Margaret Thatcher renewed the relationship between Christianity and Conservatism
In his excellent study The Religious Mind of Margaret Thatcher, Antonio E. Weiss observed in 2011:
Of all British Prime Ministers from Harold Macmillan to Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher was by far the most vocal about her faith whilst in office, and the only one to draw direct and explicit parallels between her personal beliefs and her political ones. Macmillan believed that ‘a nation can[not] live without religion’, and, more personally in his official biography, he claimed that ‘I go to Communion as long as I can...I reach for the Bible whenever I can...I still find religion a great help’. For Douglas-Home, ‘Christianity was of the heart, not of the pew, a matter of private witness and personal conduct’. Wilson was brought up very much in the Nonconformist manner as a Baptist, joined the evangelical Oxford Group at university and told an interviewer in 1963 that ‘I have religious beliefs and they very much affected my political views’. Heath’s attitude to religion was more similar to Home’s, in that he did not speak openly about it – as he told James Margach in 1965: ‘It’s not a thing one talks about very much but it has a secure hold’, but when reminiscing in his memoirs, he did also claim that: ‘My Christian faith also provided foundations for my political beliefs...I was influenced by the teaching of William Temple (former Archbishop of Canterbury)’. Callaghan’s mother was ‘deeply religious and fundamentalist’. He became a Sunday school teacher in the late 1920s and although he claimed to turn away from his Baptist upbringing when his activities in the Labour Party increasingly had the ‘first charge on my energies’, he also stated in his memoirs that he owed an ‘immense debt’ to his Christian upbringing and that he had never ‘escaped its influence’. Major, on the other hand, whilst professing belief in God – ‘I do believe. I don’t pretend to understand all the complex parts of Christian theology, but I simply accept it...[I pray] in all circumstances’ – seemed to be uncomfortable with the whole issue: ‘I was mortally embarrassed to be interviewed about my religious faith on Radio 4’s Sunday programme’. And of course Tony Blair famously admitted to praying to God for guidance when preparing for the Iraq war of 2003.It is easy to reduce Thatcherism to liberal economics or 'Monetarism', and to portray Margaret Thatcher herself as the divisive apostle of an evil creed. But it is nothing more than a 'Spitting Image' caricature. Like all reformers, Margaret Thatcher revolutionised society because she believed passionately in what she was doing, and her mission was inspired by the spirit of truth and justice. She was fully aware of her party's heritage and political history, noting: ‘Tories became Tories well before the modern concept of a free market economy meant anything, well before it became a matter of political controversy.’
Her Conservatism was deeply rooted in Christianity - the faith which 'kept alight the flickering flame of hope' during the dark nights of Europe's secular tyranny, she wrote in the preface to the 1990 book Christianity and Conservatism. She didn't hide her faith under a bushel, and neither did it come and go like Magic FM in the Chilterns. Christ, for her, was intrinsic to all of social and political life, and His eradication from society was not possible 'without a terrible consequence'. She knew perfectly well how to distinguish between that which belonged to Caesar and that which belonged to God, but she was never afraid to engage and wrestle in debate with both. There was, quite simply, truth and error; right and wrong; good and evil. If you were not for her, you were against her.
It was never her intention to belittle Christianity by partisanship, or to exalt Conservatism by some whisper of the transcendent. But she realised, as far back as 1990, that 'a historical turning point has been reached for our nation, and the way ahead must be carefully and judiciously charted'. She was of the view that the eradication of Christ from society would result in 'terrible consequence': many Conservatives are of the view that the eradication of Thatcher from Conservatism cannot be achieved without similar terrible consequence - for both the party and the country.
For centuries preceding Margaret Thatcher, the Church of England had been 'the Conservative Party at prayer'. The maxim endured until the mid-80s, during which decade the tensions between the Church and the Conservative Party were considered to have buried the whole notion. The Tory-Anglican relationship undoubtedly reached its nadir during her premiership, but she never gave up on it; she never used religious pluralism or advancing secularism as excuses for tampering with the Constitution or sidelining Christianity.
Margaret Thatcher was not the last Christian prime minister, but she was certainly the last who understood the divisive message of the Old Testament prophets, and that Christ came not only to bring a sword, but to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. She didn't 'do God' in a Songs of Praise kind of way, with pious platitudes and patronising nods at popes and archbishops. Margaret Thatcher did God with a sincere reflective and profoundly theological mindset: she read her Bible, preached in pulpits and applied her theology to her programme of government.
You may not have agreed with her, but reformers always attract the ire of the divinely-appointed established hierarchy: the Whig will always irritate the Tory. Thatcherism is first and foremost a creed of values: like Christianity, it sometimes needs reinterpreting for a new age. But it seeks fundamentally to inspire individuals, assist families, revive communities and renew the country towards a glorious vision of freedom, fellowship and service:
The primary principle of Christian ethics and Christian politics must be respect for every person simply as a person. If each man and woman is a child of God, whom God loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a worth absolutely independent of all usefulness to society. The person is primary, not the society; the State exists for the citizen, not the citizen for the State. The first aim of social progress must be to give the fullest possible scope for the exercise of all powers and qualities which are distinctly personal; and of these the most fundamental is deliberate choice.Not the words of Margaret Thatcher, but those of Archbishop William Temple in 1942. And he went on to expound the theology of Thatcherism while Margaret Roberts was still an undergraduate at Oxford. But why let the truth of the religious inspiration of Thatcherism get in the way of a soulless, unfeeling, uncompassionate anti-Christian caricature?