What Winston Churchill Meant by “Christian Civilization”

What Winston Churchill Meant by “Christian Civilization”

Christian in a way…

Churchill often invoked the words “Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion.” An ear­li­er post of mine on Churchill and Reli­gion was picked up (con­text albeit some­what abbre­vi­at­ed) by Wal­lace Hen­ley. In “The Glob­al Tsuna­mi on ‘Good'” Mr. Hen­ley wrote:

I am not argu­ing for a Chris­t­ian theoc­ra­cy, but for adher­ence to the basic doc­trines of life, love and care described in Scrip­ture. Win­ston Churchill argued that the great goal of the Sec­ond World War was the sur­vival of what he called repeat­ed­ly “Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion.” Richard Lang­worth, a Churchill schol­ar, says that by “Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion” Churchill thought that Christianity’s “prin­ci­ples applied broad­ly to all of mankind regard­less of reli­gion.” Just as, to Churchill, the word “man” meant humankind, his allu­sions to Chris­tian­i­ty embod­ied prin­ci­ples he con­sid­ered universal.

Optimistic agnostic

This is fine as far as it goes, but it leaves out some of the essence. Churchill was, I wrote, an “opti­mistic agnos­tic.” With­out being on con­ver­sa­tion­al terms with the Almighty, he was quite will­ing to invoke the Deity when appro­pri­ate. As he wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, My Ear­ly Life, “I did not hes­i­tate to ask for spe­cial pro­tec­tion.” Andrew Roberts, author of the best sin­gle-vol­ume Churchill biog­ra­phy, put this very neatly:

One of the pri­ma­ry duties of the Prov­i­den­tial Being in whom Churchill did believe, but to whom he paid lit­tle overt obei­sance, seems to have been to watch over the phys­i­cal safe­ty of Win­ston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Few peo­ple in his­to­ry could have brushed against the cloak of the Angel of Death as often as Churchill, yet he sur­vived until his 91st year.

“Black velvet”

Churchill wasn’t sure about what exist­ed after death. He once referred to it as “end­less sleep…black vel­vet.”  Yet at anoth­er time he pre­dict­ed that he would get to heav­en and spend his first mil­lion years in heav­en paint­ing. Thus, he explained, would

“get to the bot­tom of the subject.”

He often quot­ed the King James Bible (more than any oth­er book). He was impressed both by its beau­ti­ful words and its ethics—which he applied uni­ver­sal­ly. You can be a Sikh, a Hin­du, what­ev­er, and still accept Churchill’s pre­cepts of Chris­t­ian civilization.

Churchill did not take the Bible lit­er­al­ly, see­ing no need. He said that if its mes­sage “cheers your heart and for­ti­fies your soul…what need is there to ask whether the imagery of the ancients is exact­ly, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly feasible?”

What Churchill meant

It would be well to reprint here exact­ly what I wrote in that ear­li­er post:

When Churchill referred to Chris­t­ian civil­i­za­tion (a phrase I have actu­ally seen edit­ed out of cer­tain mod­ern ren­di­tions) he did not mean to exclude Jews or Bud­dhists or Mus­lims. He meant those words in a much broad­er sense. Just as, to Churchill, the word “man” meant human­ity, his allu­sions to Chris­tian­ity embod­ied prin­ci­ples he con­sid­ered uni­ver­sal. He meant the Ten Com­mand­ments (a “judg­men­tal” set of moral imper­a­tives now expunged from cer­tain pub­lic places). He meant the Ser­mon on the Mount and the Gold­en Rule. He meant char­ity, for­give­ness, courage.

It is impor­tant to under­stand this. Churchill’s words tak­en lit­er­al­ly can be inter­pret­ed to mean he was a Chris­t­ian evan­ge­list. Not so. Nor did he mean to exclude oth­er reli­gions from the Com­mon­wealth of Man. Quite the con­trary. Churchill’s quar­rel was with tyranny.


One thought on “What Winston Churchill Meant by “Christian Civilization”

  1. Can you address Churchill’s mag­nan­i­mous spir­it next to your “opti­mistic agnos­tic” observation?
    Seems to this read­er that mag­na­nim­i­ty is an active exer­cise, not an anti­sep­tic obser­va­tion encom­pass­ing all humanity.
    Churchill was a man of action. Face to face. Bel­ly to bel­ly. No wast­ed kinet­ic exer­cis­es here.
    Not a Chris­t­ian “in a way.” A Chris­t­ian HIS way!

    For­give­ness is Chris­t­ian, mag­na­nim­i­ty is Churchillian. There’s a shade of dif­fer­ence, though I take your point. RML

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