Why Don't Britain's Leaders Pray in Public?

News Abroad

Luke James Reader is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine. He works on anti-colonial thought within the British Labour Party. He previously worked in the UK Civil Service as a press officer.

On September 25, the British Labour Party elected Ed Miliband its twenty-third leader.  This result may have appeared surprising to American observers for four reasons.  For seasoned watchers of British politics, Miliband’s very election proved astonishing.  Firstly, he won by less than 1 percent of the vote, defeating the favorite, his older brother David, in a contest that was less fraternal than fratricidal.  Secondly, although the elder Miliband won the support of a majority of Labour members of parliament, his younger brother gained victory with the support of the trade unions.  Thirdly, Miliband is the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party.  Finally, Miliband is not a practicing Jew but an atheist, making him the second current non-religious current leader of a British political party, after the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg.  As the journalist Michael White noted, the public has met these last two facts with indifference.  The ribald right-wing tabloid The Daily Mail failed to shock the nation with the news that Miliband is an atheist, lives out of wedlock with the mother of his son, and failed to register himself as his son’s father.  Despite his family background and a famous Marxist theorist father whose legacy would have American conservative commentators grumbling about latent communist tendencies, discussion of Miliband’s personal life and religious practices have been remarkably muted.  Miliband’s unfortunate sobriquet “Red Ed” is less a comment on his left-of-center policies or atheism than newspaper editors’ appreciation for a catchy rhyming headline.  It is the lack of religiosity and not the bipartisan spirit between Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which distinguishes British politics from its equivalent in the United States. 
Americans may be familiar with Tony Blair’s professed religiosity, but his public displays of piety were an aberration in British politics.  As his combative (and atheist) press secretary Alistair Campbell observed, British voters and politicians “don’t do God.”  Blair’s religiosity proved disconcerting to his domestic electorate.  Campbell’s statement did not simply dismiss Blair’s convictions, as perceived in 2003.  Instead, he keenly understood the British mistrust of American-style displays of faith and the unusual nature of Blair’s public celebrations of his religion.  Blair earned derision from the press and public for launching the Labour Party’s 2001 General Election campaign in front of a stained-glass window with a hymnbook in hand.  Campbell, and Blair’s other press handlers, had to intervene to prevent him uttering the phrase “God Bless You” at the end of a television address announcing the beginning of hostilities in Iraq in March 2003.  Television interviewer Jeremy Paxman expressed popular concerns that Blair believed himself and President George W. Bush engaged in a crusade against the Muslim world when he asked if the two leaders prayed together.  Tony Blair’s recent autobiography A Journey, have only inflamed these perceptions.   

Other British political leaders have also not done God.  Articles in The Guardian by Hugo Young, Sally Vincent, and Michael White have noted the atheism of previous Labour Party leaders James Callaghan, Michael Foot, and Neil Kinnock.  While Winston Churchill may have had more need than most British leaders to seek divine intervention, historian John Lukacs suggests that he invoked Christianity in communal rather than personal terms and demonstrated little religious sentiment.  True, Margaret Thatcher quoted St. Francis of Assisi upon winning the 1979 General Election.  Her words “where there is discord, may we bring harmony.  Where there is error, may we bring truth.  Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.  And where there is despair, may we bring hope,” were less a celebration of religious faith than a failed attempt to create a consensus around her proposed reforms to Britain’s industrial practices and welfare state.  Methodism did shape her view of work and duty, but played little role in her day-to-day political activities.  The same was true of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  Although satirical British publications like Private Eye lampooned him as an ascetic Presbyterian, this reflected his dour public persona and his father’s ministry in the Church of Scotland.  Despite devout religious beliefs Brown largely kept his faith out of the public sphere.  Similarly David Cameron, Britain’s current Conservative Prime Minister, declared himself to profess a vague questioning form of Christianity, which melds neatly with popular views of religion.

Although 41 million Britons declared themselves Christians in the 2001 census, figures suggest that in 2008 only 1.1 million people attend weekly Church of England services.  A 2007 Ipso-Mori poll indicated that 62 percent of people believed that science and not religion was necessary to understand the universe and discern right for wrong.  The commonest trend in British religious beliefs may be agnosticism.  A recent British Social Attitudes Survey suggested that only one-third of British people held firm convictions.  While the other two-thirds of the population described themselves as skeptical or uncertain, newspaper commentators noted the retention of “fuzzy” spiritual beliefs and a reluctance to declare oneself atheist.  Nevertheless, British doubt remains marked when compared to the United States.  More distinct is the relegation of religion to a private sphere.  Blair’s public avowals of piety breached assumptions and conventions that religious political leaders would keep their faith to themselves in an increasingly secular society. 

Since the Cold War, religion, secularism, and atheism have had the purpose in the U.S. of connoting the other.  One need only turn on the television or read the newspaper to see this idea enacted.  The addition of the phrase “In God We Trust” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, was a rhetorical tool that served to differentiate the U.S. from the irreligious Soviet Union.  Yet Americans should not imagine that British voters enter the polling booths thinking “In God We Do Not Trust.”  Alas for Miliband, the atheist leaders of the Labour Party all have something else in common.  They oversaw Labour’s greatest postwar defeats.

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