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Mark Fox: You can't understand Thatcher without understanding her Christian faith

Fox MarkMark Fox is a political commentator and former Parliamentary candidate.

In all the comment, tributes and criticism that has poured forth since the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death on Monday surprisingly little has touched on her personal Christian faith.  In the two excellent speeches by David Cameron and Ed Milliband in Parliament it was not mentioned at all. In the extensive TV and radio coverage, and all the newspaper comment, barely a word about her faith – her upbringing as a Methodist and her adult commitment to Anglicanism.

Yet her Anglicanism and earlier Methodist upbringing was an essential part of her formation as a person and as a politician. Hers was not a showy, worn-on-the-sleeve sort of faith, that we became wearily used to in some of those that succeeded her as Prime Minister but a steady, discreet, deeply felt and regularly practised commitment. She was a faithful member of the worshipping community at the Chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea - where her ashes will lie.

In a remarkable 1978 interview with the Catholic Herald a year before winning the 1979 General Election she told the Editor, Richard Dowden, that she and her sister, Muriel "had a strict religious upbringing. Sundays meant going to church three times and not being allowed to go to the cinema or play games. They were taught what was right and what was wrong, that cleanliness was next to godliness and the importance of discipline and duty".

Talking to Dowden she said:

“Methodism isn’t just a religion for Sundays – no faith is only a faith for Sundays. There were a lot of things during the week which one attended. Methodism is a pretty practical faith; there were the mothers’ sewing meetings and the guilds for young people.

It’s also evangelical, and does a lot of missionary work overseas. The visiting missionaries, some of them from South America, some from Africa and India, would come back and tell you of the kind of work they were doing.

I must say I was very much attracted to the work they did because they really could see results.”

In this reply can be seen the very roots of purposeful activity, results-focused effort, and cause-driven work that would be among her abiding characteristics. It is also possible to discern the driving reasons for why she was so committed to reform and change – to help those who needed in the most practical ways possible.

For those who admire Lady Thatcher but would reject the need for the faith that informed her she addresses them directly:

"So you replace poverty by a better standard of living out of people’s own efforts, because everyone’s got talent and ability, and you teach them what we regard as necessary to life, and you teach them religion as well.

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. You and I know it doesn’t, because there is still the real religious problem in the choice between good and evil. Choice is the essence of ethics.”

She continued:

“And here you have the fundamental basis of human nature—there’s good and evil in everyone. The fundamental purpose on earth is to improve your own human nature and disposition. You can only do that by doing things for others.”

Her drive to change things, to improve them, and to open opportunity up for all clearly comes from her this understanding of what fundamentally as a human being she was on earth to do – improve herself and help improve the lot of others.

Hers was no naive or sentimental view of Christian faith. She was well aware of her own and others' frailties. Her understanding of personal responsibility was rooted in the fundamental Christian concept that God has given every human being the free choice to believe or not.

She told Dowden:

“Even then, when you’ve been taught all the right things, all the best things, it doesn’t mean to say you will do them.

“Every person, whether high or low born, whether they get to high places or they have a very simple straightforward life, earning an honest wage for an honest job, each has that human dignity, each has that choice, their responsibility within their knowledge and background to make that choice.

If you deny that personal responsibility you are denying the religious basis of life—that’s the difference between me and a Marxist. The values by which you and I live are not values given by the State.

Christianity is about more than doing good works. It is a deep faith which expresses itself in your relationship to God. It is a sanctity, and no politician is entitled to take that away from you or to have what I call corporate State activities which only look at interests as a whole.”

For her faith and personal actions were an inseparable part of her being. What she did and how she behaved were rooted in what she believed. It was not simply an economic ideology or a championing of the vested interests of those in whom she was personally interested. Her Prime Ministership was essentially a working out of a life time’s belief in personal responsibility and opportunity rooted in the Christian understanding of free choice and dignity for every human being.

She put it this way:

“So, you’ve got this double thing which you must aim for in religion, to work to really know your faith and to work it out in everyday life. You can’t separate one from the other. Good works are not enough because it would be like trying to cut a flower from its root; the flower would soon die because there would be nothing to revive it.”

“The basis of democracy”, she said, “is morality, not majority voting. It is the belief that the majority of people are good and decent and that there are moral standards which come not from the State but from elsewhere.”

All this will probably come as a bit of a shock to some Conservatives. Probably as a nasty surpise to some Methodists and Anglicans. And it is a measure of how far apart the churches and the Conservative Party have moved apart that either reaction will be made, but to understand her, it is necessary to understand her Christian faith. It does not mean you have to agree with what she did, or approve of her policies, or share her faith. But you probably need to have a working understanding of the Christian Gospel to understand her brand of politics.


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