THESE are not good days for those who like their politics pure and secular. Our new Prime Minister is a Christian, and, worse, not just a Christian in the “Magic FM in the Chilterns” kind of a way.
Theresa May is the daughter of the late Vicar of St Mary’s, Wheatley, the Revd Hubert Brasier. He never imposed his Christianity on her when she was growing up, she says, but she inherited it none the less.
She told Desert Island Discs in 2014 that the Christian faith was “part of who I am, and therefore how I approach things. . . [It] helps to frame my thinking and my approach.” She went on in the programme to choose classic hymns — “When I survey the wondrous Cross,” and “Therefore, we, before him bending”, but her faith is clearly more than the conventional Anglicanism lampooned by the BBC’s Yes, Prime Minister as a belief in monarchy, steam engines, and the MCC.
Mind you, it could have been worse for your political secularist. Andrea Leadsom, Mrs May’s last challenger, was not brought up a Christian, but found it “impossible . . . not to believe in God” when her first son was born. Such epiphanies are not unusual. They sometimes lead to a kind of amorphous, therapeutic deism; but not so with Mrs Leadsom. She told The Daily Telegraph that she was a “very committed Christian”, who attended cross-party parliamentary Bible studies and prays “a lot — all the time — mostly for support and doing the right thing”: “I always try to ensure I am doing what I think God would want me to do,” she told Christians in Parliament.
Had that not been enough to depress your eager secularist, we might have been faced with the choice between one of them and the devoutly Evangelical Stephen Crabb, or the socially Conservative Roman Catholic Liam Fox, or Michael Gove, who once dared to speak openly about how his Christianity informed his prison policy, with its commitment to the possibility of redemption.
If the jittery secularist would never have dreamed of voting Conservative anyway, the Liberal Democrat Party is led by the committed Evangelical Tim Farron, and the Labour Party (such as it still exists at the time of writing) has hardly been devoid of Christian leaders over the past two decades.
FACETIOUS as this question will sound, it is a serious one. Many of the faithful will be gleeful at the prospect of so many prominent Christians at the top of politics. But this comes with serious perils, of which I will mention two.
The first is imbalance. One of the great strengths of British Christianity in the age of democratic modernity was that it was to be found across the political spectrum, from Keir Hardie to Margaret Thatcher, William Gladstone to Harold Macmillan. In Britain, Christianity was difficult to box politically — whereas on much of the Continent it was too readily associated with the forces of political reaction and conservatism. The ensuing balance was good for politics and good for Christianity, ethically infusing the former without politically strangling the latter.
As we stand currently, the dominance of Christianity on the Right risks associating Christianity with the Right. This would be deeply problematic, not least for the Right. This potential imbalance is partly a function of the disarray currently plaguing Labour, but it is, none the less, something to handle with care. Political Christianity needs two wings to fly straight.
THE second peril is ignorance. The fact that Christian faith in Britain is thinner and more threadbare today than it was even a generation ago means that it is now dangerous to assume that members of the public know anything about how Christianity relates to politics. And that, in turn, makes partial, tendentious, or misleading assessments of that relationship all the easier.
Specifically, widespread ignorance of both Christianity and politics breeds a series of questions, as exhausting as they are predictable, about whether the Christian leader in question “prays for guidance” (code for “doesn’t listen to the electorate”); “believes God has ever spoken to him/her” (i.e. “hears voices” or, possibly, “is clinically insane”); or “follows church teaching” (which is a cipher for “unacceptably socially conservative”, “reactionary”, or even “closet homophobe”). Asking a potential leader about his or her faith becomes a game of political whack-a-mole.
This is not a new phenomenon, nor one confined to the UK. More than half a century ago, John F. Kennedy’s campaign to become President of the United States was plagued by accusations that his Roman Catholicism would force him to choose between his loyalty to the papacy and to the electorate: “Rome or Home”, in effect. And this despite the fact that Kennedy was not, it is fair to say, the most devout Catholic in political history.
The comparison is an instructive one. It was precisely the unfamiliarity of Roman Catholicism in mainstream US politics at the time that allowed such questions to be posed seriously. They were less about interrogating the would-be President’s ethical universe, and more about suggesting subtly that he was “not one of us”.
Had Tony Blair gone over to Rome while in office rather than just after he left, we would surely have heard the same questions asked here. There were moments in Sadiq Khan’s campaign to become Mayor of London which felt similar.
The less familiar that the population — or, more precisely, the commentariat — is with the candidate’s form of religion, the more we are likely to notice these dog-whistle questions.
We need to strike a balance. Scrutinising the personal beliefs and commitments of anyone who holds public office is not simply a democratic right but a positive responsibility, and the Prime Minister is no exception. But doing so on the a priori assumption that any serious faith commitment makes you mad, bad, or dangerous to govern would be a betrayal of liberal democracy.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.