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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: Thatcher

Tuesday March 14

Adam McPherson considers the interpretation of faith by Margaret Thatcher, recalling her address to the 1988 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

WRITING about the personal faith of our Prime Ministers is rather like comparing the beliefs of different Christian denominations.

Each will interpret the Bible in a way that complements their wider belief structures, reinforcing what they already hold to be true. For politicians, Christianity can be a potent force for promoting political ideologies, lending theological heft to policy arguments which may appear distinct from faith. The teachings of the Bible can be used to turn a fairly staid and tired white paper into a story, a narrative, part of a greater whole. After studying Mark Vickers' God in Number 10, it is obvious that no modern Prime Minister has been more adept at utilising one such framing of Christian belief to justify political ideology than Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher grew up as a Wesleyan Methodist. Her father, Albert Roberts was a lay preacher and an Alderman. Her elder sister, Muriel, would later describe their upbringing as “all church, church, church. We had an uncle every Christmas who sent us religious books. Oh God, how we hated it.” After marrying Denis, Thatcher attended Anglican services but didn't take communion as she never felt a need to do so. Her faith was notably Low Church during this time, more in-keeping with the Methodist tradition she was raised in.

While Thatcher's transition from Methodist to Anglican provides insight into her faith, it is her actions that are far more interesting. To those who knew her, Thatcher had no faith, some faith, or was Evangelical in her beliefs. It is challenging to fully place her within one denomination. But what remained consistent throughout is her use of Christianity to promote her particular brand of socio-economic thought. Thatcher grounded her politics in “the conflict between good and evil” believing “that in the end good will triumph”. While this may appear refreshingly candid for a politician of the modern era, it is important to recognise that the 'good and evil' of which Thatcher spoke was entirely of her own definition and this brought her into regular conflict with the Church of England and the Free Churches. Disagreement with her economic policy was tantamount to disagreeing with her interpretation of Christian doctrine.

The infamous ‘Sermon on the Mound’ Thatcher delivered to the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly in 1988 provides a fascinating deep-dive into Thatcher's religio-socio-economic blending. Thatcher extolled that humans had a God-given capacity to choose “between good and evil” and this choice was at the root of the Christian faith. For Thatcher, Christ chose to “lay down his life that our sins might be forgiven”. Love, which the majority of Christians would argue is the chief tenet of Christian faith, was second only to freedom. Jonathan Raban asserts that she used “Christianity to provide a theological legitimization for the individual's right to choose... Christ dying on the Cross joins those folk who exercised their right to choose.” This concept of choice was central to Thatcherism: the choice to buy your council house, pay for a bed in the NHS and educate your children privately. As political journalist Steve Richards points out, while that might be true of the haves, most of the electorate found themselves further disempowered by her policies.

Margaret Thatcher was not the first Prime Minister to invoke Christianity to suit their political agenda. Churchill sheathed his speeches in the rhetoric of a crusading Christian West battling the evil barbarism of Nazism to stunning oratory effect. He understood, as Thatcher did, that policies which may be an anathema to the electorate are best sold as stories. Richards, states that “Thatcher was fascinated by the ‘why’ question and liked to answer it”, describing her as a “political teacher … making complex ideas and contentious policies become reassuringly accessible”. John Campbell, one of her biographers argues that she “was a preacher before she was a politician”. Anyone who has watched one of her speeches can see this side of her used to full effect.

During her Sermon on the Mound, Thatcher made it clear what she thought about the Church commenting on politics. “Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform” she said, a marked departure from both Churchill and Attlee who saw their efforts to improve the lives of others through welfare reforms as underpinned by Christian ethics.

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





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