SPEECH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE: CHURCHILL ARCHIVES ‘FAITH IN POLITICS’ CONFERENCE
I am delighted to speak about the vital place I believe faith has in politics.
For the Conservative Party has always put faith at the heart of policy making.
Religion runs through our history and through our veins.
So today I want to argue that, in government…
…even in a Coalition government…
…we are staying true to those roots.
You only have to look around this building to see the evidence.
Winston Churchill’s letters, speeches and papers make repeated references to faith.
The pages may have yellowed, but the sentiment remains as clear as ever:
For him, religion was of the utmost importance to British society.
Churchill was a big supporter of the Established Church.
He urged Britain to “most strenuously resist any measure which [would] aim at severing the connection between church and state”.
He later likened himself not to a ‘pillar’ of the Church of England, but a ‘buttress, supporting it from the outside’.
But it was the teachings of Christianity – the ‘flame of Christian ethics’ – that truly set him alight.
These Christian ethics, these universal values, were not defined in opposition to the ethics of other faiths.
Instead, they were defined in opposition to evil, namely Nazism.
In fact, his wider criticism of totalitarian ideologies was that they were ‘Godless’.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Christian ethics remained ‘our highest guide’.
Praise indeed – and all the more striking given the lukewarmness of this ‘optimistic agnostic’s’ own beliefs.
From the greatest wartime Prime Minister to our greatest peacetime Prime Minister.
A woman whose own faith was far from tepid.
Under this roof are the carefully-annotated catechism of the young Margaret Roberts.
And school exercise books, with her father’s sermon’s scrawled in the back.
All reminding us that this leader…
…whom we so sadly lost this year…
…wasn’t just a grocer’s daughter; she was a minister’s daughter.
Someone who believed that faith had a firm place in politics.
From her speeches “I Believe” to her so-called “Sermon on the Mound”, this sentiment was hammered home.
In the latter she took issue with the phrase “Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform.”
For her, there was no separation between the two.
There was, she thought, an undeniable role for faith in society.
Faith reached areas politics never could.
“For a nation to be noted for its industry, honesty and responsibility and justice,” she said,
“Its people need a purpose and an ethic.
“The State cannot provide these—they can only come from the teachings of a Faith.”
Today we talk about the role of faith in politics and society.
Well Mrs Thatcher viewed it the other way round.
Talking about the ‘the role of the state in Christian society’.
The state – politics – for her was a mere add-on; faith was constant and a necessity.
Our party’s faith in faith – our devotion to devotion – is clear when we look at the lives and careers of our greatest Prime Ministers.
I believe their pro-faith sentiment is still very much in evidence today.
That we see flickers of Churchill’s flame and echoes of Thatcher’s sermons in all we do.
But this was never inevitable.
When we came back into power in 2010, I felt that some of the reverence for religion had disappeared from politics.
Despite 78 per cent of people in this country professing a religion, faith was being sidelined, even dismissed.
As the former Archbishop of Canterbury put it, religion was viewed as the preserve of oddities, foreigners and minorities
(And some people said I was all three!)
I was concerned with what I saw was public policy being secularised.
To the extent that Christmas was being downgraded.
It’s no wonder that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the ‘sense of goodwill towards faith groups in rhetoric was not being matched by policy’.
Sadly I found that the last government didn’t just refuse to ‘do God’ – they didn’t get God either.
My first speech in government promised that we would be different.
That, unlike the previous government, we would ‘do God’.
So we paved the way for everyday worship, changing the law to safeguard town hall prayers.
We didn’t just get behind faith schools, we created more.
And of our flagship free schools, one in four are faith-based: Sikh, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Christian, Muslim and Hindu.
We consistently rejected calls to curb people’s right to express or manifest their religion.
By welcoming the ruling which saw Nadia Eweida win the right to wear a small crucifix.
More recently, standing firm against the calls to legislate over what women can and cannot wear, when the veil, or niqab, came under fire.
And the creation of the Minister for Faith post.
Giving religion a voice at the top table. Not a privileged position, but an equal informer of the debate.
This is further proof, as one commentator put it, that the Coalition is the most pro-faith government in the West.
Our approach isn’t just about enabling people to practice their faith.
It’s about allowing people to act upon their faith.
To provide public services, to undertake social action, to enhance communities.
Not being suspicious of their motives, or fearing that they will be proselytising.
But understanding that charity, virtue, and helping others are key components of religion.
And that, more often than not, people who do God do good.
We fund the Church of England, through the Church Urban Fund, for the social action Near Neighbours programme.
Bringing together different faiths to bring about real change in communities.
And we have removed the barrier of discriminatory attitudes in government against faith groups winning voluntary sector contracts.
I know that Mrs Thatcher would have approved of devolving power to faith communities.
There was nobody clearer on society’s duties to its fellow man, and the shortcomings of the state.
As she once said: “I wonder whether the State services would have done as much for the man who fell among thieves as the Good Samaritan did for him?”
And I like to think we are mobilising Good Samaritans the country over.
HATRED AND DISCRIMINATION
There is a third strand of our approach to faith in politics.
It is a whole-hearted, unwavering intolerance of intolerance.
This government completely rejects discrimination against a person because of their faith.
Quite apart from our emphasis on interfaith programmes, on tackling anti-Semitism, on recording incidents of hate crime.
I am proud to say we have done more than any other government to tackle Islamophobia.
Churchill may have had some interesting things to say about Islam.
But I will leave it to Warren Dockter to address that issue specifically, and I am interested to read his new book on the subject.
Personally, I think Churchill’s own removal of his passage on Islam from ‘The River War’ shows that he revised and contextualised some of these views.
After all, this was a man who argued for ‘a spirit of religious toleration’.
And who took the bigots to task, berating one anti-Semitic politician and telling him his views did not represent the Conservative Party.
Arguing that it was quite possible to be a good Englishman and a good Jew.
And that has inspired me again and again to say that it is entirely possible to be British and Muslim.
So I hope I have been able to demonstrate that we are staying true to our roots.
Putting faith in its rightful place – at the heart of British politics.
Of course there are those who disagree.
Who describe faith leaders and politicians as a ‘gruesome combination’.
Who talk about curbing my ‘theocratic ambitions’.
Who say that the country should brace itself for the pro-religion Conservatives’ return to power.
But that’s enough air time for the National Secular Society.
What really matters is that we support people in their right to believe.
That we mobilise those who want to do good deeds motivated by the faith.
And that we protect people from discrimination, bigotry and intolerance.
That is our stance on the place of faith in politics.
I know Churchill would have welcomed it.
I know Mrs Thatcher would have championed it.
And that is why we, as a party, and I, as a politician, are committed to it.