
You go into politics because you have a conviction that you and your party’s values are right and the others are mostly wrong.
In other words, moral clarity.
Where Christian leaders have the advantage is that they don’t just talk moral clarity, they should (and many do) actually live it. It’s a certainty of conviction that gets their engines going. And for many of these leaders, they had a strong Christian upbringing where these values were instilled in them from a very young age.
Don’t believe me? How about this from Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a Methodist lay preacher and one herself before going into politics;
“The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace, in the true meaning of the word, for which we all long.”
Or this on Gordon Brown’s upbringing as the son of a Church of Scotland minister.
“I don’t recall all the sermons my father preached Sunday after Sunday. But I will never forget these words he left me with: ‘We must be givers as well as getters.’ Put something back. And by doing so make a difference. And this is my moral compass.”
Brown often referred to his father’s ministry in his speeches, time and again. The experience formed his whole worldview and his politics was an outworking of this.
‘Back to Basics’ religiosity backfiring.
Another Conservative Prime-minister, John Major was certainly motivated by a moral clarity with his ‘back to basics campaign’ but unlike other prime ministers, this was a campaign that was more about common decency than an explicit Christian morality. For political reasons it never took off because his own MPs were soon mired in various scandals. Major is reticent to talk about his Christian faith and see’s it more as a practical thing than a theological conviction.
But no one can doubt Tony Blair’s sense of moral clarity. It had a terrible effect, he was so convinced that it was his moral duty to remove dictators from power and promote democracy in the Middle East that he ignored many warnings that this was a dangerous policy to take. Of course, it did lead to the Iraq war with all the subsequent effects that has had.
We can’t forget that then US President, George W Bush, was also motivated by a Christian sense of moral clarity. It was a dangerous combination, two believers, that we know would pray together and I’m sure bolstered each other’s viewpoint.
There’s also a lesson there on humility, another Christian virtue that it would appear was lacking in Blair and Bush’s case. Blair is still convinced he was right. History suggests otherwise and the recent independent Chilcot inquiry on Blair’s conduct in the lead up to the war and its aftermath is damning. What price a little humility?
Here’s the life lesson for leaders today; have moral clarity and communicate it clearly if you’re leading any endeavour but don’t become so self-righteous that you can’t even see where your clarity of vision or sense of reality is distorted. As a Christian, you should be constantly checking your moral compass and practising some humility along the way.
That’s a rare thing in any politician too.
But I move on to the next quality these leaders all have, a sense of mission.
Religious PMs have a clear mission
A mission is the other motivator for many politicians but Christian politicians again have the edge on their rivals. They’ve likely lived and breathed mission all of their believing lives. It’s what the Church is all about. Getting out there and changing the world is what churches (when they’re effective and have moral clarity) do best.
One needs only think of the abolitionists like William Wilberforce, or the Women’s Christian Temperance movement pushing for female suffrage or more recently the civil rights movement in the United States lead by Martin Luther King Jr to see what a sense of mission can do to change the world.
Outgoing Prime minister David Cameron has experienced himself the Church’s mission and it has inspired his faith. He said that his greatest moments of peace occur every other Thursday morning when he attends Eucharist at the church attached to his children’s school. His faith appears to have grown over the years from having doubts to one where he feels confident of the role that Christianity plays in British life today and indeed in his own. He’s said ‘I have felt at first hand the healing power of the Church’s pastoral care.’
Our Christian prime ministers are motivated by the same thing. It’s a mission to change the country for the better. Every leader, of course, wants to do it but again, it’s interesting how again Christian leaders seem to just instinctively do it on a party political level. Is that because they’ve learnt some things from churches about how to mobilise and inspire people? I think there’s some truth there.
Here’s the other life lesson. You or the organisation you dedicate your life to should have a clear sense of mission that aligns with yours. It’s what will drive you every day and even inspire you to put in extra. That’s because it’s an outworking of what you value in life and how different you want the world to be.
Our current religious PM
And what of our new prime minister, Theresa May, the daughter of an Anglican vicar (just like Thatcher and Brown whose parents were preachers)?
“I know some politicians seek high office because they are driven by ideological fervour. I know others seek it for reasons of ambition or glory. My reasons are much simpler. I grew up the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major. Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.”
“It [Christian faith] is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” she told BBC’s “Desert Island Discs.”
So, another Christian prime minister in power. Will that make her any more special than anyone else? Maybe not. But it does bring to mind a quote I once heard ‘you don’t have to be religious to be ethical, but it sure helps.’
It appears that Theresa May has a good working relationship with Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. They’ve got a lot of issues to talk through but they have a couple of things in common at least. One is a similar political outlook the other is that Merkel too is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and Christian in the Evangelical Church of Germany.
The question now is which Christian PM will we have next?
Jeremy – Not Only Sundays (About Us).
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© Not Only Sundays, July 2016, updated January 2018.
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