The Mighty and the Almighty—Interview with Nick Spencer 6 October 2017

Theos, the Christian think-tank, recently published a new work. The Mighty and the Almighty, which explores the relationship between Christian world leaders and their politics. I spoke to the editor, Nick Spencer, about the work.

AA: Tell me a bit about the idea behind this book, and what a reader can expect from it.

NS: Well partly, we realise that no one’s done something like this before, and we were interested in the questions it raises and answers it might provide. It’s an edited book. There are 24 essays in there. I wrote six of them, and topped and tailed it with an introduction and conclusion. The other eighteen are written by my colleagues at Theos for the most part, and one external contributor who is an academic.

AA: In writing and compiling this book, was there anything or anyone that surprised you?

The problem with answering this question is that to be surprised by a figure, you had to know something them beforehand. For those who I did know something, I wasn’t particularly surprised. For the others, fourteen or fifteen, I didn’t know enough to be surprised.

Nothing leapt out at me as gobsmacking. But two or three examples came closest.

First, to take a provocative case, I hadn’t realised that Vladmir Putin’s faith is as authentic as it apparently is – I say apparently because there is very little we know about Putin’s personal life. But there is good evidence that even though his Orthodoxy is deeply political, it is also quite personally felt.

A second, less dramatic surprise, is how much material there is about David Cameron. I had naturally assumed because his faith is very cultural, undogmatic, Anglican faith – that he had done little more than a few airy gestures. But in fact he said a considerable amount about religion and his faith, a lot more than Blair ever did.

Then the simple surprise – Lee Myung-bak – the South Korean President, I was surprised that there was a Christian President of the country. I knew that there is a Christian revival ongoing South Korea, but not that a Christian had risen to the level of President.

So lots of little surprises, rather than a big one!

AA: So having examined twenty four Christian political leaders, what did you discover about how religion is done in the political sphere?

NS: I came away from the book having come to the realisation that more important than how political leaders did God, is where.

If there is significant religious capital made from the leader waving their religious flag, than they often will. And it often becomes more dangerous, and you have to be more sceptical, because they have something to benefit from doing so.

Donald Trump is a good example. He wasn’t known for his piety beforehand. But he discovered his faith on the campaign trail. Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, is another good example, because the rhetoric of Christendom is very important for a country which has been on the edges of the Ottoman Empire.

Other countries, such as Germany, France, to some extent, Britain and Australia – there isn’t much benefit in your religious identity. In France, it’s can be a vote-loser because of secularism. In these contexts, in quite a contradictory way, people are most nervous about theo-politics.

The take home message from all this is that in very Christian cultures, we need to be more sceptical of the religiosity of our leaders, and in less Christian cultures, we need to be less sceptical of it.

AA: The general perception is that the right-wing are more comfortable with faith and religion, and the left wing is more hesitant. Is this reflected in your findings?

Certainly that is the general impression of political leaders, and one I would gravitate to.

That said, the figures in this book do not support that view  – the leaders in question from range from Fernando Lugo, former President of Paraguay, who had been a Catholic Bishop. Lugo took his political cue from liberation theology, and would be left of Jeremy Corbyn. To people who are centre left, like Gordon Brown or Kevin Rudd in Australia and Tony Blair of course. Through to figures who are Centre-Right like Angela Merkel or Theresa May. And then right wing, like George W Bush, Lee Myung-bak, or John Howard in Australia. So the politicians in this book are from across the political spectrum.

Nonetheless, historically, for historical reasons tied to the evolution of socialism and social democracy in the nineteenth century, the left has been more about nervous religion and religiosity, and that is true for the most part of political leaders generally.

AA: The academic Robert Bellah wrote about American Civil Religion, the glue that held a civic identity together, which was based on a generalised Christianity. Is there a British civil religion you can identify?

NS: There has undoubtedly been, right into the post-war period, a concept of what Britishness and Englishness were, that grounded what you might call our civil religion. It was founded on institutions, not values. The institutions of Crown, Parliament, up until the 60s, Empire, and Protestantism. A loose adherence to or respect of these institutions were really what it meant to be British for a long time.

For various reasons, all of these institutions have stumbled and fallen (with the exception of perhaps the Crown), which combined with immigration and a greater pluralism of in, has animated this debate that has been going on since Blair and Brown about what British values are.

But its problematic, America is a remarkable example of a very tight and cohesive civil religion with very peculiar qualities that are rooted in the nation’s history. It has a founding myth in which Christianity plays a significant role. This type of civil religion can’t be ade overnight.

So I don’t think there is a British civil religion. If we are becoming a more plural society as indicators suggest we are, a form of religion civil is useful, but attempts to engineer it politically are dangerous to put it mildly.

AA: What is the must-read chapter of The Mighty and the Almighty for the person who really wants to get a sense of religion and politics at play in the current era?

NS: The easy answer, because it is a collection of essays, is the introduction. But if you really pressed me for which chapter sheds most light on where we are today, it would have to be Theresa May. It was a difficult chapter to write, partly because it was written last November when she was still settling into her role as Prime Minister, but also because she plays her cards very close to her chest, she is intensely personal. But it does give a window into her thought.

AA: Having surveyed all these Christian leaders, what does it tell you about the direction that politics is moving more generally, and I suppose, what role religion plays in that movement?

NS: Politics abhors an identity vacuum. And up until quite recently, politics was an area in which different deeply felt identities clashed. For some very good reasons, Western democracies rode back on this idea, because it can become very ugly, it can become exclusionary, and identities can be militantly held.

There was an admirable ambition to turn the political arena into a place where disinterested rational points-of-view were debated, but people don’t really like that. It hasn’t really worked the way it was meant to. And part of what we have seen in the UK, in the US, in its own way in the French elections, is a rejection of a slightly anaemic form of politics in favour of a more identity rich politics of before.

Now this is a dangerous place to be in, especially if your identity politics looks like Marie Le Pen. Christianity has played a role in the return of deep identity and deep difference to politics certainly, and I think it is stating the obvious to say it is incumbent upon us to handle it well.

AA: Is there a distinctive or identifiable role religion plays in politics?

NS: One thing that comes across very clearly in the book, but won’t surprise those in the field but does often need to be said, is that it isn’t a question of taking political messages or policy from scripture, or prayer, or from the pope, which is the secular nightmare. Rather it tends to be the case that religious affiliation makes the politician, and the politician makes the policy. The influence of religion is in the formation of the person, of their worldview, of their framing of reality, from which emerges their politics and political direction. It isn’t that policy ideas are lifted directly from the Bible, or that there is a straightforward link between faith and politics.

All the leaders are Christian, partly because Theos is a Chrsitian think-tank and that is where our expertise lies. We have a political theologly grounded in Christianity and that is where we are most competent. And also, we are interested in the enxus between a religiously driven leader over a functioning, plural, liberal, democracy and often a secular liberal democracy. And to examine this, there are maybe a Muslim, maybe a Hindu, maybe Jewish if you count Israel, political leaders in this situation, but very few of them.

AA: Thank you for taking the time to talk.


About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.