As the world continues to reel from the populist shocks of 2016, here's another stunner for which I hope, dear reader, you are sitting down.
Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is -- an Anglican Christian, who dares to let her faith influence her politics. Maybe.
This stunning insight comes via Foreign Policy magazine's website and a first-person piece by one Andrew Brown, who is said to cover religion for Britain's Guardian newspaper.
Behold, the headline proclaims: "Theresa May Is a Religious Nationalist." A key passage adds this:
One of the least understood, yet most important, things about British Prime Minister Theresa May is that she is the daughter of a Church of England vicar. The fact that she is personally devout, by contrast, is well-known. I have heard several anecdotes about her time as a member of Parliament and minister when she would turn up at local parish initiatives that could offer her no conceivable political advantage. Such devotion to the church is unusual if not unknown among British politicians. Gordon Brown remains a very serious Presbyterian; Tony Blair went to Mass most Sundays.
Holy condescension, Batman! A politician who clings to her childhood faith and uses it in her daily life. And despite May's personal opposition to "Brexit," the referendum that decrees the U.K. should exit the European Union, she is poised to try and carry that out because leaving the EU is in parallel with Henry VIII's departure from the Roman Catholic faith to set up the aforementioned Church of England. Brown explains:
The Church of England is, in an important sense, not a religious body at all. It is, or was, a mode of being English. It was the official position of the Church of England that it had no distinctive doctrines of its own. It was simply the English part of the universal church. This claim was hard to sustain in reality -- the doctrine that the Church of England has no unique doctrines is itself unique to the Church of England -- but it reflected a deep conservative self-confidence. It was only as a member of the Church of England that C.S. Lewis could write a book titled Mere Christianity, referencing the plain, commonsensical essence of belief, without the extravagance of Rome or the doctrinal extremism of the puritans.
The link with May should be obvious. The lack of explicit theological distinctiveness in her church coheres with an almost complete lack of ideology in her politics. She seems to have no large vision of how society should be organized or the economy run: She sees problems in her nation and fixes them, without worrying too much about how everything might fit into a grand scheme. If she had a slogan, it might be "common sense without stupidity."
While it is certainly the case that British politics is less marinated in religion than the American version, the writer's assertion that May is a "religious nationalist" hangs, it turns out, on a lack of theological distinctives in the Church of England. (The Most. Rev. and Rt. Hon. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I met and covered in 2013, might beg to differ on whether the CofE has a distinct theology, of course.) Besides, there have been more than a few church movements that have sprung up or grown in Britain since Henry's day, Presbyterians, Methodism (of which more in a moment) and The Salvation Army spring to mind; Catholicism has also done somewhat well in the United Kingdom in recent years.
I also have some qualms about Brown's assertion that the church is merely an extension of government, an adjunct to civil society. I have no doubt that the network of parishes is a way to organize society and political districts, but I wonder if this is more of a happy coincidence rather than some sort of divine conspiracy.
Far more glaring, in my view, is a lack of context. May is not the first British PM to mix faith, politics and a good set of pearls. The late Baroness Thatcher was not only the daughter of a lay Methodist preacher, she was a lay preacher herself. Eliza Filby, who authored a book on Thatcher's faith, explains:
Even though she later transferred this missionary energy from the pulpit to the podium, her religious values remained an underlying core.
Indeed, on becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, Thatcher (much like Ronald Reagan) saw it as her chief mission to completely undermine the moral credibility of socialism and communism and reconnect the broken link between Protestant and capitalist values in Britain.
So May is not sui generis when it comes to merging faith and politics. Indeed, and even more commendable in my view, her defense of Christmas observance in a politically correct Britain is the kind of faith-friendliness that is welcome in a postmodern world.
It would be nice to see the press -- perhaps especially a reporter who covers faith -- mention the positive aspects of May's beliefs and practices, particularly when there's scant evidence for a link between Anglicanism and nationalism other than a bland assertion and that's that.