Churchill’s Religion: “Optimistic Agnostic”

Churchill’s Religion: “Optimistic Agnostic”

Although he had some very reli­gious friends, like Lord Hugh Cecil, Win­ston Churchill was not a reli­gious man. Intro­duced to reli­gious diver­si­ty ear­ly, he was brought up “High Church,” but had a nan­ny “who enjoyed a very Low Church form of piety.” When in rebel­lious mood he would tell Nan­ny Ever­est “the worst thing that he could think of…that he would go out and ‘wor­ship idols.’”

After his self-edu­ca­tion as a young offi­cer in India, when he read all the pop­u­lar chal­lenges to ortho­dox reli­gion, like Charles Darwin’s The Ori­gin of Species and William Win­wood Reade’s The Mar­tyr­dom of Man, Churchill evolved into what we might term an “opti­mistic agnos­tic.” He spoke joc­u­lar­ly of the Almighty, sug­gest­ing that as a boy,

I accumulated…so fine a sur­plus in the Bank of Obser­vance that I have been draw­ing con­fi­dent­ly upon it ever since. Wed­dings, chris­ten­ings, and funer­als have brought in a steady annu­al income, and I have nev­er made too close enquiries about the state of my account. It might well even be that I should find an over­draft.

Vis­it­ing Pres­i­dent Tru­man just before Tru­man left office in 1953, Churchill quipped,

Mr. Pres­i­dent, I hope you have your answer ready for that hour when you and I stand before St. Peter and he says, “I under­stand you two are respon­si­ble for putting off those atom­ic bombs.”

Truman’s Sec­re­tary of Defense, Robert Lovett respond­ed: “Are you sure, Prime Min­is­ter, that you are going to be in the same place as the Pres­i­dent for that inter­ro­ga­tion?” Churchill’s reply was quick:

Lovett, my vast respect for the Cre­ator of this uni­verse and count­less oth­ers gives me assur­ance that He would not con­demn a man with­out a hearing….wherever it is, it will be in accor­dance with the prin­ci­ples of Eng­lish Com­mon Law.…

Why did Churchill refer so fre­quent­ly to “Chris­t­ian civil­i­sa­tion”? First because along­side Dar­win, he had absorbed the King James Bible, impressed by its beau­ti­ful phrase­ol­o­gy and the ethics it expound­ed; and sec­ond because he believed its prin­ci­ples applied broad­ly to all of mankind regard­less of reli­gion. Unlike Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ists, he did not accept the Bible as rote. He saw no need to resolve its sto­ries with mod­ern sci­ence. Why both­er? he asked:

If you are the recip­i­ent of a mes­sage which cheers your heart and for­ti­fies your soul, what need is there to ask whether the imagery of the ancients is exact­ly, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, fea­si­ble?

When Churchill in speech­es referred to “Chris­t­ian civil­i­sa­tion” (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: the Ten Com­mand­ments (a “judg­men­tal” set of moral imper­a­tives now expunged from cer­tain pub­lic places); the Ser­mon on the Mount; the Gold­en Rule; char­i­ty; for­give­ness; courage.

Times change. If a Pres­i­dent or Prime Min­is­ter went round dis­cussing “Chris­t­ian civil­i­sa­tion” today, ten thou­sand Thought Police would descend screech­ing out of the sky to pro­claim excom­mu­ni­ca­tion from the Church of the Polit­i­cal­ly Cor­rect.

It is not my brief to sug­gest how Churchill would react to mod­ern sit­u­a­tions, but sure­ly he would be mys­ti­fied by this—as indeed would the Jews, Bud­dhists and Mus­lims of his time who whole­heart­ed­ly endorsed what he said about the war they were in togeth­er. Yet we con­sid­er these to be more enlight­ened times.

One thought on “Churchill’s Religion: “Optimistic Agnostic”

  1. i am ready to meet my mak­er . wether or not he is ready to meet me is anoth­er mat­ter ..

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