What is going on in British politics?
Why are British PMs always so religious?
Is God having the last laugh?
Theresa May, now the second female prime minister in British history is a regular church goer 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?
This question is right up my street being a politics graduate and a Christian interested in the connection between faith and politics.
I’ve tried to find out why and the answer may surprise you.
I should say at the outset, I’m not taking a party political approach or even suggesting one political party is ‘more Christian’ than the other. It’s just that it’s a fascinating question.
But before you read my ‘theory’ let’s deal with a common explanation for this, one that most people would have but that I think is nowhere near the truth.
That is, that in order 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 a more certain view of itself as a ‘Christian country’. Not so now.
With a country increasingly secular and with more preferring to have ‘no religion’ on their census you’d think we’d have fewer leaders who were openly religious but instead we keep seeing the opposite, time and time again.
So, another explanation. Might these leaders be appealing to their members by playing up any Christian conviction they have, no matter how small? Yes, 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 and sometimes openly hostile about talking about a common Christian culture.
But here’s the strange thing. Recent Labour prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both have an active Christian faith.
And the Liberal Democrats? Current leader, Tim Farron is an evangelical Christian. Yep, a socially liberal party headed by a leader whose own faith is strongly connected with conservative social values. Go figure.
So what’s going on?
The answer to this is fascinating and actually it will be of interest to anyone who leads, regardless of their religious conviction.
But just before I attempt to answer this I need to look at one more question. Does being a Christian make you a better politician; more moral, more selfless and therefore a better prime minister?
Not necessarily. It may on occasion have an opposite effect. I’ll cover this too.
So here it is, the reason so many Christians rise to the top and become leaders of their respective parties and why anyone, even those not religious, should take note.
The first reason is moral clarity.
Who goes into politics with a wish-washy policy platform?
How many politicians do you hear saying something like, ‘yeah, I kind of believe in a minimum wage but hey, I really hear what employers are saying. Gosh isn’t the minimum wage complex? Two equally valid perspectives. Hmm isn’t everything relative? Ok, I think I’ll sit down now.’
No way! 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.
Another Conservative PM, John Major was certainly motivated by moral clarity with his ‘back to basics campaign’ but unlike other prime ministers his 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 it lead him to ignore many warnings that this was a dangerous policy to take. It of course 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 report on Blair’s conduct in the lead up to the war and its aftermath is damning. Oh dear, what price a little humility?
So here’s the life lesson, 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 sometimes your clarity of vision may be blurred or that you’re seeing a completely different reality. As a Christian, you should be checking your moral compass for this regularly and practicing 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.
Mission is the other driver for many politicians but Christian politicians again have the edge on their rivals. They’ve likely, lived, breathed mission all of their believing lives. It’s what the Church is all about. My own father used to say that Church is the only organisation that should exist purely for the benefits of its non members. 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 abolishing of slavery lead by 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 and the work church communities 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 (and yes that certainly means your work) should have a clear sense of mission that lines up with yours too. It’s what will drive you everyday 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.
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 fervor. 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.” “I think it’s right that we don’t flaunt these things here in British politics. But it is a part of me, it’s there and it obviously helps to frame my thinking and my approach.”
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 heard once ‘you don’t have to be religious to be ethical, but it sure helps.’
I’m looking forward to seeing how Theresa May gets on with Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. They’ve got a lot of issues to talk through but they’ll have a couple of things in common at least, a similar political outlook and the other, Merkel too is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and Christian in the Evangelical Church of Germany.
The question now, is where next?
Jeremy – Not Only Sundays
© Not Only Sundays, July 2016.
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