Churchill’s Trust in Providence – – Daniel J. Mahoney
Britain has had its fair share of politicians and statesmen who “have spoken of their faith”, from the sincere evangelical William Wilberforce (with his noble, tireless, and ultimately successful fight against slavery and the slave trade) to the staunch Methodist Margaret Thatcher the more progressive Catholic convert Tony Blair. As the intellectual historian Gary Scott Smith points out in his welcome new book Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill, Churchill is not one of them.
The religious convictions of the great statesman remained somewhat puzzling, even elusive, until the end. Smith’s brief but comprehensive survey of the matter shows, however, that two positions can be safely ruled out: Churchill was neither an atheist (save for a brief, if intense, period of disbelief in his youth) nor an Orthodox Christian who believed in the Trinitarian God and the divinity affirmed by Jesus Christ. The respected historian and Churchill scholar John Lukacs, himself a Catholic with serious convictions, sees in Churchill above all a pagan in the noblest classical sense, even if his moral convictions were shaped in essential points by Christianity. There is some truth in that. But Churchill’s generosity, an essentially and originally pagan virtue, has always been accompanied by a sense of mercy, chivalry, duty, fair play, and concern for the “humble masses” in their “homes” who took the hardest edge of Classical pride.
As Smith, Paul Johnson and Paul Addison all point out, Churchill had a real concern for the fate of the poor, the “little man”, the “inferior” – a concern that led him to stand up for wholesome welfare as a minister in a liberal society woo government during the Edwardian period at the beginning of the 20th century. He firmly opposed socialism, but supported a modest but powerful welfare state to “help the poor and the working class”. Churchill was magnanimous and chivalrous in a way that owes much to the precious legacy of Christian ethics: his greatness of soul was marked by generosity, kindness and concern for the common good. As with the pagan Cicero and the Christian Edmund Burke, his soul impressively combined generosity and moderation, heroic greatness with concern for political freedom and the survival and maintenance of civilized order. His spacious soul had ample space for the whole range of classical and Christian virtues and for a high-minded conception of democracy that did not reject the necessary “continuity” of civilization. He did not reject democracy; he wanted to ennoble it as much as possible. Like Burke, he was a man of great and principled wisdom.
Give up atheism
Similar to Abraham Lincoln before him, Churchill often used “fate”, “fate”, providence and God interchangeably in his speeches, writings and correspondence. Even as a feverish young atheist in Sudan in 1898 and in South Africa a year or two later in the Boer War (he had given up his conventional, tepid Anglicanism after reading Edward Gibbon, William Lecky, and William Winwood Reade – all downright rationalists who the exposure of Christianity as a pernicious superstition), Churchill saw a “higher power” at work that protected him from injury and death. It was Providence that guided him on his improbably heroic escape from Boer captivity. Churchill believed for a time in a benevolent “fate” or “providence” to care for him, even if he did not necessarily identify that “fate” with the God of the Bible or even the God of the philosophers. But even in his comparatively short-lived time of militant rationalism, he did not want “écrasez l’infâme” (“to crush the shame” – revealed religion – à la Voltaire). At this point, Churchill commented on Gibbons’ desire to prove Christianity both false and harmful and affirmed “Toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire” (“Not all truths should be spoken”). Churchill was never prone to fiery extremism or political irresponsibility.
Churchill soon discovered the limits of theatrical rationalism. He came to see that Christianity and all major religions speak primarily to the whole soul, to the whole person. Smith quotes a Pascal-inspired remark by Churchill from My Early Life (1930): “It seemed. . . It is very foolish to discard the reasons of the heart for those of the head. ”Such a balanced reassessment, Smith shows, led Churchill to reject his youthful atheism:“ ‘The Supreme Creator who gave us both our spirit and soul ‘, he concluded,’ wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t always run together smoothly ‘in the double belt. After all, he must have foreseen this from the start and of course HE would understand everything. ‘”Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine in 1928, long after he had outgrown his teenage skepticism, Churchill lamented that his son Randolph was connected to a rabid and for the moment hideous agnosticism and risked “annoying” oneself.
In his great essay on Moses in Thoughts and Adventures (1932), Churchill showed his anger at “purely rational and scientific explanations” of the Bible that miss its deeper spiritual truths. Churchill did not doubt the greatest miracle of all: “This wandering tribe, indistinguishable in many respects from countless nomadic communities, understood and proclaimed the idea of which all the genius of Greece and all power of Rome were incapable. There should be only one God, one universal God, one God of nations, one righteous God, one God who in another world would punish an evil man who died rich and prosperous, a God from whose service the good of the humble and the weak and the poor were inseparable. ”This is a truth and insight that Churchill seemed to confirm and for which he had the greatest respect and esteem. Indeed, he was far from simple rationalism and atheism.
Defender of Christian civilization
Churchill’s defense of Christian ethics and civilization was most evident in his immense struggle with the “non-gods” religions of communism and Nazism. Both totalist ideologies “replaced God with the devil and love with hate,” as Churchill aptly put it in a 1936 speech. They “despised Christian ethics” and viciously persecuted Christians (especially Bolshevism) and Jews (especially National Socialism). In his grand speech of October 5, 1938 against the Munich Pact, Churchill condemned National Socialism for its “barbaric paganism” (we are far from the noble paganism of the classics), which glorified “the spirit of aggression and conquest” and that of persecution ‘Strength and Perverse Pleasure’ won. ”
Churchill was a magnanimous man, but not the haughty and self-sufficient “magnanimous man” of Aristotle, whose virtue and pride hardly coexist with generous compassion.
In his greatest speech during the war, the “Finest Hour” speech of June 18, 1940, Churchill linked the success in the Battle of Britain (when France fell into Nazi captivity) with the “survival of Christian civilization”. Not democracy or liberalism per se, but Christian civilization, which saw “the image of God” in every precious soul and called us to treat other people with a minimum of respect, charity and decency. This was the civilization that produced noble accommodation of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Not even classical paganism at its best – say Aristotle, Cicero, and the Stoics – could claim that. Churchill saw in Nazism and Communism a satanic rejection of human freedom and human dignity, a simultaneous rejection of Christian ethics and modern freedom. The two stood or collapsed in Churchill’s estimation.
Scott quotes the notable intellectual historian of English religion and politics, Maurice Cowling, as saying that the young Churchill was “unsure whether there is transcendental law.” Not so the mature Churchill. Even in The River War (1899), according to Smith, Churchill had “affirmed his belief in a transcendent truth and absolute moral standards unrelated to specific times and places.” In Churchill’s words, people at all times and in all climates wished “to combine their actions with at least the semblance of moral right. As skewed as their conception of virtue may be, as weak as their efforts to attain even their own ideals, it is a gratifying move and a hopeful premonition that they are trying to justify themselves. . . . It is an involuntary tribute, the humble tribute of imperfect beings to the eternal temples of truth and beauty lead to an affirmation of natural justice and transcendental truth and beauty?
Let us return to Churchill’s moral stance, an attitude that is both classical and Christian, as it implies honor, courage, duty and goodwill. The same man who stirred people’s souls with his noble call “Never Surrender!” to a barbaric and totalitarian Nazi Germany once said that when Jesus came back to earth, he suspected that he could first go “to the untouchables of India” in order to bring them “the message that not only all people are in sight are the same “. God’s, but that a double blessing is reserved for the weak and the poor and the oppressed. ”Churchill was a magnanimous man, but not the haughty and self-sufficient“ magnanimous man ”of Aristotle, whose virtue and pride hardly coexist with generous compassion.
Gary Scott Smith should be commended for providing all the crucial evidence relating to Churchill, religion, and the life of the soul. I think he’s right that the great Churchill ended up being neither an atheist nor an Orthodox Christian. He is right that the divinity of Christ does not play a major role in Churchill’s thought or his various reflections on religion. Perhaps Smith is even right that Churchill was, in a sense, a Unitarian, albeit hardly of the morally undemanding and self-parodic politically progressive kind we see around us. But in the end, Churchill’s soul is perhaps more interesting and revealing than his formal and somewhat elusive religious beliefs. This soul, and its admirable mixture of generosity and moderation, to say it again, is unthinkable without Christianity, which Churchill could never reject.