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It is a strange fact that as Britain has become more secular its Prime Ministers have become more religious. In the decade or so after the Second World War we had: Clement Attlee, who claimed he was “incapable of religious experience” and thought theology “mumbo-jumbo”; Churchill, who described himself as a buttress of the church (that he supported it from the outside); and Anthony Eden, who was closer to his father’s atheism than his mother’s Anglicanism.

Thereafter, things warmed up a little. Macmillan was a devout Anglo-Catholic, Douglas-Home a private Scottish Episcopalian, Wilson was influenced by his nonconformist background, Heath by his Anglican one, and James Callaghan once served as a Sunday school teacher, but thereafter lost his faith. Certainly, a more religious bunch than the first three, then, but hardly (except for Macmillan) fervent. Since then, however, we’ve enjoyed/endured (delete according to political and theological tastes) a more robustly faithful lot.

Margaret Thatcher was devout believer, whose fierce late-Victorian Methodism was foundational to her politics and delivered, twice while leader of opposition and once in power, some of the most significant theological lectures ever offered by a leading parliamentarian. John Major was all but agnostic, but his successor Tony Blair was an adult convert, his communitarian thinking of the 1990s grounded in the personalism of Christian philosopher John Macmurray, filtered through the Revd Peter Thompson at Oxford.

In his wake, Gordon Brown was a son of the manse, a believer but one who was apparently more comfortable talking about his father’s faith than his own. David Cameron’s Anglicanism was cultural and undogmatic, famously coming and going like Magic FM in the Chilterns. And now Theresa May, as everyone knows, is a clergyman’s daughter, a practising Anglican and someone who claims Christianity as foundational to her political worldview.

All in all, the arc of post-war British Prime Ministers may be long but it tends towards faith. What are we to make of this?

The first point is that it is not anomalous. A recent book I edited, The Mighty and the Almighty: how political leaders do God, charts the theo-political lives and tactics of 24 Prime Ministers, Presidents and Chancellors from around the world since about 1980. Some of these come from countries where ‘doing God’ is obligatory (the US, obviously) but many (Australia, France, Germany, South Korea) do not. Few now imagine the world is going secular, as sociologists once confidently predicted. Nor, it seems, are its leaders.

Second, this is dangerous. I work for a religion and society think tank, which has for 12 years argued for faith in public life. Rightly understood and embodied, it is part of the solution not part of the problem. Religious belief and practice is positively associated with mental and physical health, wherever you go in the world. Religious groups offer vast and irreplaceable resources of practical, social, and pastoral support in the most secular West, to which may be added economic, medical and educational support everywhere else. And religious thought – specifically Christian thought – has proved a powerful justification for human rights, dignity and equality, the rule of law, and various forms of political accountability. Moreover, those societies that have tried to eradicate the religious beliefs and practices of its people, in the conviction that they were mere giving history a bit of a helping hand, have invariably ended up a nightmares of misgovernment and persecution. All in all, societies and polities, need faith.

But – and here’s where we find the ointment housing not so much a fly as a Giant Weta (look it up) – religious commitment is also risky, threatening to animate, divide and subvert the proper processes of public debate if not handled with appropriate care. To be clear: I’m not simply rehearsing the exhausted and unpersuasive claim that religions are simply incompatible with liberal democracies or that they – yawn – “inevitably cause war.” It’s rather that religious belief and practice taps into the deepest human desires and concerns and operate near the reactor core. They needn’t destabilise and divide but they self-evidently can and do. They need to be handled with care.

Which brings me to my third point and back to British Prime Ministers. ‘Handled with care’ does not means handled with silence or hidden away in the ‘personal but not public’ box. Post-war British Prime Ministers may have been increasingly notable for their Christian faith, but few have felt free to speak about it openly. Thatcher was one exception, and even she was rather more silent in power than in opposition. Cameron, perhaps oddly, was the other, speaking saying more about Christianity than both his predecessors and his successor put together – although that was probably because no one ever imagined he took it very seriously.

By contrast, Blair stopped doing God after a Sunday Telegraph interview at Easter 1995 that unfairly implied he was claiming God for Labour. Gordon Brown’s recent memoir explains how he felt unable to talk about his motivating faith while he was in Number 10, and Theresa May (hardly the most confessional of public figures in any case) would not dream of talking God.

Good, the secularists say. God doesn’t belong in politics. They are wrong. And not just for the reasons outlined earlier. It is because religion is so powerful and so central to human identity and hopes that it needs a political voice. Suppression leads to resentment, not some kind of alleged rational consensus. Ultimately, the best antidote to bad theo-politics is good theopolitics, not some kind of secular wall of silence.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Staying Faithful?. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.