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Tony Blair photo: European Union, CC BY 4.0 licence. Others: public domain.
Tony Blair photo: European Union, CC BY 4.0 licence. Others: public domain.

The Faith of Our Leaders: Churchill

Wednesday February 15

Adam McPherson continues his series on the faith of our most famous Prime Ministers, with a look at the complex figure of Winston Churchill. 

Much has been written about Winston Churchill's faith since his death. To some, Churchill is a paragon of Christian virtue, the modern-day Crusader bravely battling the scourge of Nazi paganism. To others, he is an avowed atheist, one who robustly condemned the necessity of Christian faith in twentieth-century Britain.

What emerges from reading Mark Vickers' account of Churchill's personal beliefs in his book God in Number 10, is that neither assertion is wholly true or wholly false. Having risen in the public imagination to near-mythical status, Churchill has become an entity upon whom any individual or organisation can project their own beliefs and opinions in order to aggrandise themselves, further obscuring an already opaque picture.

Churchill was an enigmatic individual who challenged established orthodoxies, be they political, social or religious, while also using them for his own benefit. He changed parties twice during his long career as a politician, standing as a Unionist, then a Liberal and back again. He regularly railed against party doctrines, confounding his allies and his enemies.

Was Churchill for a larger state or against it? Was he a war monger or a pacifist? After the First World War, he cut public spending and initiated the process of demilitarising the country, a policy replicated across Europe in an attempt to prevent the horrors of the First World War from being repeated. But he also fought against efforts to appease Hitler, becoming our pre-eminent wartime leader. Returning as Prime Minister in 1951, Churchill carried on Clement Attlee's welfare reforms, further expanding the state.

This pragmatic approach to politicking is reflected in what we know of Churchill's faith. As a boy, he admired the Low Church beliefs of his Nanny Everest, noting in his early autobiographies her disdain for ornaments, ritual and the Pope. His first preparatory school was run by an Anglican priest who beat his pupils savagely using 'Christian faith' as a justification. From this was borne a belief that Christianity could be weaponised to absolve harm and brutality.

When he was moved to a new school, he rebelled against their custom of turning to face East during the Apostles' Creed. Whether this was because he genuinely wanted to stand firm behind his Protestant upbringing or whether this was an early indication of the rebellious man he would become is debatable. Now a young man, Churchill read widely, describing this time in his life as his atheist 'phase', writing: “I do not accept the Christian or any other form of religious belief”. For this Churchill, Christianity was merely “pleasant hopeful illusions”. Though he backtracked on some of these sentiments later in life, this conceptualisation of Christianity as a force for bringing hope to the hopeless persevered.

According to his contemporaries, Churchill distinguished between God and religion. For Churchill, organised religion seemed 'fatal to the noble aspirations of its peoples... The fear of God produces bigotry and suspicion'. Desmond Morton, Churchill's personal assistant, stated that Churchill believed in 'the Lord of the Jews', a being beyond human reach or understanding. Churchill 'was not a Christian, on his own argued confession and admission', Morton claimed.

Though Churchill admired Jesus Christ as a force for good in the world and believed the Sermon on the Mount was, according to Vickers, 'the last word on ethics', he did not believe Jesus was God, hence his aversion to being called a Christian. He even went so far as to refuse to read verses containing excessive mention of Jesus because he felt he could not read it with necessary conviction.

Ultimately, Churchill was a man who sought answers and wasn't afraid to ask questions. He understood the role Christianity played in defining and preserving Western values in the face of Nazi barbarism. Churchill used religion as an oratory device, particularly during the Second World War to galvanise the population during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain.  Towards the end of his life, he was keen to know what those around him thought about the afterlife. When asked if he feared death, Churchill replied, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” One can imagine some of the questions he might have asked.