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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: Attlee

Tuesday March 7

Adam McPherson looks at the influence of faith on Clement Attlee, who rejected the church but was driven by the 'ethical standards' of Christianity.

When is a Christian not a Christian? When do faithful acts outweigh acts of faith?

In his book God in Number 10, Mark Vickers attempts to detangle the contradictions which surround the life and faith of Clement Attlee, revealing more about the man who would go on to found both our National Health Service and secure the United Kingdom's own independent nuclear deterrent. How did Christianity influence a Prime Minister who described Church teachings as “mumbo jumbo”?

According to Attlee, his upbringing was “at first evangelical, later inclined to be more High Church”. He was one of eight siblings, between them baptised at four different churches. As a child, Attlee found churchgoing dull, writing that he “used to be very bored” during the services. Games were prohibited on Sundays and he would have to attend Church numerous times in one day.

His biographer, Kenneth Harris, maintains that this early disillusionment with the Church turned Attlee against Christianity for the rest of his life. Adding to Attlee's frustrations was the fact that those who professed to be Christians forbade him from asking questions about his faith and refused to answer them when he tried. By the age of 16 he had quietly rejected the Christian faith and decided he would not easily be persuaded otherwise.

After leaving University, Attlee began to train for a legal career. When he dropped out early in his studies to become a social worker in the East End of London, Attlee was confronted by what he perceived as the hypocrisies of the Church. He loathed the way that religion was used to placate the poor when they were suffering by reminding them of the better life which awaited them beyond death. Attlee was particularly angry about the way those who engaged in charitable largesse expected something in return, such as prayers for their souls. Vickers writes that for Attlee “some charity appeared to be naked bribery”.

Despite these reservations, Attlee was able to distinguish between the Church and the faith in much the same way as his contemporary Winston Churchill did. Attlee asserted that the Bible was “full of revolutionary teaching” and that “there are probably more texts from the Bible enunciated from Socialist platforms than from all the other parties”. Attlee took umbrage with the fact that Christianity was being used to promote capitalist tendencies which were detrimental to the poorest in society. Though Attlee was not a Communist, remarking once that it was better to be a Catholic or a Jesuit than a Communist, he believed that the Church of England had become too closely associated to the wealthier classes and its members were losing sight of their Christian mission.

For a man who could be belligerent about faith - though rarely the faithful – Attlee spent much of his time as Prime Minister dealing with ecclesiastical matters. He met and wrote to bishops of the Church of England regularly and they spoke highly of Attlee's attitude towards his work. Again, Attlee could differentiate between his own beliefs and those of the wider society. He believed the Church needed to be revitalised or the younger generations would be lost. The leaders of the Church needed to have “some appreciation of the need for youthful drive rather than for elderly safety first”.

Attlee was an unabashed reformer. He reshaped the nation's welfare system, rebuilding the nation from the rubble of the Second World War and this reforming zeal carried through to other bodies of the state, including the Church of England. He had little business with the Free Churches, however, and only attended their services when required to so in his capacity as Prime Minister.

Interviewed by Harris in 1965, Attlee said he didn't know if he was an agnostic or not. He believed there might be an afterlife but maintained that he was “one of those people who are incapable of religious experience”. Under Attlee's leadership, society became a better place for the poorest, a mission of Attlee's underpinned by what he believed were the “ethical standards” of Christianity. Attlee may not have had the faith of a Christian, but he acted as a Christian ought to.

The Faith of our Leaders: exploring the beliefs of the UK's most famous political figures


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