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.