Politicians, pulpits and God

"We don't do God," former Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell is reputed to have said when his boss, the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, was asked about his faith. Plenty of politicians do though, including it now transpires, current Prime Minister David Cameron. Here's why it is not always an easy mix.

line break
'Reverend Blair'
Tony Blair at St Saviours and St Olaves school in Bermondsey in 2001

Tony Blair, who was received into the Roman Catholic faith after leaving office, has always been a man of deep Christian faith. He could never quite understand why he could not share this with the voters. On one occasion, he wanted to end a prime ministerial speech with the line "God bless Britain", but was persuaded out of it by aides. "One of the civil servants said in a very po-faced way 'I just remind you prime minister, this is not America' in this very disapproving tone, so I gave up the idea. I think it is a shame that you can't since it is obviously part of what you are," he recalled, in 2012.

line break
Cameron does God
David Cameron visits the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem

David Cameron used to belong firmly to the "don't do God" tradition, once saying his faith came and went like "the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns" (a line borrowed from Boris Johnson). But he has now decided to tap into a different tradition, speaking about he is a regular churchgoer, and urging Britain to be "more confident about our status as a Christian country".

line break
The Tory party at prayer
Margaret Thatcher in 1980

The Anglican faith used to be synonymous with the Conservative Party. It was known as the Tory Party at prayer. But since the 1980s, when bishops began to speak out against Margaret Thatcher's policies, the two institutions have had a more prickly relationship. The latest flashpoint has been gay marriage.

line break
UKIP if you want to
Nigel Farage

Some see David Cameron's decision to speak more openly about his Christian faith as an attempt to heal some of the divisions caused by his support for gay marriage. Nigel Farage has accused him of trying to "mimic" UKIP to woo back disaffected Tory traditionalists. Although the UKIP leader has never been an evangelical Christian. "I think there is something there, but that's as far as it goes," he told The Guardian when asked about God.

line break
Faith of the faithless
 Ed Miliband and his wife Justine are shown around the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel

In the UK, politicians have always worn their religious faith, or lack of it, lightly. Two out of the three main party leaders are atheist. Nick Clegg "came out" as a non-believer shortly after being elected Lib Dem leader in 2007, although his wife is Catholic and his children are being brought up in the faith. Labour leader Ed Miliband, pictured here with wife Justine on a recent trip to Israel, had Jewish parents but was brought up in a Marxist home. "I am not religious but I am Jewish," he says.

line break
Disraeli the trailblazer
Benjamin Disraeli

If he wins next year's general election, Ed Miliband will be only the second prime minister of Jewish birth. The first, Benjamin Disraeli, was one of the founding fathers of the modern Conservative Party. Born to Italian-Jewish parents, in 1817 Disraeli's father baptised his children as Christians. With Jews excluded from parliament until 1858, this enabled Disraeli to pursue a career that would otherwise have been denied him.

line break
Labour at prayer
Gordon Brown in 2004

The Labour left used to take its cue from Karl Marx, viewing religion as the "opiate of the masses" but there has always been a strong strand of Methodism in the party, connected, in part, to the temperance movement. Tony Benn was very much in that tradition. Tony Blair - like his friend and mentor John Smith, who he replaced as Labour leader - belonged to a more recent tradition, the Christian Socialist movement. Gordon Brown often spoke of how he got his "moral compass" from his father, a Church of Scotland minister. But they were the exceptions rather than the rule in the secular world of British politics.

line break
The last atheist
Capitol Hill

It is a very different story in the US, where "God Bless America" is the traditional presidential sign-off. American politicians are not only expected to have faith, they are expected to talk about it. They could not get elected otherwise. Until he lost his seat in 2012, Californian Democrat Pete Stark used to be only self-declared atheist in Congress. Now there are none.

line break
'God bless America'
Michelle and Barack Obama en route to Easter Service

Not all US presidents have been ostentatious about their faith, but all have been practising Christians, with most belonging to churches, from the Episcopalian George Washington through a succession of Unitarians, Quakers (Richard Nixon) Methodists (George W Bush), Presbyterians (Ronald Reagan) to Southern Baptists like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. John F Kennedy was the first, and so far, only Catholic to occupy the White House. There has never been a Jewish, or a Muslim, president. Although a 2012 poll by the Pew Centre, suggested 17% of Americans thought Barack Obama was a Muslim. Obama is a practising Christian, and is often seen, as in the picture above, heading to a small Baptist church in Washington DC on Sunday, with his family.

More Politics stories

RSS

Scotland Decides: SCOTLAND VOTES NO

  1. No 2,001,926
  2. Yes 1,617,989
After 32 of 32 counts Results in detail

Features

  • HandshakeKiss and make up

    A marriage counsellor on healing the referendum hurt


  • Pellet of plutoniumRed alert

    The scary element that helped save the crew of Apollo 13


  • Burnt section of the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of AleppoBefore and after

    Satellite images reveal Syria's heritage trashed by war


  • Woman on the phone in office10 Things

    The most efficient break is 17 minutes, and more nuggets


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.