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COMMENTARY: The former British prime minister contributed to the downfall of Soviet communism in the 20th century.
BY PAUL KENGOR
In losing Margaret Thatcher, the world has lost a great one. She was another of the giants who will go down in history for the way they peacefully closed the 20th century’s longest-running conflict: the epic battle against militant, murderous, atheistic Soviet Communism. Her allies in that effort will not be forgotten: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. All combined to play critical and integral roles in taking apart a genuinely evil empire.
Much, of course, is being said of Thatcher now. She was the heralded Iron Lady who faced down not only the Soviets, but the fierce public-sector unions that had grinded Britain’s economy to a halt and to insolvency. She freed entire industries once seized by a socialist government in the 1940s. She signed the agreement to return Hong Kong back to China. She fought a controversial war in the Falklands, one still criticized and debated today.
But now seems a good time to remark upon what so much of the secular and increasingly atheistic media (especially in Britain) seems to prefer to avoid in the life of Mrs. Thatcher: her faith in God.
Margaret Thatcher was born on Oct. 13, 1925, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She never turned her back on the faith. In a country now sadly known more for atheist missionaries like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins rather than names like G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and where an atheist politician is easily re-elected, Thatcher was never afraid to articulate and defend her faith.
To that end, Thatcher delivered a remarkable May 1988 address to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, where she stated: “What, then, are the distinctive marks of Christianity? They stem not from the social, but from the spiritual side of our lives.”
She then identified three particular beliefs: “First, that from the beginning, man has been endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil. And, second, that we were made in God’s own image, and, therefore, we are expected to use all our own power of thought and judgment in exercising that choice; and, further, that if we open our hearts to God, he has promised to work within us. And, third, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when faced with his terrible choice and lonely vigil, chose to lay down his life, that our sins may be forgiven.”
No Catholic would disagree with that statement.
Most notable about Thatcher’s statement was how badly it was needed at the time. Britain was already far down the road of atheism. The leader of Thatcher’s main opposition in Parliament, Neil Kinnock of the Labour Party, who was first in line to replace her, was a proud atheist.
Thatcher said more in the speech, including much that is both timely and timeless. She defended religious liberty and urged that “no majority can take away God-given human rights.” She insisted to Britons that prayer had a place in public schools.
Perhaps most important, just as the British people continued their rapid slide toward a voluntary de-Christianization, Thatcher called the Christian faith “a fundamental part of our national heritage. And I believe it is the wish of the overwhelming majority of people that this heritage should be preserved and fostered.”
In this, she was in complete agreement with Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II. They feared the rapid de-Christianization of not just Britain, but the entire continent. Thatcher’s line about the importance of Brits not neglecting their religious heritage is identical to John Paul II’s warnings to Europeans to be mindful of their religious heritage during the battle over whether to include God in the European Union’s constitution. But she departed with her Vatican collaborator in her approval of abortion rights "under controlled conditions" and in “the very, very early days.” (To her credit, she said that abortion as a form of birth control was “abhorrent.”)
And what of Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with John Paul II? It was one of profound admiration.
She would call John Paul II “the greatest pope of modern times” and “a valiant fighter for the truth,” whose “life was a long struggle against the lies employed to excuse evil.”
“By combating the falsehoods of communism and proclaiming the true dignity of the individual,” said Thatcher, “his was the moral force behind victory in the Cold War. Millions owe him their freedom and self-respect. The whole world is inspired by his example.”
The two first met in 1980, when Thatcher was in Rome for a summit. As noted by John O’Sullivan, one of her advisers and biographers, Thatcher was “greatly impressed” with the Holy Father, especially his strong condemnation of terrorism in Ireland.
Ironically, four years later, on Oct. 12, 1984, Thatcher was nearly the victim of an IRA-placed bomb intended to kill her. She escaped just in time. The bomb exploded and killed five people and wounded many more, including a close friend.
That meant that Thatcher, like John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, had survived an assassination attempt. When O’Sullivan asked Thatcher if she believed, as did the pope and the president, that God had intervened to spare her life, Thatcher interestingly gave a quick and simple, “No.”
O’Sullivan speculated that Thatcher had several possible reasons for that response. Among them, “she thought more in terms of trying to do what the God of her (much underlined) Methodism catechism wanted, rather than in terms of God having a special purpose for her.” But maybe more than that, O’Sullivan noted a “personal factor” in the prime minister’s thinking: Several of her close friends and advisers had been murdered by the IRA. That alone perhaps deterred her from dwelling on whether she had been uniquely spared by the hand of Providence. Whatever the reason, she, unlike the Holy Father and President Reagan, was “not vividly aware” that God had intervened to rescue her for a special purpose.
That’s well enough — and humble. But, as for the rest of us, forgive us, Lady Thatcher, if we saw the hand of Providence in that particular moment and throughout your extraordinary life.
Margaret Thatcher, requiescat in pace.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College.
His books include: The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism,
The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand and, most recently, The Communist.