By Mark Tooley (@MarkDTooley)
Margaret Thatcher was forever the thrifty Methodist grocer’s daughter of Grantham. Her father was both lay preacher and Conservative Party stalwart. They attended the Methodist church several times every Sabbath and heeded many then Methodist strictures against theater-going and dancing. Her family’s social life was enmeshed in the church’s sewing meetings, youth guilds, and missions work, as she recalled to the Catholic Herald 35 years ago.
“Methodism is the most marvelous evangelical faith and there is the most marvelous love and feeling for music in the Methodist Church which I think is greater than in the Anglican Church,” she then remembered. “But you sometimes feel the need for a slightly more formal service and perhaps a little bit more formality in the underlying theology too.”
Although married in John Wesley’s London Chapel, Thatcher later converted to her husband’s Anglicanism. But her world outlook was shaped by post-Victorian Methodism, before the now sadly long declining church became left-wing, and when it still emphasized personal faith, unceasing diligence, exacting self-discipline, and perpetual exertions for social improvement based on rectitude.
Thatcher was an unapologetic if pragmatic political moralist, and Methodism made her so. She was often more preacher than mere politician. Her foes saw her as hectoring. Her fans reverenced her calls to constant righteous uplift for Britain, the West, and the world.
“So when you’ve relieved poverty and ignorance and disease, if you are not a Christian you think that sorts out the problems of the world,” she explained to the Catholic Herald. “You and I know it doesn’t, because there is still the real religious problem in the choice between good and evil.”
Thatcher naturally saw as a crusade her mission to save Britain from decline, from grasping labor unions, from a suffocating welfare state, from passive resignation to second rate status. Her greatest exposition of her own public theology was in her 1988 speech to the Church of Scotland, which scornful critics derided as “The Sermon on the Mound.”
Before the Scottish divines, Thatcher identified three “distinctive marks” of Christianity. First, that man has been “endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil.” Second, that as creatures in God’s image “we are expected to use all our own power of thought and judgement in exercising that choice,” with divine guidance if we “open our hearts to God.” And third, that “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when faced with His terrible choice and lonely vigil, chose to lay down His life that our sins may be forgiven.”
Thatcher warned against merely professing faith for social reforms. Instead faith should look to the “sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ expressed so well in the hymn: “When I survey the wondrous Cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.’” The Bible offers a “view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life,” she surmised. It counsels hard work, creating wealth, and using wealth not selfishly but to glorify God.
Christianity doesn’t mandate specific political and social institutions, Thatcher said. But “any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm.” She summarized her ethical and political creed: “We are all responsible for our own actions. We can’t blame society if we disobey the law. We simply can’t delegate the exercise of mercy and generosity to others. The politicians and other secular powers should strive by their measures to bring out the good in people and to fight down the bad: but they can’t create the one or abolish the other. They can only see that the laws encourage the best instincts and convictions of the people, instincts and convictions which I’m convinced are far more deeply rooted than is often supposed.” She called the family the “very nursery of civic virtue.”
Thatcher denied Britain was intrinsically secular, instead insisting: “The Christian religion — which, of course, embodies many of the great spiritual and moral truths of Judaism — is a fundamental part of our national heritage.” Indeed, “We are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” And, the “truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace, in the true meaning of the word, for which we all long.”
Politics are limited in their reach, Thatcher warned. “We Parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law,” she told the Presbyterians. “You, the Church, can teach the life of faith.” She commended to them the hymn “I Vow to Thee My Country,” which offers love of nation but “goes on to speak of ‘another country I heard of long ago’ whose King can’t be seen and whose armies can’t be counted, but ‘soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase.’”
Thatcher concluded by telling the Scottish churchmen that this unseen kingdom “is the country which you chiefly serve,” whose “success matters greatly—as much to the temporal as to the spiritual welfare of the [earthly] nation.” Her notion of moral transcendence elevated her public theology. Politics was important but only as a tool to loftier goals.
In this faith Thatcher was joined with another politician, Ronald Reagan, who was also indelibly shaped by the mores of small-town Protestantism, innately understanding that a nation’s health begins at altar and home. She, no less than he, believed in Providence, not the historical determinism that insisted their nations were destined to decay, that the welfare state was the poor’s only salvation, and that humanity was permanently deadlocked between freedom and communism under the permanently threatening shadow of nuclear war.
Secular elites despised Thatcher, no less than Reagan. And she cared no more than did he, always confident in the Christian faith learned in childhood and matured by triumphant global struggles of which we are all beneficiaries.
This blog post originally appeared on the American Spectator website.