Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at St Lawrence Jewry (“I BELIEVE - A speech on Christianity and Politics”)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: St Lawrence Jewry, City of London
Source: (1) Thatcher Archive: speaking text (2) Daily Mail , 31 March 1978
Journalist: (2) John Harrison, Daily Mail , reporting
Editorial comments: Daily Mail material available on CD-ROM only. The press release (442/78) was embargoed until 1300. The speaking text embodies some stylistic modifications from the press release. (Alistair Cooke’s text of the speech in The Revival of Britain is drawn from the press release.) A question and answer followed the speech, reported in the Daily Mail . The speech was filmed by the BBC for television news.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2999
Themes: Autobiography (childhood), Conservative Party (history), Education, Foreign policy (development, aid, etc), Labour Party & socialism, Law & order, Religion & morality, Society, Social security & welfare, Voluntary sector & charity
(1) Thatcher Archive: speaking text


A Speech on Christianity & Politics

Need I say that this is not a party political speech? To offer you such a speech would indeed be to abuse your rector's hospitality. What is more, it would be extremely imprudent if not quite impossible.

It is a long time since it was said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer. That famous dictum was never wholly true. Historically, it would be nearer the mark to say that the Tory Party in its origin was the Church of England in politics, for the old concept of a partnership between Church and State lies very near the heart of traditional Tory thinking, and in that partnership Tories always believed that the Church had primacy because it was concerned with those things which matter fundamentally to the destiny of mankind.

So how does my religion affect my work as a politician? I was brought up, let me remind you, in a religious environment which, by the standards of today, would seem very rigid. We often went to Church twice on Sundays as well as to morning and afternoon Sunday School. We attended a number of Church activities during [end p1] the week. We believed it was wrong to spend very much on personal pleasure. We were taught always to make up our own minds and never to take the easy way of following the crowd.

I suppose what this taught me above everything else was to see the temporal affairs of this world in perspective. What mattered fundamentally was Man's relationship to God, and in the last resort this depended on the response of the individual soul to God's Grace.

Politics, when I began to think about them, seemed naturally important because they were one of the ways in which individuals could discharge that duty to their neighbours which God has enjoined on Mankind. They were also important because, though good institutions and laws cannot make men good, bad ones can encourage them to be a lot worse.

I never thought that Christianity equipped me with a political philosophy, but I thought it did equip me with standards to which political actions must, in the end, be referred. It also taught me that, in the final analysis, politics is about personal relations, about establishing the conditions in which men and women can best use their fleeting lives in this world to prepare themselves for the next.

I was also brought up to believe that it was only through whole-hearted devotion to this preparation that true earthly happiness could be achieved. Experience gives me no reason to revise this view. [end p2]

Now all this may sound rather pious; but in those days religion had not been stripped by certain sophisticated theologians of its supernatural elements. The language in which we express our religious ideas may have changed—that is to say, when we are not too embarrassed to express them at all. But I still believe that the majority of English parents want their children to be brought up in what is essentially the same religious heritage as was handed to me. To most ordinary people, heaven and hell, right and wrong, good and bad, matter.

Now if all this is true, it has one very important implication for politics. In the face of all difficulties and temptations we must keep and not go on diluting the specifically Christian content of teaching and corporate life in our schools. That was uppermost in my mind when I was at the Department of Education, and will still be there if I am called to another ministerial office.

Today, we live in what the academics call “a pluralist society”. My Party, like most others, is not only drawn from all Christian denominations and from other religions, but also contains some who would hotly deny that religion has anything at all to do with politics or even with morality.

To my mind, there are some advantages in this variety. I think some of the bitterness of political strife is reduced when we remind ourselves that many of the people who share our deepest convictions about life are on the other side in political controversy. [end p3]

For the truth of the matter is this: the Bible as well as the tradition of the Church tell us very little directly about political systems or social programmes. The nearest we get is Christ telling his disciples to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's. No doubt many political judgments rest on moral assumptions, but many of the issues on which we are passionately divided are disputes about fact and expediency.

In politics, as Edmund Burke taught us, there are very few universal and permanent truths.

So when I speak of my political ideals I am most of the time speaking as the heir to a particular body of beliefs, and I hope of insights; I am talking about what seems to me to be right for this country, at this particular time bearing in mind our past.

I think it is important to avoid confusing moral and political judgments.

There is always a temptation, not easily resisted, to identify our opponents with the Devil, to suggest that politics presents us with a series of clear and simple choices between good and evil, and to attribute base motives to all who disagree with us. These are dangerous and evil tendencies; they embitter politics, and they trivialise religion and morality.

Certainly Christianity offers us no easy solutions to political and economic issues. It teaches us that there is some evil in everyone and that it cannot be banished by sound policies and institutional reforms; that we cannot eliminate crime [end p4] simply by making people rich, or achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them. In politics there are few simplicities and certainties, and loads of dilemmas. Let me give one or two practical examples of what I mean.

Of course it is true that all men of good will must be concerned with the relief of poverty and suffering, and in most Christian countries this has come to be regarded as one of the primary concerns of politicians.

But it is one thing to say that the relief of poverty and suffering is a duty and quite another to say that this duty can always be most efficiently and humanely performed by the State. Indeed, there are grave moral dangers and serious practical ones in letting people get away with the idea that they can delegate all their responsibilities to public officials and institutions.

We know the immense sacrifices which people will make for the care of their own near and dear—for elderly relatives, disabled children and so on, and the immense part which voluntary effort even outside the confines of the family has played in these fields.

Once you give people the idea that all this can be done by the State, and that it is somehow second-best or even degrading to leave it to private people (it is sometimes referred to as “cold charity”) then you will begin to deprive human beings of one of the essential ingredients of humanity—personal moral responsibility. You will in effect dry up in them the milk of human kindness. [end p5]

If you allow people to hand over to the State all their personal responsibility, the time will come—indeed it is close at hand—when what the taxpayer is willing to provide for the good of humanity will be seen to be far less than what the individual used to be willing to give from love of his neighbour.

So do not be tempted to identify virtue with collectivism. I wonder whether the State services would have done as much for the man who fell among thieves as the Good Samaritan did for him?

I am not saying, of course, that the State has no welfare functions. This would be wholly against the tradition of my Party. We have always believed that there must be a level of well-being below which a citizen must not be allowed to fall. Moreover, people cannot realise their potential without educational opportunity.

But the role of the State in Christian Society is to encourage virtue, not to usurp it.

Let me give a second example. We all feel the need to assist the people of developing countries and recognise that it is our duty to help them.

But how much of our own resources can be properly used in this way? Are direct State subsidies to governments the best way of offering help? Is not a free and open trading system between countries more mutually beneficial than aid handouts by government? These are questions which honest people can disagree about. [end p6]

In post-war Britain we have seen a tendency, particularly in some places of learning and even in some churches, to claim or assume a moral superiority for Socialist and collectivist ideas. The argument is presented in a compelling way. It is suggested that a system run on a basis of self-interest, profit and competition is somehow structurally wrong and even immoral.

Those who take this view, point to some of the bad things in Victorian times, and before that, citing as evidence selected works of contemporary artists and writers.

Now no-one would deny that in every age and in every society there are features of which we should be ashamed, but can we honestly say that the system built up on private enterprise and freedom of choice has not produced an immense change for the better in the lot of all our people?

Would a system dominated by the State have produced the wealth, well-being and freedom that we enjoy today? In this life we shall never achieve the perfect society in spite of the optimism of much humanist writing, but at least a system based on personal choice allows us to have and pursue ideals and interests.

Today, it seems as if people are made to feel guilty about being well-off. But Christ did not condemn riches as such, only the way in which they were used and those who put their trust in them. It is one of the Church's tasks to guide us about our use of this world's wealth. But it seems strange to me that a man can be appealed to for substantial contributions to many Church and charitable causes, and yet be half-criticised [end p7] for having the means to give generously.

Let me be quite clear: I am certainly not saying that Socialist theory and Socialist practice as we know them are contrary to the New Testament, nor am I saying that you can't be a good and sincere Christian and a dedicated Social Democrat. What we think about the proper organisation of Society must depend on our own reading of history and on our own view of the circumstances of Society today.

Nevertheless, there is one heresy which it seems to me that some political doctrines embrace.

It is the belief that Man is perfectable.

This takes the form of supposing that if we get our social institutions right—if we provide properly for education, health and all other branches of social welfare—we shall have exorcised the Devil. This is bad theology and it also conflicts with our own experience. In my own lifetime, we have expended vast efforts and huge sums of money on policies designed to make people better and happier. Have we really brought about a fundamental improvement in Man's moral condition?

The Devil is still with us, recording his successes in the crime figures and in all the other maladies of this society, in spite of its relative material comfort.

If I am critical of what I believe to be the fallacies that underlie Socialist doctrine, let me add that there are warnings which need to be heeded by those of us who favour a free market economy. [end p8]

As a Christian, I am bound to shun Utopias on this earth and to recognise that there is no change in Man's social arrangements which will make him perfectly good and perfectly happy. Therefore, I do not claim that the free-enterprise system of itself is automatically going to have these effects. I believe that economic freedom is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of our own national recovery and prosperity.

There is another dimension—a moral one. For a nation to be noted for its industry, honesty and responsibility and justice, its people need a purpose and an ethic. The State cannot provide these—they can only come from the teachings of a Faith. And the Church must be the instrument of that work.

Alexis de Torsquoueville, writing on democracy in America, pointed out that:

“Religion … is more needed in democratic countries than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction”, he asks, “if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed. And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?”

Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage transmitted through the Church, the family and the school. It will also destroy itself if it has no purpose. There is a well-known prayer which refers to God's service as ‘perfect freedom’. My wish for the people of this country is [end p9] that we shall be “free to serve”.

So we must have freedom and we must have a morality. But even these are not enough: man is inherently sinful and in order to sustain a civilised and harmonious society we need laws backed by effective sanctions.

Looking at this country today, I am bound to say that upholding the law is one area of life where I would wish the State to be stronger than it is. Freedom can only exist on a basis of law to be observed by governors and the governed, and to be rigorously and fairly enforced.

So the State's role in a democracy is first and foremost to uphold the rule of law.

But sometimes in history we have been so impressed with this truth that we have forgotten that ultimately true harmony consists in the willing co-operation of free men, and is not served by an over-regulated society.

What is more, even when freedom, as it sometimes does, seems to be working against social harmony, we must remember that it has its own intrinsic value, just because men and women were born to be free.

It appears to me that there are two very general and seemingly conflicting ideas about society which come down to us from the New Testament.

There is that great Christian doctrine that we are all members one of another expressed in the concept of the Church on earth as the Body of Christ. From this we learn our interdependence, [end p10] and the great truth that we do not achieve happiness or salvation in isolation from each other but as members of Society.

That is one of the great Christian truths which has influenced our political thinking; but there is also another, that we are all responsible moral beings with a choice between good and evil, beings who are infinitely precious in the eyes of their Creator. You might almost say that the whole of political wisdom consists in getting these two ideas in the right relationship to each other.

Of course there are many sincere Christians who will disagree with my practical conclusions. Totalitarian Marxists will disagree with me in principle. They make no bones about rejecting all the assumptions from which I begin. I believe that their philosophy is utterly inconsistent with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church.

What I am working for is a free and responsible society. But freedom is not synonymous with an easy life. Indeed, my own faith in freedom does not rest in the last resort on utilitarian arguments at all. Perhaps it would be possible to achieve some low-grade form of happiness in a thoroughly regimented State; but in such a State men would not be treated as what they are and what Christianity wanted them to be—free and responsible human beings. There are many difficult things about freedom: it does not give you safety, it creates moral dilemmas for you; it requires self-discipline; it imposes great responsibilities; but such is the destiny of Man and in such consists his glory and salvation. [end p11]

In such too consists our national greatness. As the book of Proverbs says:

“Righteousness Exalteth a Nation”. [end p12]