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A selective but genuine faith

18 January 2012

Lady Thatcher's Christianity is strong and personalised, argues Antonio Weiss

Comforting faith? Mrs Thatcher, as Prime Minister in 1989, after being presented with a gift for her first grandchild

Comforting faith? Mrs Thatcher, as Prime Minister in 1989, after being presented with a gift for her first grandchild

Margaret Thatcher told the Today programme on Radio 4 in 1987: "The fundamental reason of being put on earth is so to improve your character that you are fit for the next world."

A vital fact ignored in the new film about her life, The Iron Lady ( Arts, 6 January), is that Mrs Thatcher was the most Christian Prime Minister of the 20th century. Led by her "deep religious conviction" - which her husband, Denis Thatcher, said was one of the key principles driving her in life - she sought to link explicitly her political ideology to her Christian faith more than almost any other politician of modern times.

Mrs Thatcher was, however, far from unique in being a Christian Prime Minister. Despite historians' saying that the 1960s began the "death of Christian Britain", since the per­missive age, every premier has pro­fessed to be a practising Christian.

In order: an aged Harold Mac­millan claimed: "I go to communion as long as I can. . . I reach for the Bible whenever I can"; Alec Douglas-Home's biographer des­cribed his Christianity as "being of the heart . . . a matter of private witness"; Harold Wilson said in 1963 that "religious be­liefs very much affected my political views"; Ted Heath wrote in his memoirs that "my Christian faith provided foundations for my political beliefs"; Jim Callaghan was a Baptist Sunday-school teacher; even John Major, who did not claim any strong Christian faith, said that he prayed "in all circumstances".

Despite Alastair Campbell's in­famous claim that New Labour did not "do God", Tony Blair told a con­gregation at Holy Trinity, Brompton, that his religious faith "was the most important thing in [my] life"; while Gordon Brown's aides told the media that he was very much still a believer.

Nevertheless, there is a legitimate question whether some of these political figures were merely paying lip-service to the Established Church. Certainly, Nick Clegg was quick to back-track when he revealed his atheism, and there was something rather flippant about David Cameron's liken­ing his faith to "the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes."

Raised a Wesleyan Methodist be­fore switching to Anglicanism in the 1950s, Margaret Thatcher marked a histor­ical discontinuity in the genuine strength of her religious belief and her willingness to draw political teachings from it in public. She went to great lengths to proclaim her faith.

She had no hesitation in address­ing the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 as "a Chris­tian, as well as a politician". Before that, at the 1977 Iain Macleod memorial lecture, she told the Conservative Party: "Religion gives us not only our values . . . but also our historical roots."

For Lady Thatcher, individualism - a central tenet of her political ideology - is explicitly espoused by scripture. As she told the congre­gation of St Lawrence Jewry in 1981: "It is to individuals that the Ten Command­ments are addressed . . . the 'thou' to whom these resounding im­peratives are addressed is you and me."

From this focus on the individual, she determined two further teach­ings: personal responsibility, and freedom of choice. Crucially, and despite the frequent claim that she believed "there is no such thing as society" (a quota­tion usually taken out of context), for her, this respons­ibility was to both oneself and to others.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph in 1978, she claimed: "We are all members of one another [and this] is most vividly expressed in the Chris­tian concept of the Church of the Body of Christ; from this we learn the importance of interdependence and that the individual achieves his own fulfilment in services to others and to God."

Significantly, she was keen to emphasise that this service was the duty of both individuals and the Church, but not the state, because "there are grave moral dangers in letting people get away with the idea that they can delegate their respons­ibilities to public institutions."

In terms of freedom of choice, she felt that an invasive state impinged on this crucial element of Christianity, as she said in 1983: "The denial of personal choice is an outright denial of Christian faith."

Against a backdrop of declining religious belief and an increasingly multifaith society, Margaret Thatcher gained little politically from linking her interpretation of Christianity to her politics. Throughout her premier­ship, she endured strained relation­ships with the Church of England, largely arising from her belief that the Church was failing to live up to her vision of society. If this was lip-service, it was counter-productive.

After her speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988, in which she sought to rebut accusations from Anglicans and others that her policies were socially divisive and regressive, the then Bishop of St Andrews, the Rt Revd Michael Hare Duke, criticised her "unsophisticated" approach to theo­logy in the Church Times.

He wrote that "she was manifestly an amateur advising professionals, but this did not dent her confidence that scripture was on her side." He con­cluded that this came across as "the laywoman's use of the Bible with a vengeance". The Nonconformist in her would probably have heartily endorsed this comment.

Lady Thatcher's faith was shown to be selective and highly personalised, but none the less genuine. As The Iron Lady prompts reflection on her premier­ship, we should not forget this vital element of her character, which tells us as much about the relationship between religion and politics in Britain as about the woman herself.

Antonio E. Weiss is a historian and writer; his detailed examination of Margaret Thatcher's religious beliefs is at: http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/112748.

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