Margaret Thatcher was a Christian who understood her political task as the moral and spiritual revival of Britain.
Yet for many in the churches she represents all that is wrong with contemporary neo-liberal capitalism. They argue that Thatcher’s monetarist policies generated widespread unemployment and poverty, and plunged whole communities into hopelessness and despair. Her confrontations with the unions, especially the NUM, decimated towns and villages, leaving poverty, hardship, and family division in their wake. The poll tax illustrated and defined her seeming desire to reward the rich and punish the poor. David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham, spoke for many in his enthronement sermon when he questioned the fairness of free market economics and a ‘trickle-down’ approach to wealth distribution. The Church of England’s ‘Faith in the City’ report detailed the poverty and powerlessness endured by those living in inner-cities, stating that the horrors witnessed in these urban priority areas were of society’s own making. For many the inequality, poverty, bad housing, poor schools, broken community relations and aggressive policing could be attributed to a Prime Minister who said there is ‘no such thing as society’. How could such a politician ever be considered Christian?
The response to these critics comes from Thatcher herself. Her Christian faith was personally important and, more significantly, it moulded her political policies and decisions. It is well-known that Thatcher grew up in a Methodist home and that there was, in the Roberts’ household, a fusion of economic and religious values. Alf Roberts, Thatcher’s father, was shop-keeper, alderman, and local preacher and he bequeathed to Thatcher a strong non-conformist identity which incorporated all three roles. What is less well-known is the extent to which this identity influenced Thatcher throughout her life, especially her political life.
The journalist Hugo Young gives some insight into Thatcher’s personal faith. In 1983 he asked Thatcher what she was reading, not having given her any notice of the question. She replied, ‘right now I am re-reading ‘The Ten Commandments’, by the Archbishop of York’. She went on, by way of explanation, ‘I’m always trying to read a fundamental book, I read quite a lot of theological work’. Young reports that Bishop Graham Leonard was a later, favourite. Young further reports that in 1988 she determined to read the Old Testament from cover to cover, providing daily updates to the staff in her private office. Her overall impression was that it was a ‘very gory’ set of books.
More important than her personal faith however was the extent to which Thatcher’s Christianity shaped her politics. Thatcher’s address to the Church of Scotland, the so-called ‘Sermon on the Mound’ is often taken to be the classic statement of Thatcher’s public theology. However much more detail about the importance of Thatcher’s Christianity for her politics can be found in her memoirs, in her book on political ideas, ‘Statecraft’, and in other speeches, especially two early addresses to the church of St Lawrence, Jewry in the City of London. In volume one of her memoirs Thatcher writes that ‘I believe in what are often referred to as “Judaeo-Christian” values: indeed my whole political philosophy is based on them’. In volume two, Thatcher went further stating that, ‘Although I have always resisted the argument that a Christian has to be a Conservative, I have never lost my conviction that there is a deep and providential harmony between the kind of political economy I favour and the insights of Christianity’. In her Iain MacLeod lecture of 1977 she said that for Tories, ‘Religion gives us not only values – a scheme of things in which economic, social, penal policy have their place – but also our historical roots’. In her book ‘Statecraft’ Thatcher seems to argue that Christianity itself is uniquely favourable to capitalism, and therefore economic progress, unlike the ‘great Asian religious traditions’ and the ‘religious traditions of Africa’. One of the most important themes for Thatcher was national revival, leaving behind the failures and defeatism of the 1970s to be replaced by the confidence, strength, and optimism of the 1980s. Thatcher believed this revival, so vital for Britain’s economic success, was mainly spiritual and that the spiritual values were Christian. For Thatcher Christianity and her brand of Conservatism were two sides of the same coin.
What form did this Christianity take? In part it was typically non-conformist. She advocated hard work, thrift, self-reliance and independence. The values of the entrepreneur were firmly rooted in the Gospels. It meant she saw inflation not only as an economic problem but also, perhaps more so, as a moral issue. The problem with inflation is that it punishes those who save, thereby attacking those who work hard, are thrifty, and take responsibility for themselves. Alongside the emphasis on independence was a belief that people were generous, and that the British people could be trusted to be benevolent and charitable. She knew there were selfish exceptions, but on the whole she believed people would be protective of their families, kind to their neighbours, and charitable in their local communities. Further such benevolence was morally superior to state intervention which removed the possibility of moral choice and responsibility from the individual. Thatcher could not distinguish between totalitarian communism, trade unionism, and socialism, all of which destroyed freedom, and thereby morality.
How are we to judge Thatcher’s Christianity against the Christianity of her critics? There is no simple answer to this question. Like the other recent Christian Prime Minister, Tony Blair, she is a deeply divisive figure. For some the negative social consequences of her policies will always be their condemnation. For others the emphasis on non-conformist virtues and local community cohesion are a politics which addressed the problems of the 1970s and, in modified form, can address our own problems. What Thatcher’s Christianity illustrates is that much of the political disputes of recent times are fundamentally theological.
Guest blogger Dr Graeme Smith is Reader in Public Theology at the University of Chichester and editor of the journal Political Theology. This short piece is based on a longer article ‘Margaret Thatcher’s Christian Faith. A Case Study in Political Theology’ in the Journal of Religious Ethics, 35:2, 2007, pp233-257.