Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 2)

*Posted by Dr. Jerry A. Johnson

*This post is the second part of an extended commentary on Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, the last volume in the epic series The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid. You can read the first part here and the third part here.

No God-Talk in Churchill Speeches?

Reid throws out another negative claim that the war leader’s inspirational speeches were atheistic, as in god-less.  Reid’s Churchill “put little faith in higher powers,” (p. 263); “He did not ask Providence for the strength or wisdom to win the war,” (p. 783); and “He did not begin his speeches with pleas to the Almighty for guidance, nor did he end them with supplications for divine blessing,” (p. 783). Reid’s most exclusive, and most ridiculous, claim portrays Churchill as absolutely agnostic in terms of Divine war aid: “God would play no part in the saga, because God, if indeed there was a God, was unwilling or unable to intervene….Churchill, not God, would safeguard the future of Europe and the British Empire…” (p. 21).

These claims are demonstrably false as a few examples from his famous speeches prove. In the first speech to the Commons as Prime Minister on May 13, 1940, Churchill offered “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” and announced the policy “to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.”  How can Reid miss this? According to Churchill, it is Churchill and God. According to Reid, it is “Churchill, not God.”

Then, on May 19, Churchill gave his major radio address, “Be Ye Men of Valor.” He closed with a reference to “Trinity Sunday” and ended with these lines, “As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.” Does this sound like an atheist or agnostic?

Later, in his “Dunkirk” speech to the House on June 4, Churchill’s final sentence stated that the New World could rescue and liberate the Old “in God’s good time.” In his “Put Your Confidence in Us” radio talk dated February 9, 1941, the Prime Minister’s closing lines appealed to Roosevelt, “Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well.” Reid is simply wrong. In major speeches, Churchill often began or ended with God and expressed a reliance on God’s strength, timing, and Providence with a capital P.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt participating in a church service on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales.

Reid pushes the secular motif again with an example from the end of the war, on May 8, 1944. He makes much ado of Lord Moran’s comment to John Masefield that Churchill’s victory speech on the radio made no mention of God. Masefield responded, “I’d rather have the honest utterance of Winston than the false rhetoric of a lesser man,” (p. 927). Yet later that very day Churchill presented the same statement to the House of Commons and added that “this House do now attend at the Church of St. Margaret’s (sic), Westminster, to give humble and reverential thanks to Almighty God for our deliverance from the threat of German domination,” (p. 927). Reid implies that Churchill added this merely because it was the same motion that the House adopted years earlier when it learned of the Armistice at the close of World War I. Reid conveniently omits the words Churchill used to introduce the old language. Churchill explained that the House “did not feel inclined for debate or business, but desired to offer thanks to Almighty God, to the Great Power which seems to shape and design the fortunes of nations and the destiny of man….” Following Masefield and Reid’s reasoning, was Churchill honest on the radio while spewing “false rhetoric” in the House of Commons, all on the same day? In addition, why does Reid omit the most telling religious language here? One thing is for sure, it does not fit his agnosticism/atheism narrative.

After these two speeches, Reid notes that Churchill spoke to thousands from a balcony in Whitehall. To huge cheers, the old champion said, “This is your victory!” Reid records that the crowd yelled back, “No, it is yours,” (p. 927). I count eight sentences when reading my copy of this brief address. Reid does not print the first sentence, or the last sentence. They are identical. Churchill began and ended with, “God bless you all.” The next day, May 9, he used the same “God bless” phrase in another public talk. Again, Reid ignores these passages. They do not fit his thesis.

These are not obscure Churchill speeches, available only to Churchill illuminati. These speeches are included in almost every incarnation of “Churchill’s Greatest Hits,” of which there are many.  What is Reid thinking, that no one will remember these words or find them, or that they don’t matter?

No Biblical Guidance for Churchill?

For Reid, Churchill’s relationship to the Bible is also evidence of his agnosticism. Referencing Churchill’s home, Reid acknowledges that a “Bible rests to this day on his bedside table at Chartwell, a sight that moves many visitors to conclude he sought guidance in Scripture,” (p. 20). But Reid insists “He did not.” The evidence produced for this denial is passed down from Lord Moran who related that Churchill told him he read it “only out of curiosity.” In the Diane Rehm “atheist” interview Reid spins it another way, “He read the Bible cover to cover—for cadence instruction for his speeches and what have you.”

So, as Reid would have it, the orator only read the Bible because he was curious or needed help with rhyme and rhythm for his speeches. But why does Reid rely on the second hand word of Moran when there is ample primary source material published by Churchill on the topic of Scripture? It is not as if Reid is unfamiliar with the book of Churchill essays, Thoughts and Adventures, which contains biblical material. Ironically, he refers to this text just three paragraphs before he conjures his “Churchill as agnostic” narrative (p. 17; cf. pp. 18-21). But as with other possible religious material, Reid practices selective amnesia.

There is no mention of Churchill’s most detailed discussion of Scripture from this book, namely his essay entitled “Moses: The Leader of a People.” This essay, and its omission, is devastating for Reid’s claim. First, the overall presentation goes against any agnostic hypothesis. Churchill starts with an italicized citation of Deuteronomy 34:10-12 and then spends most of his essay, about eight pages, re-telling the Moses/Pharaoh Exodus story. Churchill writes as matter of fact:  Moses “spoke in person to the God of Israel….God spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush….God gave all the guarantees….The liberation of the Children of Israel was only a part of His high Purpose….Jehovah did not fail.” Skeptics might suspect that Churchill was just restating what the Bible presents without affirming the validity of the story. The style alone reflects otherwise; instinctively, anyone who reads it will know.

Second, Churchill actually takes on the role of apologist here. While there is a moment of equivocation on the numerical details in the Biblical text, he tries to resolve this dilemma for the reader with the intent of defending the Bible. Churchill’s conviction to fly the colors, for the Bible—not against it, is clear. He takes the trouble to verify details from the Biblical story with assurances like the “Egyptologist Naville has uncovered the city of Pithom, which was indeed built in the time of Rameses, and lies in that ‘Land of Goshen’….” Likewise, the author defends the miraculous plague accounts, “rationalistic and scientific explanations only prove the truth of the Bible story.” In just two sentences, Churchill states his belief in the text, affirms the Mosaic Law, and fires a counter-blast at skeptics of Scripture:

We believe that the most scientific view, the most up-to-date view and rationalistic conception, will find its fullest satisfaction in taking the Bible story literally, and in identifying one of the greatest of human beings with the most decisive leap forward ever discernible in the human story. We remain unmoved by the tomes of Professor Gradgrind and Dr. Dryasdust.

On top of this Churchill concludes, “We may be sure that all these things happened just as they are set out according to Holy Writ.” Adding authority to his apologetic, the British P.M. quotes a predecessor, “In the words of a forgotten work of Mr. Gladstone, we rest with assurance upon ‘The impregnable rock of Holy Scripture.’” Apparently Reid has forgotten (if he ever knew) Churchill on the Bible, or Churchill’s agreement with Prime Minister Gladstone on the Bible.

Third, the Moses essay draws observations from the Bible with a devotional tone and even point the reader to a redemptive message. Churchill’s relationship with Scripture here goes far beyond that of mere curiosity or cadence resource. The whole point of the essay is to affirm Moses as a leader. The aforementioned “Bible for guidance” theory, assumed by naive Chartwell visitors, ends up being more probable than not.  Some of Churchill’s concluding words in this essay would never flow from the pen or mouth of an agnostic or atheist:

Many Centuries were to pass before the God that spake in the Burning Bush was to manifest Himself in a new revelation, which nevertheless was the oldest of all the inspirations of the Hebrew people—as the God not only of Israel, but of all mankind who wished to serve Him; a God not only of justice, but of mercy; a God not only of self-preservation and survival, but of pity, self-sacrifice, and ineffable love.

This is certainly not atheism, and not even agnosticism. This is not mere theism.  To the contrary, a close reading reveals an attempt to frame a basic Christian understanding of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Churchill’s theologizing here retains God’s attributes of justice and mercy, but at the same time adds divine personality traits of pity, self-sacrifice, and love, which are consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Not bad for a non-evangelical layman. Too bad for Reid, and his claims. It is especially bad for his assertion that Churchill “found no reward in theological exercises” (p. 18).

No God Based Ethics for Churchill?

Then there is Reid’s declaration from the Brian Lamb interview that Churchill adopted a “humanist, but godless ethic.” In The Last Lion, Reid likewise writes concerning ethics that this Englishman “believed in Virtue and Right, not as matters of dogma, but as objective realities” (p. 22). Before and after this quote, Reid weaves a secular Churchillian ethic based upon the “Nietzschean…view” that also draws from the “Darwinian…survival of the fittest, continuum” and at the same time reflects the “Aristotelian mean” of Greece or Rome (pp. 20-23).

Speaking of miracles earlier, one would come in handy here. Most moral philosophers would need several to tie together: 1) rejection of Virtue and Right as dogma, 2) affirmation of both as objective realities, 3) Nietzsche, 4) Darwin, and 5) Aristotle, or Greco-Roman ethics. Reid is throwing everything he can against the wall to see if he can make something stick in the place of a Divine moral compass.  Reid strains to show that Churchill viewed ethics, right and wrong, without reference to God.

Problems abound with this thesis. For one thing, Reid himself can’t stay consistent with this secular scenario. His counter interpretation of Churchill’s ethic: “He subscribed to the Christian values of mercy and forgiveness,” (p. 18). Is Reid refuting Reid? Godless ethic, or Christian values, which is it?

Beside this equivocation by Reid, the best evidence does not support his theory. Primary source material in Churchill’s writing reflects his view that virtue and right have been revealed by God. In the “Moses” essay cited earlier, he described Moses as “the supreme law-giver, who received from God that remarkable code upon which the religious, moral, and social life of the nation was so securely founded.” If Reid is right, the Mosaic code would not be described by Churchill as “securely founded” but instead ill-founded. Nor would it be labeled “remarkable.”

In a similar way, Reid reverses Churchill’s estimation of Greco-Roman morality, contrasted with the Ten Commandments. Churchill wrote that the Jewish people “proclaimed an idea which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable.” The writer then located that Mosaic ethic as rooted in theology. “There was to be only one God, a universal God, a God of nations, a just God, a God who would punish in another world a wicked man dying rich and prosperous; a God from whose service the good of the humble and of the weak and the poor was inseparable.” Churchill’s writing does not reflect someone who ignores the God-factor when judging ethical norms. Reid is wrong again.

Additional primary source material from Churchill’s speeches demonstrate a belief that the Allies are not the moral equivalent of the Axis, but instead enjoy a favorable ethical position—one that is not without reference to God.  In his World broadcast about Poland’s defeat, Churchill launched a moral salvo against “Hitler and his group of wicked men, whose hands are stained with blood and soiled with corruption,” (October 1, 1939). Churchill knew better than to quote Nietzsche or Darwin if he was to claim the moral high ground over and against Hitler. To the contrary, he linked Divine help with the moral value of being civilized and free. “Now with the help of God, and with the conviction that we are the defenders of civilization and freedom, we are going to persevere to the end.”

Likewise, his radio talk about possible invasion and the Blitz links God and ethical norms. “It is with devout but sure confidence that I say: Let God defend the right,” (September 11, 1940). For Churchill, “God” and “right” go together. For Churchill a la Reid, they do not.

Again, in his “Finest Hour” speech to the House of Commons, Churchill measured the stakes of the Battle of Britain in moral-ethical terms that are religious: “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization,” (June 18, 1940). He does not say that life under the Aristotelian mean is at risk if they lose to the Nazis, but instead, that Christian civilization is in the balance.

In his famous “Iron Curtain” address at Fulton, Missouri, Churchill identified the threat that could jeopardize the moral order.  “The communist parties or fifth columns constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization,” (March 5, 1946). Somehow it is difficult to imagine Churchill warning that a communist victory would destroy a Darwinian ethic. To the contrary, when the big battles raged, Churchill’s oratorical guns named, and aimed at, evil. He did this, according to his own words, in defense of a culture that was based upon a Christian concept of what it means to be civilized. He never asked the West to stand against Communism, or the Allies to stand against Hitlerism, in a moral vacuum.

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2 Responses to Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 3) | For Christ and Culture

  2. Pingback: Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 1) | For Christ and Culture

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