The Mighty and the Almighty review: a new anthology on how political leaders "do God"
Geoffrey Lyons reviews Nick Spencer’s The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God – a collection of essays on how current and former heads of state engage with faith and religion
Barack Obama and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority talk following their tour of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Source: PA
By Nick Spencer, Biteback Publishing, RRP £15.90
In a 2009 article for the New Statesman, Tony Blair argued that political leaders in the 21st century must “do God”. This partial borrowing of Alastair Campbell’s eternal soundbite ("we don't do God") didn't contradict its original usage: for Campbell it meant to openly discuss one's faith, while for Blair it simply meant to appreciate the modern religious landscape.
That the two are compatible indicates there is more than one way God can be done. In The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God, a collection of essays compiled by Nick Spencer of religion and society think tank Theos, a range of applications emerge in its 24 mini profiles. Blair himself did God privately until his resignation from Downing Street, when he became Catholic and did God publicly. Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic and the book's only non-Christian, did God philosophically, in a spiritual-but-not-religious kind of way. Havel had "existential metaexperiences" and contemplated the "order of Being" – language more closely associated with German philosophy than with scripture. Ironically, the book’s introduction opens with Tim Farron, a figure who, in Spencer’s words, is "rather unlikely to get anywhere near the levers of power", a fate he himself sealed after resigning as party leader (after the book’s publication) on the grounds that doing God while doing Lib Dem leadership was "impossible".
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A perverse way to do God that arises distressingly often in the book is in the Machiavellian sense: as a means to achieve political ends. In the 1999 Republican primary debates, George W. Bush was asked who his favourite political philosopher was, to which he replied "Christ". The audience erupted in applause, prompting critics to call this an effective "God strategy". His presidential predecessor used similar gambits. In between his two non-consecutive terms as governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton joined the choir of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock – a seemingly innocent move that some saw as a ploy to get free airtime during the church's televised services.
And then there’s former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been accused of false piety for asserting religion’s primacy (especially controversial was his suggestion that “the schoolteacher will never be able to replace the priest or the pastor”). Sarkozy’s successor, François Hollande, went so far as to accuse him of using religion to sell nuclear energy to Muslim countries.
In a category of his own is Trump, unique in having fooled nobody of his faith except those who most needed persuading. In Spencer’s words, "given Trump’s patchy and idiosyncratic knowledge of the Bible, his marital and sexual history and his disavowal of the need for repentance, one would have assumed that America’s Christians...would have found little reason to support [him]." But everyone knows how that story ends: over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, which is even more than evangelical George W. Bush could boast. The voting bloc one would have most expected to be critical of Trump's beliefs instead embraced them wholesale and ushered him to the White House.
Since The Mighty and the Almighty has multiple contributors (13 in total), it can be hit-or-miss. Some authors are more engaging than others, and it’s evident that some did more rigorous research. But the benefit of having a compilation is that one can be selective about which essays to read, and this collection has more than enough to choose from. Thank God for that.