Editor’s Note: The “Author Q&A” is an e-publication from the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an author of an intriguing new book that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In this latest edition, we sit down with Dr. Gary Scott Smith to discuss his new book, “Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill,” which is available as a print book, a Kindle book, and an audible book narrated by Richard Perry Turner.
IFF: You have just published “Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill” as part of a series of religious biographies issued by Eerdmans. What prompted you to write this book?
Smith: The faith of Winston Churchill, arguably the most important person in 20th-century world history, has largely been ignored or misconstrued. Let’s talk first about his significance.
Churchill is frequently credited with almost single-handedly slaying the dragon of totalitarianism and with saving Western civilization from the diabolical plans of Adolf Hitler. As the British journal the Spectator succinctly stated when he died in 1965, “we are a free people” because of Churchill. Churchill’s stirring addresses lifted the morale of the British people and steeled their determination to withstand Nazi bombing blitzes and fight valiantly in the face of tremendous odds. The entire free world is indebted to his indomitable courage and brilliant strategy. After World War II ended, Churchill denounced dictators, most notably in his “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, and helped strengthen the West’s resolve to resist the spread of communism and to assert the moral and spiritual superiority of democracy.
IFF: Tell us more about his fascinating life.
Smith: Churchill’s gifts, interests, and accomplishments are very impressive. He was the closest thing to a Renaissance man in his age: a courageous soldier, talented artist, exceptional journalist, best-selling historian, spellbinding orator, and renowned statesman. He has also been depicted as an adventurer, internationalist, Zionist, imperialist, big-game hunter, spy, and sportsman. Often dictating 8,000 words a day to a secretary, Churchill wrote more than 800 articles for magazines and newspapers, three short stories, 150 pamphlets, a movie script, and 50 books, including a novel, two biographies, three memoirs, and numerous historical surveys. He even won the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature.
IFF: What political positions did Churchill hold?
Smith: Churchill was first elected to Parliament in 1901 and spent 62 years as a member, the second-longest tenure in British history. He held numerous cabinet posts, including home secretary and first lord of the Admiralty. As the political head of the Royal Navy when World War I erupted in 1914, Churchill was thrust upon the world stage. The failure of Anglo-French forces at Gallipoli in 1915, his decision as chancellor of the exchequer to return Britain to the gold standard in 1925 (which was a financial disaster), and his opposition to limited self-government for India discredited him. As a result, by 1931 the possibility of his again holding a high political office seemed very unlikely.
IFF: What brought about his political resurrection?
Smith: Churchill’s strident opposition to Nazism during his wilderness years (1931–1939), his military experience, and his personal traits led members of Parliament to appoint him prime minister in May 1940 when they lost confidence in Neville Chamberlain. Despite his heroic leadership during the war, Churchill shockingly lost a general election in July 1945 and was replaced as prime minister. However, he served again as Britain’s leader from 1951 until 1955.
IFF: What recognition has Churchill received?
Smith: In a 2002 BBC poll, Churchill was named the greatest Briton of all time, beating out William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin. His life has been the subject of numerous movies and television shows, including the BBC’s series The Crown, which began in 2016, and the motion picture Darkest Hour (2017). Public fascination with Churchill’s exploits and legacy is almost insatiable.
IFF: Tell us about Churchill’s religious views.
Smith: In making a case that the United States should put an “unapologetic atheist in the Oval Office,” Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, recently used Churchill as his prime exhibit. Boot argued that Churchill illustrates “how righteously a nonbeliever can act.” Citing biographer Andrew Roberts, Boot insisted that Churchill “was a nominal Anglican” who “had no belief in God,” adding, “If atheism was good enough for Britain’s greatest prime minister, it should be good enough for a U.S. president.” But what Churchill actually believed is much more complicated and disputed than what Boot suggests.
IFF: How has Churchill’s faith been portrayed?
Smith: Most biographers have paid scant attention to the role religion played in any aspect of Churchill’s life—his upbringing, military service, work as a journalist and author, or political career. When scholars and popular writers have discussed Churchill’s religion, they have presented him in very different ways—as a traditional Anglican, a conventional Christian, a “God-haunted man,” a deist, a secularist, a skeptic, a “stalwart nonbeliever,” an agnostic, “a lifelong freethinker,” a “critic of organized religion” who possessed a “somewhat murky” religious faith, a proponent of the “Religion of Health-Mindedness,” and even a potential convert to Islam.
IFF: How would you summarize Churchill’s religious beliefs and practices?
Smith: Churchill was not religiously devout or personally pious. At no time in his adult life did he attend church services regularly; he visited cathedrals primarily in connection with state occasions and rites of passage—baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Despite intellectual doubts about Christianity that persisted throughout his life, Churchill valued the Christian faith and frequently drew on its resources, especially when facing personal and political trials and troubles.
IFF: What role did religion play in Churchill’s leadership during World War II?
Smith: After he became prime minister in 1940, Churchill’s use of religious rhetoric increased substantially. Many of Churchill’s most memorable wartime speeches are laced with biblical terminology and references to God. Like his ally and friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill framed the struggle against Nazism in scriptural terms. Some authors suggest that he did so because the urgency and bleakness of Britain’s situation evoked a deeper faith within him, whereas others insist that he was simply using language that many Britons expected, understood, and found motivating and comforting.
IFF: Please give us a final assessment of Churchill’s faith.
Smith: In the final analysis, Churchill’s faith is an enigma. Like most people, he professed stronger faith at some times (typically in periods of distress and danger) than at others. Churchill clearly believed that he was destined to make a difference in the world, and he often attributed this to God’s direction. The story of Churchill’s faith, like that of his life, is complex, colorful, and compelling.
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