The Mighty and the Almighty: How political leaders do God
Nick Spencer, editor
Biteback Publishing £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
THIS admirable study of 24 recent presidents and prime ministers by 13 different authors primarily associated with the think tank Theos examines how “they did God,” balancing Christian principles with that necessary pragmatism that their office required. As these essays show, things are never as simple as they might at first appear.
The volume begins with Margaret Thatcher, described as “Britain’s most serious and explicitly religious Prime Minister since Stanley Baldwin, arguably William Gladstone”. While the editor notes that among her critics was “the established Church”, no details of that criticism are spelt out.
In contrast, all other subsequent prime ministers (only John Major is not included) have been far more reticent in discussing their faith, though, of the little-known Theresa May, the editor argues that her concern that the individual should contribute to society is in marked contrast to Thatcher’s stark individualism.
There is no such diffidence among American presidents, for whom, thanks to Ronald Reagan, “God bless America” has “become a staple of virtually all major presidential speeches”. Of those discussed, no president evokes more sympathy than Bill Clinton for his twin concerns for social justice and mercy for the sinner, and no president appears more dangerous than the zealous George W. Bush, with his belief that he was God’s instrument in the war on terror.
Three Australian prime ministers are included: John Howard, Kevin Rudd, and Tony Abbott. While Howard believed that religion and politics belonged in separate spheres, Rudd, influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, readily embraced the social gospel, to give power to the powerless.
For this reviewer, the essays by Ben Ryan on three utterly contrasting characters, Vladimir Putin, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay proved the most illuminating. Ryan shows how, under the pragmatic Putin, Orthodox Christianity and nationalism have become increasingly united, while other religious groups are regarded as undermining the security of the state. The charge that Sarkozy used religion for political purposes is dismissed. In challenging secularism, Sarkozy held religion to be useful for French society in both its civilising effect, and in providing hope. While Lugo’s presidency failed, his fight for justice for the poor and against corruption showed that theology and political vision could coincide.
Of other essays, the most thought-provoking is the one on Václav Havel, while the one on Mary McAleese shows what a President in a non-political role can achieve as compared with a hereditary monarch. Joseph Ewing indicates how important history and context are in assessing Viktor Orbán, while the essay on Nelson Mandela points to the value of a Christian upbringing, however much or little of that faith is subsequently embraced.
Of the many quotations in the volume, the prize must go to the no-nonsense Angela Merkel, who, talking about Islamic immigration, declared that Germany suffered not from “too much Islam”, but “too little Christianity”.
This work corrects much of what the popular press promulgates. While no one, least of all presidents and prime ministers, can satisfy the exhaustive claims of Christianity, the editor concludes that “we should be grateful so many politicians are prepared to try” — and, we might add, be judged with all the pain that this may entail.
It is to be hoped that this thought-provoking volume attracts the wide readership it deserves.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
Listen to Nick Spencer discuss how modern politicians “do God” in the Church Times Podcast here