*** DEBUG END ***

The Mighty and the Almighty edited by Nick Spencer

16 June 2017

Anthony Phillips looks at national leaders’ religious outlooks

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

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM: 

Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Church Times/Canterbury Press:

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

Early bird tickets available



The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)