The woke mobs of the cancel culture have come for Winston Churchill, both here in the United States and in his home country, where the man was long considered a hero who did nothing short of save England and Western civilization, defeating what he called the “devil” and “evil” of Hitler and the Nazis and confronting the “plague bacillus” of Soviet communism. In fact, Time Magazine at the half-century point (while Churchill was still alive) judged him “Man of the Half-Century,” and many Americans and Brits alike at the end of the 20th century dubbed him Man of the Century. Not unjustifiably so.
But our new century is another era, where the cultural revolutionaries of the dominant culture judges everyone by altogether different and far narrower standards.
A recent panel of Cambridge professors at (ironically) Churchill College branded old Winston a “white supremacist”—indeed, as no less than “the perfect embodiment of white supremacy”–and creatively concluded that his “British Empire was far worse than the Nazis.” In London’s Parliament Square last summer, Black Lives Matter protesters (BLM has become very active in the United Kingdom) spray-painted in red the word “RACIST” on Churchill’s statue. And here in the United States, with the Democrats back in the White House, the bust of Churchill is out of the Oval Office again. A comparatively mild token, one supposes, to the rising levels of animus toward Churchill in his beloved homeland.
One person with a far more measured view of Winston Churchill, who calmly assesses the good and the bad, and who seeks to inform with grace and genuine scholarship, is Dr. Gary Scott Smith. Smith is a highly respected academic who taught at Grove City College for nearly 40 years. He has written or edited over a dozen books, including a seminal two-part series on faith and the presidency published by Oxford University Press. His latest book is on the faith and life of Winston Churchill. And given the current zeitgeist clouding Churchill’s image and great contributions, Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill is a gem seemingly almost providentially released at a time when it couldn’t be more needed.
Smith underscores how both duty and destiny were central to Churchill’s life and mission. It was indeed a profound sense of personal destiny, although, as Smith shows, who or what Churchill believed determined his destiny—God or fate—is ultimately unclear. Beginning early in life, with what some deemed seemingly “miraculous” escapes from death in Cuba, North Africa, the Boer War, and World War I, Churchill had a sense that something, whether God, fate, or destiny, had a special role for him to play in history.
“I believe I am watched over,” averred a young Churchill. “Chance, Fortune, Luck, Destiny, Fate, Providence seem to me only different ways of expressing the same thing, to wit, that a man’s own contribution to his life story is continually dominated by an external superior power.”
Whatever that power might be.
And yet, whether by God, fate, or destiny, or whatever else, if nothing but dumb luck, Churchill found himself in utterly pivotal moments. Few were so crucial as May 10, 1940, when he became prime minister during the Nazi invasion of France. “It felt as if I were walking with destiny,” he later interpreted this moment, “and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
Few would disagree. And many a religious man thought surely this was a God-ordained moment. “The one case in which … I can see the finger of God in contemporary history,” averred Lord Hailsham, who served in Churchill’s wartime government, “is Churchill’s arrival at the premiership at that precise moment in 1940.”
But would Churchill have considered that placement God-ordained? Before even going there, one must first consider a more fundamental question: Did Winston Churchill even believe in God?
Professor Smith acknowledges that this remains difficult to determine. Biographers called Churchill everything from “not a religious man” to a “God-haunted man,” from a “stalwart nonbeliever” to a person with “no faith in God, no hope in heaven.”
No hope in heaven?
According to Smith, several statements Churchill made indicate that he expected to cease to exist at death. Or, as one source put it, “Death was the end and he did not fear it.”
But the matter was more complicated. Churchill wanted to believe in heaven, but he could not do so with any sense of certainty. Still, Churchill clearly sensed something deeper going on in the affairs of humanity. To borrow from George W. Bush, who said that as president he always felt a certain moral accountability because of a sense that “something is watching me,” Churchill seemed very concerned that he would be required to justify before God his aerial bombing of German cities during World War II (a form of amoral or immoral “total warfare” that included killing civilians).
God, after all, has rules. Saint Augustine, some 1,500 years before World War II, laid out certain rules for Just War conduct. War is always bad and a terrible last resort, but even then, not even noble ends justify all means.
As Professor Smith notes, Churchill asserted that God is personal and does provide moral standards for justice and conduct, namely: “We [are] ruled by a Supreme Being and in fulfilment of a sublime moral purpose, according to which all our actions are judged.” God’s major attributes are justice, mercy, pity, self-sacrifice, and “ineffable love.” Churchill argued that all people are equal in God’s eyes and that God especially cares about the “poor and downtrodden.”
That is, assuming that God exists. Again, Churchill sensed something deeper going on.
As for Jesus Christ, on that matter Churchill was far more tight-lipped. Smith says that in his nearly 10 million published words, Churchill said almost nothing about Christ. Moreover, the “five million words of his speeches” contain only a single reference to Christ. Says Smith: “From his few public and private comments, it appears that Churchill viewed Jesus as an inspired prophet, an exceptional teacher, and an exemplary role model, but not as the Son of God.” Pointing to C.S. Lewis, Smith says that Churchill seems to be guilty of precisely what Lewis flagged in Mere Christianity: professing that Jesus was a great moral teacher while denying Christ’s claim to divinity.
But nonetheless, again, Churchill agreed with Lewis that God provided transcendent standards of justice vital to inspiring upright conduct and ethics.
Of course, it’s hard to believe that an atheist or agnostic could come to such views. But then again, Churchill easily could have absorbed these sentiments simply from his many hours in churches. He was hardly unchurched. According to Smith, while a student at Harrow, a boarding school northwest of London, Churchill went to three worship services every Sunday as well as morning and evening prayers throughout the week. He also attended church every Sunday when he was home during school holidays. Churchill saw a salutary value in this. “All of this was very good,” he later wrote. “I accumulated in those years so fine a surplus in the Bank of Observance that I have been drawing confidently upon it ever since.”
The time in churches did not last. By his early 20s, after his service with the British army in India, Churchill rarely attended worship services, even at Christmas.
Did Churchill pray? This was something he at least observed in his youth. According to Smith, Churchill’s nanny Elizabeth Everest prayed faithfully for him and encouraged him to pray. At the three boarding schools he attended, prayer was a regular part of daily worship services. And during his seemingly miraculous escapes from death during military engagements in Africa while he was in his early and mid-20s, Churchill prayed fervently for his safety. Smith is rightly struck by a contrast to the many American presidents who declared that the immense challenges of their office prompted them to pray often and vigorously and who exhorted citizens to pray for them: According to Smith, Churchill said almost nothing about personally praying for God’s aid and guidance during the dark days of World War II.
This is indeed such a curious contrast to American leaders. Bill Clark, close aide to Ronald Reagan, often told me that Reagan had a favorite line from Lincoln: “I’m often driven to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go.”
In all, the story of Churchill’s faith is complicated, as it is for many historical figures. What’s so compelling and historically helpful about Smith’s work on Churchill, akin to his crucial work on Thomas Jefferson, is his clarifying the record and going against the consensus of many historians who argued that the likes of Churchill and Jefferson didn’t believe in God at all, while also clarifying that they were far from conventional Christians or typical religious believers. So, not quite agnostics or atheists or deists, or even believers in Jesus Christ, but also far from conventional Christians.
In all, this is the heart of Smith’s examination. Of interest to Catholic readers, however, is the material in the book on Churchill and Catholicism. That material is limited, but it is noteworthy, especially what it says about Catholics in Britain during the first half of the 20th century and into World War II.
Smith notes that during the first half of the twentieth century, Roman Catholicism increased in numbers and prominence in Britain. Between 1910 and 1950, the number of priests in England and Wales grew by more than 40 percent. As Smith puts it, “both parish priests and members of the Catholic Missionary Society worked diligently to persuade non-observant Catholics to return to the flock.” Moreover, during the interwar years, a sizable number of prominent authors, artists, and public figures converted to Catholicism, including Maurice Baring, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Eric Gill, Graham Greene, Ronald Knox (the son of an evangelical Anglican bishop), and Evelyn Waugh.
Smith states (and describes) that Winston Churchill had a better relationship with Catholic Cardinal Arthur Hinsley than with two Archbishops of Canterbury—William Temple and Geoffrey Fisher. Hinsley, who served as Archbishop of Westminster from 1935 until his death in March 1943, was the principal leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. He strongly denounced Nazism and fascism, and he staunchly supported Churchill’s leadership of Britain’s war efforts to defeat the nation’s evil enemies. In a May 22, 1940 letter to the London Times titled, “Awake! Or Be Crushed,” Hinsley appealed to Catholics throughout the world to “condemn by word and deed the dastardly invasion of Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg by the merciless Nazi hordes.” Human freedom and the moral law, he protested, were being “sacrificed to Nazi ambition.”
Smith heralds Hinsley as one of the first to publicize and condemn the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. To help rally religious leaders in Britain and other European nations to oppose totalitarianism, Hinsley founded the Sword of the Spirit in October 1940, which he described as “a spiritual Movement” designed to equip Catholics with the armor of God to enable them to “stand against the deceits of the devil” and defend European civilization against “the tyranny of Godless or pagan forces.”
Churchill, of course, greatly appreciated this. He praised the cardinal as “vigorous and tough.”
Smith does say that Churchill held a “generally negative appraisal of Catholicism,” and thus it might seem “surprising that Churchill had a better relationship with Hinsley than with the archbishops of Canterbury.” But Hinsley’s bold moral leadership against the Nazi “ogre” (as Churchill put it) impressed Churchill.
As for Churchill’s negative appraisal of Catholicism, Smith says that Churchill in his youth “developed a strongly anti-Catholic view, which continued into his mid-twenties.” In 1898 he wrote to his brother that Oxford University “has long been the home of bigotry and intolerance and has defended more damnable errors and wicked notions than any other institution, with the exception of the Catholic Church.” In a letter the next year, Churchill declared that “as a rationalist I deprecate all Romish practices and prefer those of Protestantism, because I believe that the Reformed Church is less deeply sunk in the mire of dogma. We are … a step nearer Reason.” Churchill declared, however, that he was reluctant to rob the lives of people who worked in ugly factories devoid of beauty of the “ennobling aspiration” that Catholicism provided, even though it was expressed “in the burning of incense, the wearing of certain robes and other superstitious practices.”
Catholicism, Churchill added, was “a delicious narcotic,” but so were all religions to some extent. Religion “may soothe our pains and chase our worries, but it checks our growth and saps our strength.”
And yet, another positive wartime relationship with a prominent Church official softened Churchill’s anti-Catholic views. This one was with no less than the pope himself. After meeting with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican in August 1944, Churchill told Moran that “there must be something in a faith [Roman Catholicism] that could survive for so many centuries and had held captive so many men.”
Still, adds Professor Smith, “Churchill never completely rejected his anti-Catholicism.” In his bestselling A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, published in the 1950s, Churchill (as Smith interprets it) “frequently depicted Protestants as heroes and Catholics as villains.” He portrayed medieval popes as “foreign tyrants who always backed absolutism and opposed liberty.”
But again, when it came to the perilous Nazi onslaught against “Christian civilization,” Churchill rightly recognized the Roman Catholic Church as a crucial ally. The literal very “survival of Christian civilization” depended on defeating the Nazis.
In all, what we have in this book by Gary Smith is a Winston Churchill whose faith and religious views were complex, from his personal views on Christ to his views of Catholicism. Assessing Churchill accurately requires a bit of nuance—something very much lacking among his cultural detractors today.
Kudos to Gary Scott Smith for giving us something far more measured and thoughtful about the person of Winston Churchill than the narrow caricature being framed by today’s cultural revolutionaries.
Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill
By Gary Scott Smith
Hardcover, 267 pages
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