Three avowed Christians are now competing to be leader of the Conservative Party, a post that will confer on the winner the title prime minister – without the inconvenience of a mandate from the electorate. Whoever wins, the same avowed Christians might soon occupy three of the four great offices of state. What price Leadsom for chancellor and Gove for foreign secretary (with that poor boy from the valleys, Stephen Crabb, at the Home Office) in a government led by May?
As long as David Cameron was around – how quickly he has become the invisible man of Downing Street – you could more or less discount Christian faith as a motivating influence. Cameron once amusingly compared his own faith to the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: 'It comes and goes’.
For the three contenders to succeed him, there are no signal problems: reception is loud and clear. All three have spoken recently of the centrality of Christianity in their lives.
The front-runner, Theresa May, is the daughter of a vicar. In Scotland, the daughters of ministers tended in the past to enjoy a reputation as wild girls (I don’t know if that is still true). Not so in the Anglican tradition, it seems. Theresa was always a serious person (though ‘bloody difficult’ according to old beetroot face). On Desert Island Discs, she chose hymns as two of her eight favourite pieces of music and spoke of how faith guides her: 'It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things’.
Michael Gove has gone further and acknowledged that faith informs his policies as a minister. He has said that his liberal approach to prison reform, for example, springs directly from his belief in redemption. He has also eloquently articulated the difficulty of being a Christian in a secular world. Last year, in a long article in the Spectator magazine entitled 'In Defence of Christianity’, he wrote: 'I suggest that one of the reasons why any suggestion of religious belief – let alone motivation – on the part of people in public life excites suspicion and antipathy is the assumption that those with faith consider themselves sanctified and superior compared with others’.
Andrea Leadsom, the candidate from nowhere, has been eager to establish her religious credentials: 'I am a very committed Christian. I think my values and everything I do is driven by that. It’s very important to me. I actually study the Bible in Parliament...I do pray – all the time – mostly for support and doing the right thing’. The grammar may be a little dodgy, but there is no doubting the strength of the sentiment.
Should we be reassured that three people of such overtly Christian principles are soon to inherit the toughest political agenda of modern times: extracting us from Europe, lifting the economy from the floor, saving the union, and healing the bitter divisions – of age, class, education, wealth and ethnicity – exposed by the referendum?
The answer is not overwhelmingly positive. We are still a long way from the evangelical fervour that corrodes American politics. But there is so much wrong, fundamentally wrong, in Britain after the bruising experiences of the last three months that one can easily see God as minister without portfolio in a May administration.
And here the precedents are unhelpful. We will surely be reminded in the next few days of how Tony Blair, preparing for the invasion of Iraq, drew strength from Christian devotion. Did he and Bush really kneel down and pray together – or was that simply a fancy of Jeremy Paxman? No matter. Perception is all. The disconcerting image lingers.
But for a still more discouraging precedent, I go back to the famous Sermon on the Mound (May 1988), in which Margaret Thatcher, addressing the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, invoked the tenets of the New Testament as a justification for her political philosophy. The speech was an overnight sensation, endlessly debated in the newspapers.
Curiously, though, it never got a considered response from the Kirk itself. Anxious to obtain one, about a year later I went to St Andrews for a long chat with one of Scotland’s most distinguished theologians, James Whyte, who happened to be the moderator of the General Assembly and had the privilege – if that’s the word – of introducing the prime minister.
We went straight to the point: the aphorism, 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat’, which she cited as the inspiration for her thinking on the nature of individual responsibility.
'It’s the most extraordinary reading of scripture’, Whyte said at once.
'Tell me how’.
'It comes out of a totally different context from ours. St Paul was dealing with a situation where people lay around and did nothing because they thought the end of the world was coming. Paul said, "Look, you can’t go on living like that. If you’re not going to work you’re going to starve”. A totally different situation’.
Is it still a totally different situation? The world will go on with or without us. But there is a sense in which something has ended: you can feel it in the loss of shared values; you could feel it acutely on the day of Jo Cox’s murder. I’m guessing that in many workplaces and homes, the 'campaign’ (as it was jauntily called) has left a sense of unease, even foreboding, and a profound regret, that none of us has experienced for a long time, if ever.
The aphorism itself is of limited utility to the life of late 20th/early 21st century man. I don’t imagine it was a great deal of comfort to the shipyard workers of Greenock, or the steelmen of Motherwell, or the miners of Ayrshire, all of whom learned that there was no inevitable connection between a desire to work and a pay packet at the end of the week. Nor do I imagine it is a great deal of comfort to the small business owner quoted in the Guardian who, ever since the referendum result, has been waiting in vain for her usual orders; it got so bad that, after a few days of nothing, she had the telephone checked to confirm that it was not out of order. How many thousands like her are out there, silently suffering as our masters prance and posture?
To these people, to all of us, Andrea Leadsom, a rich banker, advises: 'Get a grip’. Yes, that is how she put it. We are to 'get a grip’. She didn’t tell us what to hang on to – the edge of the cliff, maybe? No doubt Ms Leadsom would prefer us to pray.
That minister without portfolio in Theresa May’s administration will have His work cut out.