We don’t do God. Everyone knows that. Even though Alistair Campbell’s oft-quoted aphorism was never intended to be some secular edict from on high – he was actually just closing down an interview with Tony Blair rather than making a statement of principle – it has become one. Plural, secular, Western politics is, or should be, a God-free zone.
I can't stand politicians who wear God on their sleeves.
Tony Blair, 1996
It isn’t. Indeed, one of the most striking trends of the last generation or so is how many Christian politicians have risen to the top of the political tree. Take the UK: in the 35 years after the Second World War, the country only really had one personally devout Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan. In the next 35, it had three, or four, or even five: Thatcher, Blair, Theresa May, possibly Brown, maybe even Cameron.
Australian politics has been dominated by believing Prime Ministers for twenty years – Howard, Rudd, Abbott – and Germany has been led by a devout Protestant for the last ten. America, always a disconcertingly pious polity, noticed a step-change from the early 1980s with Reagan and his successors name-checking God considerably more frequently than their immediate predecessors. And even France, that bastion of secularism, saw quasi-Catholic Nicolas Sarkozy question the nation’s laïcité, and now risks electing the really-Catholic François Fillon (or did until his campaign imploded). Pious Presidents and PMs are everywhere.
This is the kind of thing that gives secular liberals nightmares, and has them reaching for the mediaeval history books to show what happens when faith gets into power. At best, they say, it’s a sham: think of Reagan stirring up the moral majority, or Donald Trump talking about his love of the Bible on the campaign trail. At worst, it’s actively harmful: think Putin courting the Russian Orthodox Church in his construction of Holy Russia, or Hungary’s Victor Orban deploying the language of Christendom to turn back refugees.
I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives
We are indeed right to be sceptical of our leaders’ faith, but only because we are right to be sceptical of our leaders. With the right of coercion that underpins political power, comes the responsibility of being accountable, of opening up your actions – and your motivations – to the public’s inspection, and their suspicion. It makes no difference whether those motivations are secular or religious: playing the faith card does not indemnify you from scrutiny.
But then, which modern Western politician seriously thinks otherwise? The bogeyman of the PM who takes her political orders from the Pope, or the Bible, or prayer, or shadowy Dan Brownish organisations is a straw man, a figment of hyperactive secular imaginations.
Political leadership is a complex business, a messy balancing act of representation, circumstance and principle. Leaders need at least to try and represent the varied and clashing views of their electorates. They need the mandate and the flexibility to be able to respond to what MacMillan famously called “events, dear boy”. And they also need the moral vision, compass and fibre to guide them, and us, through the complexities of government.
It’s a treacherous balance, one that is impossible to get right. Too much of the first and you risk the kind of populist government that ignores and sometimes menaces minority views. Too much of the second and you risk a disjointed and incoherent government by whim and impulse. Too much of the last and you risk inflexibility, sacrificing concrete human goods in favour of abstract ideals.
For reasons that are not entirely clear the natural and proper scepticism towards the last of these, and in particular to religious principle, has morphed, in Britain, into uncontrolled paranoia. A leader can’t voice their religious faith without being thought of as a “nutter”, as Tony Blair memorably put it.
This is a mistake. We want to know what makes our leaders tick, and automatically assuming that if that is Christian faith their politics is necessarily suspect does an injustice not only to them but to the liberal democracies they govern.
One of the many memorable images of Easter is Christ standing before Pilate, the awkward collision of religious faith and worldly power. The Enlightenment decided it was best to keep the two apart, but that has proved perilously hard to do, not just in “the rest of world”, which Europeans naturally assumed would follow where Europe led, but even in Europe. Christian leaders just keep on turning up. Unlike Pilate, we should do them the honour of listening to what they have to say before making up our minds about them.
Nick Spencer is the editor of The Mighty and the Almighty: how political leaders do God, published by Biteback on April 13