Some things, at least, are clear. We are not America, a country in which every aspiring President, no matter how dissolute or church-lite a life they have lived (thinking of no one in particular), has to genuflect before altar and Bible.
Nor, by contrast, are we France, with its fiercely policed laïcité, in which public expressions of religiosity are deemed not only inappropriate but downright threatening. Drifting between these two countries, the British have their own approach to politics and religion. But what actually is it?
For a generation now, Alistair Campbell’s best-known aphorism – “We don’t do God” – has served as shorthand for the UK’s outlook: religion and politics do not mix here. In reality, however, neither the quote, nor the shorthand, is correct.
As Campbell remarks on the back page of a new book, entitled The Mighty and the Almighty: How political leaders do God, his quote was never intended to mean what it has been taken to mean: “‘We don’t do God’ is one of my most reused, and misunderstood, sound bites”, he wrote. The truth is, “I said it to stop a long interview with Tony Blair”. Since then, however, “it has…been taken to mean something far deeper”, namely that British politicians should not, on principle, “do” – profess, take seriously, talk about – their religious faith. Campbell wasn’t saying what people subsequently thought he was saying. “We’re not getting onto God right now” might be an accurate translation of what he meant.
In any case, and more to the point, the facts do not bear out the popular interpretation of his words. British political leaders of the last generation or so have been notable for the fact that they were or are Christians.
Our prime ministers
In the 35 years after the Second World War, the UK arguably had only one seriously devout Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan (though Edward Heath and Alec Douglas-Home were both adult believers).
But in the following 35 years, we had three (or four, or five, depending on how you count them) Christian leaders. Margaret Thatcher was fiercely and sincerely devout, her politics being shaped by her formative, almost late-Victorian Methodism.
Tony Blair came to Anglican faith as a student, and converted to Catholicism after leaving office (although he was never especially bothered by denominational or doctrinal issues).
Gordon Brown was famously a son of the manse, more comfortable talking about his father’s beliefs than his own, but who was undoubtedly formed by his Presbyterian upbringing and appeared to retain elements of a personal faith.
David Cameron’s Anglicanism was something similar, predominantly a residue of village life, Eton and Oxford, a faith that famously came and went like Magic FM in the Chilterns.
And Theresa May is a clergyman’s daughter, a practising Anglican and someone who combines the Brown/ Cameron cultural Christian osmosis with the Blair/Thatcher adult Christian sincerity.
Whatever else this says about modern British politics, it doesn’t seem like a landscape devoid of God.
The party leaders
Party leaders in the contemporary election show quite a few signs of piety too. Aside from May, the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron came to faith as an adult, stumbling across a Bible during a family holiday, books on apologetics, and arriving at “the conclusion that it was true”, being baptised in his early 20s. “I don’t like labels…my faith is in Jesus Christ. I put my trust in him. I count him as my lord and saviour and I’m in no way ashamed of that,” he told The Guardian. Readers no doubt received Farron’s words with thoughtful respect.
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, has been involved in Christian politics for several decades, from the Movement for Christian Democracy in the 1990s to the think tank Ekklesia, set up in 2002. The UKIP leader Paul Nuttall is a practising Catholic. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland describes herself as a “practising Christian, a Protestant and a Unionist who is engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman”.
Even those who don’t profess an active belief today often claim some formation in the Christian faith. The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, is the grandson of a Church of Scotland minister who has said that religion played a big part in his life when growing up. Alex Salmond has called himself “a Church of Scotland adherent”. Jeremy Corbyn’s father was a churchgoer and his mother had a number of clergy in her family.
British political leaders of the last generation were or are Christians
One has to be slightly careful here. Britain may not be America but it probably still makes electoral sense to make warm Christian noises even if you are not a believer. Christianity still has much cultural capital, and churches today are so active and dynamic in the provision of social goods that no aspiring politician can afford to ignore them in the pursuit of their “fairer, better future for all”.
Nevertheless, the levels of Christian commitment outlined above go beyond ‘making warm Christian noises’. The popular understanding of Campbell’s aphorism is clearly wrong: politicians do think religion is important to their politics.
That said, Campbell’s statement is also right in one very important way. Contemporary politicians may believe in God but they are not much inclined to talk about their beliefs. Somewhat ironically, unlike the people that God berates through the prophet Isaiah, these people fail to honour me with their lips, even if their hearts are close to me.
The reason for this was well, if bluntly, summarised by Tony Blair’s post-office remark that “it’s difficult [to] talk about religious faith in our political system…[because if you do] frankly, people do think you’re a nutter”. If politicians don’t do God – in the sense of talking about him – it is because they don’t think people, or maybe the media class, will understand what they are talking about.
Rather, the idea seems to be that by ‘talking God’ you are preaching to the electorate or, worse, somehow subverting the proper processes of liberal democracy; in Blair’s words that you like to “go off and sit in the corner…commune with the man upstairs and then come back and say ‘right, I've been told the answer’”.
The truth is there are ways in which Christian faith can subvert the proper processes of democracy. But this is hardly limited to Christianity, or even religion. Atheistic socialism was pretty good at doing it in the 20th century – and it has not been a serious threat in Britain for a good few centuries. The idea that faith and politics today are locked in some zero-sum game – the more faithful you are, the less political you will be – is a baseless bogeyman.
A serious Christian faith in politics is fantastically unlikely to short circuit the pathways of a healthy democracy. As the wide spectrum of believing politicians mentioned above underlines, such a faith will not even dictate your politics or policies. It may, in fact, make no difference whatsoever. However, it is just possible that a serious commitment to some fundamental building blocks of the Christian faith – say: prayer, divine judgement, the ubiquity of sin (including among those in power), inalienable human dignity, and so forth – might enrich the content of our politics.
Nick Spencer is editor of The Mighty and the Almighty: How political leaders do God (Biteback Publishing, 2017)