Mon, Apr 17, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Prominent political leaders are still a surprisingly religious lot

Researcher Nick Spencer argues secularization in politics has not diminished the role that deeply religious personal convictions play in global politics

By Harriet Sherwood  /  The Guardian

Faith remains a potent presence at the highest level of UK politics despite a growing proportion of the nation’s population defining themselves as non-religious, according to the author of a new book examining the faith of prominent politicians.

Nick Spencer, research director of the Theos think tank and lead author of The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, uses the example that all but one of Britain’s six prime ministers in the past four decades have been practicing Christians to make his point.

The book examines the faith of 24 prominent politicians, mostly in Europe, the US and Australia, since 1979.

“The presence and prevalence of Christian leaders, not least in some of the world’s most secular, plural and ‘modern’ countries, remains noteworthy. The idea that ‘secularization’ would purge politics of religious commitment is surely misguided,” it concludes.

It includes “theo-political biographies” of British Prime Minister Theresa May, an Anglican vicar’s daughter who has spoken publicly about her Christianity since taking office in July last year, and her predecessors former British prime ministers David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. Only former prime minister John Major is absent from the post-1979 lineup.

Spencer writes that May is a “politician with strong views rather than a strong ideology, and those views were seemingly shaped by her Christian upbringing and faith. That Christianity gives her, in her own words, ‘a moral backing to what I do, and I would hope that the decisions I take are taken on the basis of my faith.’”

May told Desert Island Discs in 2014 that Christianity had helped to frame her thinking, but it was “right that we don’t flaunt these things here in British politics.”

According to Spencer, “in this regard at very least, May practices what she preaches.”

However, the prime minister’s apparent reticence did not stop her lambasting Cadbury’s and the National Trust this month over their supposed downgrading of the word Easter in promotional materials and packaging.

Elsewhere, the book looks at five US presidents — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — five European leaders, three Australian prime ministers and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Five leaders from other nations — including former South African president Nelson Mandela — complete the list.

The “great secular hope” was that religion would fade out of the political landscape, Spencer writes, but “the last 40 years have turned out somewhat different,” with the emergence of political Islam, the strength of Catholicism in Central and South America and the explosion of Pentecostalism in the “global south.”

Even in the West, “Christian political leaders have hardly become less prominent over recent decades, and may, in fact, have become more so,” he says.

However, Spencer told the Guardian: “There is no one size fits all, politically. You don’t find them clustering on the political spectrum.”

At the right wing end were Thatcher and Reagan. At the other was former Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, a prominent Catholic “bishop of the poor,” liberation theologist and part of a wave of leftwing leaders in Latin America, who governed the nation between 2008 and 2012,.

There were also significant differences in the political contexts in which Christian politicians were operating, Spencer said.

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