Margaret Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, holding office from 1979 to 1990. When she became Prime Minister, on the steps of 10 Downing Street she paraphrased the Prayer of St. Francis: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
According to the Church of England’s leader during her administration, Lady Thatcher “transformed” the United Kingdom. Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks called her a “giant” and one of the few people to leave a “personal imprint” on the nation.
Most of us are familiar with Margaret Thatcher’s remarkable leadership and legacy. (For more on her life, see my review of The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning portrait of Lady Thatcher.) However, fewer of us know about her personal faith. Here we find lessons that are as relevant today as they were four decades ago.
A sincere Christian
Lady Thatcher was a Methodist Christian. She called her church “the most marvelous evangelical faith.” Her father, a grocer, raised her in the church where he served as a lay preacher.
She said of her faith, “Christianity is about more than doing good works. It is a deep faith which expresses itself in your relationship to God. It is a sanctity, and no politician is entitled to take that away from you or to have what I call corporate State activities which only look at interests as a whole.
“So, you’ve got this double thing which you must aim for in religion, to work to really know your faith and to work it out in everyday life. You can’t separate one from the other. Good works are not enough because it would be like trying to cut a flower from its root; the flower would soon die because there would be nothing to revive it.”
In Statecraft, she wrote: “I believe in what are often referred to as ‘Judaeo-Christian’ values: indeed my whole political philosophy is based on them.” In The Path to Power she went further: “Although I have always resisted the argument that a Christian has to be a Conservative, I have never lost my conviction that there is a deep and providential harmony between the kind of political economy I favour and the insights of Christianity.”
She contrasted political and spiritual activity: “Nowhere in the Bible is the word democracy mentioned. Ideally, when Christians meet, as Christians, to take counsel together their purpose is not (or should not be) to ascertain what is the mind of the majority but what is the mind of the Holy Spirit—something which may be quite different.”
Tolerance and morality
Lady Thatcher believed in tolerance for the views of others: “One of the great principles of our Judaic-Christian inheritance is tolerance. People with other faiths and cultures have always been welcomed in our land, assured of equality under the law, of proper respect and of open friendship. There’s absolutely nothing incompatible between this and our desire to maintain the essence of our own identity. There is no place for racial or religious intolerance in our creed.”
She also believed firmly in objective morality, coupled with humility: “To assert absolute moral values is not to claim perfection for ourselves. No true Christian could do that.” She once told a journalist that she was “in politics because of the conflict between good and evil,” and that she believed “in the end good will triumph.”
Morality and democracy
Lady Thatcher was convinced that “the basis of democracy is morality, not majority voting. It is the belief that the majority of people are good and decent and that there are moral standards which come not from the State but from elsewhere.”
In a 1988 speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, she declared that “we must not profess the Christian faith and go to Church simply because we want social reforms and benefits or a better standard of behaviour; but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ.”
She believed that Scripture does not tell us “exactly what kind of political and social institutions we should have.” She explained: “On this point, Christians will never often genuinely disagree; though it is a mark of Christian manners that they will do so with courtesy and mutual respect.”
Then she added this critical point: “What is certain, however, is that any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm.”
Margaret Thatcher was one of the pivotal personalities of the 20th century. Her abiding significance, in my view, is not the political reforms she led but the connection between democracy and morality that she championed. George Washington would have agreed: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensible supports. . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Do we need more leaders who share their convictions today?