Winston Churchill—History, Destiny, Biography: A Conversation with Andrew Roberts

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I am Albert Mohler, your host, and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Andrew Roberts is one of the best-known biographers and historians writing in the English speaking world today. He’s the Roger and Martha Mertz Visiting Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has served in so many other capacities on both sides of the Atlantic. One of his more recent books includes a magisterial biography of Napoleon titled Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West. But today we’re going to talk about his most recent work, his massive biography of Winston Churchill, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Andrew Roberts, welcoming to Thinking in Public. Mr. Roberts, when you’re thinking about Winston Churchill, you’re talking about an individual of whom I think by your own count there are now at least 1,010 biographies. What kind of determination does it take to write the 1,010th?

Andrew Roberts: That’s a very good question. I don’t know whether determination is probably the best word or hubris perhaps might be another adjective for what I’ve done. It took four years, but in a sense, I’ve been writing about Winston Churchill for thirty years since my first book was about something to do with him, and five of my books have had him in the title or the subtitle. So I did feel that it was the right time, really, for me to tackle this completely enormous subject, and I did it regardless, really, of all the other books that have been written about him.

Albert Mohler: Regardless of all the others, you might say, but your own. Many of us have been hoping you would write this kind of biography, especially after, and by the way, I’ve read all your books going all the way back to your work on Lord Halifax. But especially after your magisterial biography of Napoleon. Many of us had hoped you would do the same for Churchill with whom you’ve been walking as a historian and biographer for a very long time already.

Andrew Roberts: Thirty years. And the great thing … And that includes writing several hundred reviews and articles about him and reviews, of course, of books about him. So I did feel that I was as well placed to write this book as pretty much anyone. And so I decided to dedicate the last four years to it. And it’s been a wonderful, wonderful journey with him. It’s so, apart from anything else, he’s so funny. I’m glad you enjoyed this book. I think one of the fun parts of it is the number of jokes that he made. There were literally hundreds in this book, and all of them are sort of witty and amusing. It helps it along very much. You don’t get that when you’re writing about Adolf Hitler or any of the Nazis, in fact.

Albert Mohler: Winston Churchill’s been something of a constant companion in my life since I was at least thirteen. And in my own library, I have over seven hundred volumes of… by and about Churchill. I’m kind of a hard sell on something new, and I mean this as no flattery, but I think yours is the best one-volume works on Churchill yet to be published. Partly, as I think we’ll discuss, because of the source material that you so skillfully used. Part of it because you are one of the rarest of biographers and historians who can actually tell a story well, and that ability to narrate is important. But I felt something else in this. And, I felt it a bit in Napoleon, and in your other previous works as well. I want to ask you to what extent does having sympathy, some kind of real sense of connection to the subject of a biography like this matter?

Andrew Roberts: That’s a very good question as well. I think it does matter enormously. I have written about people I don’t like. Hitler, of course, being a classic example. But also I never really warmed to Lord Mountbatten either in my book Eminent Churchillians, and it does stymie one somewhat if you don’t sort of dream about what you’d say if you met him, and things like that. I agree with you. I think that a sense of empathy is an important element in the biography. And, also a biography should not be “dry as dust” academic stuff either. It should be literature as well. An author should aspire to make the reader enjoy the process of reading almost as much as the process of learning about what he’s reading about. Seven hundred books, eh. Well, that is quite something. I’ve certainly got seven hundred books on Churchill but my wife keeps telling me that if I’m not writing about Churchill next, I’m going to have to clear them all out of my study. They’re piled up at the moment in every available inch of my study. I don’t know where you keep yours but I need a new library.

Albert Mohler: Well, I understand and sympathize with the problem, but I would just offer the advice that you better keep writing on Churchill because you don’t want to let go of any of that material.

Andrew Roberts: I’m thinking of actually writing a biography, my next book on his great ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. I know that he’s not heard of very much in the States, and that’s one of the reasons my publishers are a little bit wary of it, but nonetheless, I think the first Churchill might be a title that American readers would like. What do you think?

Albert Mohler: I would encourage it. Especially with that title, The First Churchill. Oddly, and kind of sadly enough, there’s a ridiculous major motion picture right now in the United States about Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill. In an unfortunate way perhaps there will be some Americans more aware of his historical existence, and then you can come along and write a magisterial biography to make it matter.

Andrew Roberts: Thank you. I haven’t seen that movie. I better watch it, I suppose. I do hope it’s not too cringe-making.

Albert Mohler: Well, I’m not going to offer any assurance against cringe-making but, then again, that can be an impetus for correcting the record as well. When it comes to Churchill, one of the most interesting realizations I had in your book, and you drive this through very successfully through 982 pages. The subtitle of your book is, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. You really consistently, and effectively, drive that theme of destiny through the entire work. I think that’s going to make Churchill more explicable to many people, and at the same time perhaps not because I think we’re a generation that, especially in secular terms, just doesn’t think of any such power as destiny at all. But Churchill believed in it absolutely.

Andrew Roberts: You’re right. Yes, it is something that separates us really from the people in the 1920s or 30s or indeed much earlier than that because, of course, Winston Churchill conceived of his own destiny when he was still a schoolboy at Harrow in 1891. Today a belief in one’s personal destiny would, I think, be considered by a lot of people as sort of prima facie case for a psychological disorder. And so, things have altered a lot, and as I think you were hinting at when you said secular, this is largely due to the secularization of society. There was nothing wrong with thinking about destiny when we had a much more confessional society. So, it is absolutely epicentral to understanding anything about Winston Churchill, and certainly his drive. From that moment, when he was a schoolboy at age 16, when he told his great friend Merlin Evans, “There shall be great upheavals in our lives. There shall be terrible struggles, and I shall be called upon to save London, and save the country.” That is something that he truly believed about himself throughout his life, and of course fifty years later it came true in every possible respect. But, what really drove him on to consider it more and more as being his sort of driving theme of his life really, was all the number of close brushes with death that he came upon. You’ll sort of count them up. They are quite an extraordinary number, even in peak time, of moments when he nearly died of pneumonia, or he nearly died in a house fire, or nearly died when he nearly drowned on Lake Geneva, two plane crashes, four car crashes, you know. It was a pretty… and that was just his time when he wasn’t actually fighting on four continents in five campaigns.

Albert Mohler: And, he really started out that way. Born in Blenheim Palace to be sure about six weeks premature at a time when being born six weeks premature was often the cause of death rather than the beginning of life. He struggled from the beginning.

Andrew Roberts: Absolutely. Yeah, and getting stabbed in the stomach with a penknife when he was ten. Nearly dying of pneumonia at prep school when he was eleven. The sheer number… knocking himself out for a week after jumping off a bridge and falling 30 feet. The number of times that he… largely through his own fault, you know? I mean there were accidents that he could have avoided (a lot of them). But, nonetheless, that’s part and parcel for Winston Churchill. And, as a result, he had the sense that there in his view, in his words invisible wings beating over me. That the Almighty actually had a plan for him. Though if you look theologically closely into Churchill’s religious beliefs, the primary duty of the Almighty seems to have been to have taken care of Winston Churchill.

Albert Mohler: Yes, and I want to talk more about that in just a moment. But looking at this theme of bravery. His sense of destiny. He was a reckless man. He was a reckless soldier, and you credit that to his courage. It is interesting that of all the figures there in the middle of the twentieth century. To take World War II, there’s not a lot of demonstration of physical courage from Joseph Stalin. Churchill considered Roosevelt courageous simply because of his battle against polio and paralysis. But, it was Churchill who from the time he was a very young man ran as fast as he could into every battle he could attend.

Andrew Roberts: That’s right, and you’re right about Stalin. Stalin refused to leave the Soviet Union at any stage apart from the Teheran Conference. Of course, FDR was profoundly disabled, and so it was impressive of him to get all the way to Yalta and Cairo a couple of times, and the Teheran Conference and so on. But, it really took Winston Churchill to be the glue to keep the big three together. He visited FDR several times, six times crossing the Atlantic—and that was crossing the Atlantic full of U-boats. Also, when he flew over his plane got hit by lightning on the way back. The instrumentation… if that had gone down, he’d have been a goner. He flew within the radius of the Luftwaffe on many occasions when he was going off to Cairo and further points east. It’s an extraordinary story of raw physical courage. I don’t believe that it’s fair to say that he was reckless. He certainly wanted to make a name for himself as a young man, get medals and things like that. Part of the reason for that was that he had no money because of his spendthrift parents, and so in order to woo a constituency which he, of course, needed to do to get into Parliament, which was his ultimate dream and mission. He needed to get fame, and he found that on the battlefield.

Albert Mohler: In one line in your book, you write that few have set out with more cold-blooded deliberation to become first a hero and then a great man. And, Churchill did both in the sequence he laid out.

Andrew Roberts: Yes, some people don’t like the cold-bloodedness. I’ve had some readers say that that sheer sort of drive to draw attention to himself and to get medals, and the sort of bumptiousness that he exhibited as a young man was something that had turned them off him. It doesn’t do that to me not just ’cause I’ve been accused of being bumptious myself frankly so I don’t mind. I don’t hold it as a cardinal sin. But, nonetheless, I can understand this sense that he had. That he was young, but all his family died young. His father died at 45. He had three uncles who died in infancy. Another three aunts who died in their fifties. He really thought that he desperately needed to get on in life as soon as possible if he was going to do what he wanted to do, which was to vindicate his father’s political memory.

Albert Mohler: Yes, and you know, when I read cold-blooded there, even when reading it aloud, I didn’t read it in a sinister way. I read it in more of a way of understanding the role he thought he had to play in history, and his readiness to get about it.

Andrew Roberts: Yeah, we’re back to the destiny concept then.

Albert Mohler: I think one of the other achievements of your book is more melancholy, heartrending, and I knew the contours of the story, of course. Of Churchill and his parents, I’d even looked at a lot of the material in the archives. I’ve read a lot of the letters. The poignancy there. I think you, perhaps, more than any other modern biographer have really unpacked the relationship between Winston and Sir Randolph Churchill, his father. And, one of the greatest lines in your book is where I think you’re quoting Violet Bonham Carter who said that Churchill worshiped at the altar of his unknown father. That’s one of the most heartbreaking lines I know from any modern biography.

Andrew Roberts: Yes, it is rather moving, isn’t it? The whole question of how his father, who was a very successful politician in his day. He was of the most famous men in Victorian England. Chancellor of the Exchequer, of course. Really just ignored or just felt disdain for his son. Didn’t spot any of the latent genius in his son whatsoever, and wrote the most vicious letters to him. And, yet instead of hating his father, Winston Churchill worshiped him. Especially, after he died at the age of 45 in 1895. He had this sense of seeking out his father’s friends to hear antidotes about his father, writing his father’s two-volume biography, adopting his father’s political stance, and indeed his physical stance on occasion—he called his own son Randolph. Then there’s that amazing moment in 1947 where he meets the ghost of his father and they converse. He writes a short story about the discussion they had. And, at no point did Winston Churchill tell his father that he’d been instrumental in helping win the second World War. So at the end of the… as the ghost leaves and just sort of walks away in cigar smoke, he still thinks that his son Winston Churchill had not been a success in life.

Albert Mohler: Yes, it’s heartbreaking. As a son, and as a father.

Andrew Roberts: Absolutely, yes. Precisely, on both levels, you think that this man; one of the drives of Winston Churchill was the attempt to get the love and affirmation of his long-dead father.

Albert Mohler: One of the other achievements of your biography I think, as compared to many others, and in this respect I think only Roy Jenkins kind of comes close, and he, of long service in parliament himself, I think you get the politics, and by reading the book, I think your reader is taken into actually hundreds of pages of British political history that begins to come alive. I think the mechanism by which you do that successfully is that—of course, the central character is your concern for Churchill—but you really deal with the ideas, and as someone who’s very keen for intellectual history, I really appreciated the fact you dealt with the ideas. That makes the politics make sense in a way that other biographers simply do not achieve. They make Churchill look merely erratic, or opportunistic. You’re skillful at demonstrating, he was actually dodging and maneuvering in some of the most interesting years and decades of British politics, especially in Parliament.

Andrew Roberts: And, also, I hope what I also manage to get over to the reader is that it was the parties that moved away from him, rather than him who was moving away from the parties. When the Conservatives ditched free trade, which was, of course, the ultimate reason why Britain had done so well in the second half of the nineteenth century. Really, ever since the Industrial Revolution. He couldn’t stay there, and it was an act of principle to have left. Then when they readopted free trade when he was out of office in the early 1920s, and he had fallen out with the principles of the Liberal Party, he felt able to go back into the Conservatives. Now, of course, it was presented as ratting and re-ratting and being entirely unprincipled by crossing the floors of the House of Commons. But, on both occasions, it struck me that it was he who had stuck to his principles and his parties that hadn’t.

Albert Mohler: Yes, and of course, all interwoven in that is the entire changing position of Britain. The expansion and then ultimately the contraction of the British Empire, which were huge issues. Then, the beginnings of the modern welfare state. Questions about the enfranchisement for the vote for women. There was just massive, massive questions. You demonstrate a continuity. If we could draw the line from Benjamin Disraeli to Churchill’s father, Randolph Churchill, and Churchill’s understanding of what it meant to be kind of a Tory Democrat, and there is a consistency there. I think Americans especially get confused here because when Americans in the twenty-first century see the Tory party or the Conservative party, and then the Liberal party. Those look like polarities, which in British politics they certainly were not. Missing is the fact that the coming thing in the twentieth century is the Labor party, the Socialist party, of which Churchill never had any kind of affinity. I think you’ve got to set that out or Americans, especially, are going to end up understanding an erratic political career that wasn’t really erratic at all.

Andrew Roberts: No, exactly. The opposition to Socialism was something that was absolutely central to him, and, which he stuck to religiously throughout his life. And, of course, when communism raised its head as well, he was the first, and most vociferous anti-communist in the United Kingdom, and wanted to intervene in the Russian civil war to try to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle, as he put it. But he also opposed Socialism very resolutely. He thought that it was the gospel of envy in his words. So you can see very much a straight line really through his politics, but as I say, his parties, and he thought that his principles were more important than his party. I think that’s something to be admired.

Albert Mohler: Now, when we look at the big picture. You mention, and I think you make the case conclusively, that in the three big challenges of his lifetime. It was Churchill who understood them clearly and confronted them bravely. Those three challenges being Prussian Militancy that led to World War I, the threat of Nazism that led to World War II, and the threat of the USSR, of Soviet Communism that led to the Cold War. Not only did he perceive rightly the moral nature and the world threat of each of those three movements, but in so many ways he stood alone. Certainly alone in all three, but at some time he was alone in every one of them as having an influence in British politics.

Andrew Roberts: That’s right, and as a result, he got an enormous amount of oblique. He was shouted down in the House of Commons; he was attacked in the newspapers; he was ridiculed. The Conservative party at one point tried to take away his seat from him in the 1930s. When he denounced Soviet Communism and Stalinism, and the Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri, in March of 1946, He was subjected to all sorts of criticism and accusations of being a warmonger and so on. And, also, of course, he was nearly flung out of the cabinet before the first World War for demanding that Britain have a Navy that was able to protect itself from the Kaiser. So, what you see in each of those three occasions is tremendous moral courage. We’ve talked already about his physical courage. But, physical and moral courage don’t always align in individuals, but they sure did in Winston Churchill.

Albert Mohler: The Victorians in England had a way of describing a massive man on the world scene as a man apart. That was a man, a single individual, who had so many different dimensions of life. He had more than one ability. He had more than one area of expertise. That was the character of many people during the Victorian Age. But none to the extent of Winston Spencer Churchill. When you’re looking at Winston Churchill, you are looking at the ultimate man of parts. How do you discuss him? Do you discuss him as a historian, as rhetorician? Do you describe him as Parliamentarian, or later as Prime Minister? Do you describe him as twice, first Lord of the Admiralty? Do you describe him as a soldier? Do you describe him as a student? Do you describe him as an author? Eventually, he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was an artist. He was, of course, one of the most consequential figures on the world scene in any age, but particularly looming large, the largest over the twentieth century. You can just imagine the challenge of trying to reduce Winston Churchill to a book. Any book. Even a massive book. There have been some very pointed modern criticisms of Churchill, and some of these handled very recklessly in the United States. An unfortunate twitter exchange with an astronaut of all things that I think you know of, where-

Andrew Roberts: His name is Scott Kelly. Yes.

Albert Mohler: Yes. He said something of a tribute to Churchill, and the next thing you know he discovered on Twitter that Churchill was accused of genocide, and threatening the use of poisonous gas, and on and on and on. Kelly just basically backed down and said he apologized because he didn’t realize what an evil creature Winston Churchill was. It’s the worst kind of historical argument carried out in the worst kind of way.

Andrew Roberts: And, also with Ambassador… He’s the UN Ambassador to Space, Scott Kelly. You might think that only the United Nations would send an Ambassador to a place that has no people and no government.

Albert Mohler: And to which the United Nations has no power to send anyone, I will simply note.

Andrew Roberts: Exactly. Precisely. But anyway, Mr. Kelly who all he did at the beginning was tweet three words, which was “In Victory, Magnanimity”, which came, of course from Churchill’s war memoirs. Then, he backed down without any attempt to educate himself about the truth of these allegations. Let’s go into a couple of the ones that you’ve mentioned. For example, the gassing of the Iraqi tribesman. When you actually go to Churchill College Cambridge and look at the letter itself that he sent. He actually talks about lachrymatory gas i.e. tear gas. He wasn’t talking about phosgene gas, or mustard gas, or chlorine gas, or anything lethal. When people talk about this so-called genocide, actually what happened in Bengal, he tried to alleviate it as much as he possibly could, but there was a war going on, and the Japanese controlled Burma, and Malaya, and Thailand, and all the places where one used to buy from in order to alleviate the famine. So, I’m afraid Scott Kelly, in my view, the space that he really needs to concentrate on is the one between his ears.

Albert Mohler: Well, that is an indication of the vacuity as much as this conversation, and of course, there is every effort being made right now to try every individual in the courts of public opinion of 2018. And, Churchill having had such a long massive lifetime. Almost all of it lived out in the public square, and most of it lived out in office, or at least in Parliament, and writing about such things. There’s no way that Winston Churchill escapes the modern judgment by the fact that he spoke his mind about everything all the time for almost a century, you might say. And, certainly on issues of race, on issues of empire. I mean, when I’m asked to explain this I usually just say, “Look, you’re talking about a man who committed himself to the British Empire as he thought the greatest force for good on planet earth, and with empire comes empire.”

Andrew Roberts: That’s right. And, also, I think it’s important with regard to race because, of course, he has also been accused of racism. It’s absolutely essential as a historian to see these things in their proper historical context. Ludicrous and obscene that we see it today, people in the Darwinian world, and he was still at school when Darwin was alive, did see race as a hierarchy with the white people at the top. It was considered scientific fact in those days. The fact that Winston Churchill adhered to what was considered scientific fact, however much we know it was wrong, he really can’t be blamed for it any more than you can blame Oliver Cromwell for not supporting socialized medicine, or something along those lines, you know? We mustn’t succumb to chronological chauvinism.

Albert Mohler: But, it comes quite naturally. I think that’s the first instinct especially in American College and University campuses right now. Is that chronological snobbery, or chauvinism, because there is no one who can now be recognized. There is no apparatus on the part of the society at large right now to recognize historical greatness without historical faultlessness, which is, of course, ridiculous. I think that’s a big problem.

Andrew Roberts: I agree. You see it also a great deal with regard to the memorializing or at least the sort of public imagination when it comes to the Empire and Colonialism because what is being squeezed out is the concept which Churchill dedicated his life to. And, of course, he started trying to protect the Empire as a young subaltern up in the northwest frontier, of paternalist imperialism. Where the reason you were there was to try and improve the loss of the native peoples of the Empire, and I believe that for ninety percent of the history of the British Empire and ninety percent of the places, the native peoples were better off than if the British had not been there. You try to argue that in the academy today, and you get shouted down, and you get Twitter trolling, and all of that kind of thing.

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Andrew Roberts: But the fact is, it is literally true, and also, it’s essential to understand that concept of the paternalist imperialism if you’re going to understand Winston Churchill. And, of course, you know I’m writing about him, and I want people to understand him.

Albert Mohler: Well, and you help that because Churchill spoke to such things, contemporaneously. You’ve got Churchill speaking of India in particular, and the Suttee, the ritual burning of widows, the end of… as he said, “Marrying girls before puberty.” Understandings of public health and sanitation.

Andrew Roberts: But isn’t today, Dr. Mohler, isn’t that considered unacceptable Western involvement in sort of native people’s culture.

Albert Mohler: It is. It is.

Andrew Roberts: And these other disgusting practices.

Albert Mohler: No, it is, but it isn’t. Without going into detail amongst the American literati and the cultural elite. They’re against making all moral judgments— totally— except their own. And, when it comes to such things as the marriage of young girls, their new morality is merely a morality of consent. They’re not old enough to give consent. It’s a mess. But, your point is sustained, and that is that there’s a mixed verdict on everything in history. I’m an Augustinian Christian. I expect to see a mixed verdict on everything in history. That’s not to say, that we should not be thankful for more good than evil. Far more good than evil, I believe, in the influence of the British Empire during the ages of its greatest expansion.

Andrew Roberts: Yes, and you know, when you look at these things such as the incorrupt bureaucracy that we had there. The way in which the railway network was spread across the continent in a way that it wasn’t seen elsewhere in the world apart from the United States. The way in which we created Universities and we had the English language which, of course, has become the lingua franca of the world. We created an internal free trade area that was massive. We protected the oceans, and therefore allowed Indian products to cross the oceans. We made sure that the French, and German, and Spanish, and Portuguese, and Russians, who would have loved to have moved into India instead. And, indeed, of course, the Japanese as well during the Second World War, and protected them from all of those much more vicious, much less paternalist Imperial forces. There is sense therefore that just to denounce that, and to treat all of that, given the longest period of internal peace in Indian history, encouraging… In fact, putting the amounts of land under cultivation, increasing that by eight times, and increasing life expectancy by 100%. All of those things, really, should be put in a completely different kind of box than the kind of Imperialism that was being practiced by certainly the Fascist powers, of course. Yet it isn’t. In the academy constantly British Imperialism is treated as exactly the same sort of beast as Nazi, Italian, Japanese Imperialism, which is monstrous.

Albert Mohler: Well, especially when you just ask the simple question in 2018 would you rather live in a former Italian colony or a former British colony? That’s a very easy answer to give.

Andrew Roberts: Or a former French colony, or a former German colony, frankly, as well.

Albert Mohler: Indeed, and, the list could go on.

Andrew Roberts: A lot of my European neighbors have not got something to boast about the Belgians in Africa for example. It was absolutely monstrous what was happening there. Yet, to equate that in the general overall term of Imperialism with what Britain was achieving in India, for example, is just classically driven by politics rather than by the facts, and the evidence on the ground.

Albert Mohler: There are two other big issues I want to ask you about. One you referenced earlier, and that’s Churchill and religion. As a theologian, I’m looking for care here. Careful distinctions, and I think you provide that especially early in the book when you describe Churchill and religion. I want to ask you in your own words to speak to this, but Churchill referred to himself as an external buttress for the church rather than an internal support. My argument would be in the main that he accepted the total structures of the Christian worldview, but never operated as a confessional Christian.

Andrew Roberts: That’s right, exactly. You’ve got it right. He thought that the Sermon on the Mount was as he put it, “the last word in ethics.” He admired… He used the phrase savior once, but otherwise, in the 5.2 million words that he wrote and the 6.1 million words that he spoke, he never uttered the words, Jesus Christ. So, one can’t… He didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ. However, he did believe in the splendor and the glory of everything that Christ said and did. It was, unfortunately for Anglicans like me, and he was an Anglican as well, you can’t actually get Churchill and Christianity together. But, he did have a sense of Almighty, as we mentioned earlier. Also, a sense of what he called in his autobiography, Religion of Healthy-Mindedness, which consisted of taking care of the poor and the weak, and lots of other things that of course the Sermon on the Mount also covers. So, although he wasn’t an actual Christian, he did subscribe to the ethics of Christianity which is, you know, you’re halfway there really, aren’t you?

Albert Mohler: Well, I want to speak carefully here. The only clarification I would want to press on you, or with you here, is that I really found no evidence that Churchill denied the deity of Christ. I found no evidence where he affirmed it, but there are some odd things, such as in his writings where he defends Mosaic authorship of a Pentateuch, which seems a very odd argument for Winston Churchill to make. But, it seemed to me that in the main, he was quite happy with the facts of Christianity, but not the confession of Christianity. As a theologian, that’s an important distinction, but I think sort of like Lincoln and the American scene. Churchill had this sense of divine providence, which was a moral providence. He believed divine providence ruled in history. Lincoln was very clear about this, and Churchill in his own way as well. It’s a situation, which I want to make sure Christians never over-claim a character such as Churchill. That would be to our embarrassment. But you can’t explain Churchill without the culture influenced by Christianity of which he was the very apex.

Andrew Roberts: Yes, that’s right, and I think you’ve got him exactly. There was a cabinet meeting in which he was talking about “the old man.” The people in the meeting asked each other, “What old man is he talking about?” And, it turned out it was the Almighty. So, he did have this sense of the Almighty. Luckily, the Almighty, as I say, “took care of Winston Churchill,” was a positive force, gave the world its ethics, and during the Second World War, he very much did see the struggle as one of good versus evil. And, the Almighty was on the side of good. In that sense, the Manichean side of theology and religion, he was definitely a believer. What he just simply wasn’t, and this was due to Winwood Reade, who wrote The Martyrdom of Man in the Victorian Era, and, which he read when he was a subaltern and totally accepted, in which basically all religion is essentially the same. Winwood Reade argued. So, what Churchill did believe was the Religion of Healthy-Mindedness, which he thought was the underpinning of all religions. He thought this was a good thing, and something worth fighting for, but when it came simply to the divinity of the historical person Jesus Christ, he was not subscribing. He didn’t subscribe to that, but as you say, there aren’t any denunciations of the concept either.

Albert Mohler: It’s a very complicated picture. Made complicated especially, I would say, for Americans who do not understand the logic and culture of Anglicanism.

Andrew Roberts: I’m not sure all Anglicans do either, frankly.

Albert Mohler: Well, and it’s a mixed picture to be sure, but you’re talking about the first son, of the second son, of the Duke of Marlborough. Christened, baptized as the doctrine of the Church of England, would say. In and out of some kind of contact with the Church, getting married, of course, within the bosom of the Church right there at Westminster.

Andrew Roberts: He’s buried at Bladon, and wanted to be buried in… Well, actually at one point, he wanted to be buried under the croquet lawn at Chartwell, his house. But nonetheless, of course, going back to be buried with his parents was another, and his daughter who predeceased him was another important aspect of it. But, no, he was an Anglican. By the way, I mean, there’s a political element to this, of course. Every Prime Minister at that time was an Anglican. Even Benjamin Disraeli was an Anglican. You had to be an Anglican really politically if you were going to be Prime Minister.

Albert Mohler: Churchill is known, if for anything, for his voice. As President John F. Kennedy would later say, he set the English language to war. He learned this over time. He overcame difficulties. You make that very clear. I especially appreciated the attention you gave to that 1897 document that he wrote. And, as you say, “thankfully was never published,” that was entitled The Scaffolding of Rhetoric. Describe Churchill’s understanding of how to give a speech, because this defined his public role throughout the better part of a century.

Andrew Roberts: That’s right, yes. Of course, his public speaking. He’s thought of as I hope by many, certainly by me, as the greatest orator of the twentieth century. It didn’t come easy to him. He really built it up from theory into practice, and this article, as you say, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, which sets out the five key things that a public speaker needs to do in order to get his audience on side. Later, in his life, you can see what a preparation that was for his hour and for his trial because he did use those five elements, as he called them, in his later speeches. The extraordinary thing about that article is that he wrote it at 23 before he had given any major speeches himself. Any public speeches at all, in fact. So, he went from theory to practice. But boy did he practice. He spoke in all 8,000 pages of public speeches that have been printed. This is somebody who by the time he became Prime Minister had spoken at least 4,000 of those pages and was able to master a crowd to get the sense of his audience and listeners, knew which words would really work. He believed in the clarity of the English sentence which he said was a noble thing. He wanted to use short words, short sentences, and primarily go back to Anglo-Saxon words as well. Ones that would be understood throughout the English speaking peoples because they were used for a thousand years. In this way, he created a corpus of speeches which I think will last as long as the English tongue.

Albert Mohler: When he spoke, and I’ve looked at many of his pages of notes. He referred to the outline he used as Psalm form. To be honest, I use a very similar kind of form. Not so much derived from Churchill’s, I think following the same kind of rhetorical instinct. Those notes are fascinating, and when you look at the speech given. He gave himself just the right amount of room for improvisation, but it also made the impression that when he was improvising he was doing just that when actually in most cases he wasn’t. All of his best spontaneous lines were premeditated.

Andrew Roberts: Yes, that’s right. As, his great friend F.E. Smith said, pointed to Churchill and said, “There’s Winston practicing he’s ad-lib’s.”

Albert Mohler: But he was capable of ad-lib’s that are simply stunning.

Andrew Roberts: Oh, wonderful ad-lib’s. Oh, absolutely. His put downs of hecklers in particular, which of course, had to be incredibly quick ’cause otherwise another heckler would start up. So, you have to crush the previous one in order to put off any further ones. A harmless one, I’m sure you remember it, where somebody shouted out, “Rot!” From the crowd, “Rot!” he shouted, and Churchill said, “Thank you. I’d like to thank my friend for telling us what’s on his mind.”

Albert Mohler: He had a very alert mind, and that too is something that is missing in many who are in public office, and a sense of security, so that he felt perfectly free to say what was on his mind.

Andrew Roberts: Well, he was, as you mentioned earlier, born in a palace. The grandson of a Duke, you know? Those people very much were the apex of Victorian society, and they didn’t terribly much care what anybody else thought of them. That was a… I know it’s considered sort of unacceptable entitlement in today’s world, but at the time it was extremely useful for Winston Churchill because what he was going to be saying for a lot of the times was extremely unpopular. And, not caring about other people’s opinions because of his sort of sublime social background helped enormously. Can we just go back to something else you said earlier which I thought was very interesting about the Psalm form of his speeches when written out. And, of course, he dictated or wrote out all of his own speeches. He didn’t trust to any speech writers at all, which is virtually unknown in politics today, as you know. But it did mean that his listeners knew that what you got was straight from Winston Churchill. The thing that I’d like to also highlight is his extraordinary knowledge of Shakespeare and the influence that William Shakespeare’s soliloquies had on his great speeches. There’s an exhibition at the moment at the Folger Library in Washington D.C. of the connection between Churchill and Shakespeare. You can count many Shakespearian, not phrases, he didn’t copy phrases so much, as cadences, and echos in Churchill’s speeches. Especially his Second World War speeches.

Albert Mohler: The influence of Macauley, Gibbon, and others which Churchill really read for the first time under conditions of war. You know, having his mother send these volumes to him. In this, in a sense he was kind of an autodidact. He didn’t do horribly in school as you documented.

Andrew Roberts: He had to be an autodidact because he went to Harrow.

Albert Mohler: I’m not sure my listeners will understand the angle in what you’re saying there.

Andrew Roberts: Sorry, sorry. Okay. Let me explain. He had to be self-educated because he went to a school that turned out extremely brave and splendid upholders of the Empire, but not intellectuals in any sense. There weren’t that many, certainly in my day, you didn’t get that many sort of classical scholars at Oxbridge coming from Harrow.

Albert Mohler: Isn’t that something that, again, this is very English situation. Where in so many ways the time that Churchill was in these schools, and it would have been true of Eaton as well. They were primarily existing to turn out the leaders of an Empire, not primarily to turn out scholars.

Andrew Roberts: No, precisely. If it turned out that somebody was very bright, then of course, they would go on to read Latin or Greek at Oxford or Cambridge, but that certainly wasn’t the purpose of the schools. The purpose of the schools was to create a Christian gentleman. Somebody who could then go off to the Sudan or somewhere, probably along with about five other people from the Sudanese civil service, and run tracks of hundreds of thousands of square miles, and hundreds of thousands of people.

Albert Mohler: I will tell you what I find to be the central question for me. Kind of obsessively of understanding Churchill. It’s not his timeline—that would be enough. Just the fact that born in Blenheim Palace, entered Parliament under Queen Victoria, but would then be the Prime Minister when Elizabeth II becomes Queen. He saw one world go into the next. He saw it, and he oversaw it in so many ways. I want to tell you what moves me more than anything else about Churchill. I have to hold two things in tandem all the time, and that is that he understood evil in a unique way— that Manichean understanding of evil. He saw the Prussia militarism as evil. He saw Hitler as undiluted evil. He understood what threat Hitler would then pose to freedom around the world. He understood Soviet Communism as evil, and every one of these he understood the evil at a time when it looked like the evil was ascendant and might well be triumphant. Yet, throughout all of that, there’s this incredible joy. This is a man who could sleep at night, wake up and half a lengthy breakfast before he would get about saving the world. That’s the perplexity to me. It’s hard for me to hold in one human being this amazing right understanding of evil ascendant in the world, and this enormous confidence he had, and even joy.

Andrew Roberts: And that’s why it was so difficult to fit all of that in fewer than 982 pages. You do as you say, have this extraordinary thing. He was the first person in Britain, certainly, to spot the evil of the Nazis. And, I think he was helped by three things in this. The first was his Philo-Semitism. He liked Jews. He’d gone on holiday with Jews. His father had liked Jews. He represented Jews in his first constituency. He was a Zionist at the time of the Balfour Declaration, and so he had an early warning mechanism when it came to what the Nazis were really like, which was I’m afraid, not vouchsafe to many of his contemporaries of his age, and class, and background who were anti-semitic. That’s the first thing. The second thing is he was a historian. He was able therefore to place the threat that the Nazis posed into the long panoply of attempts to Germanize the continent going back to Philip II of Spain, then Louie XIV, then Napoleon, then the Kaiser, and of course Hitler. And the last one was… which I think you touched on was that he had seen fanaticism up close in his life in a way that lots of his other contemporaries hadn’t. Certainly none of the Prime Ministers in the 1930s like Ramsay MacDonald, or Stanley Baldwin, or Neville Chamberlain. He’d seen it in the Islamic fundamentalists’ fanaticism up on the Northwest frontier, and in the Sudan. Of course, although that was religious, he saw the same kind of thing in the political fanaticism of the Nazis, and so all three of those things came together and allowed him to spot this before anybody else did, and he also, of course, had the moral courage to keep saying it even though… to keep making the warnings. They were practical warnings because he said we need to spend more money on our air force. They weren’t just sort of Jeremiah, or Cassandra in the wind. It was actually for a practical purpose that he made these warnings.

Albert Mohler: Andrew Roberts, you have written an incredible achievement in this biography of Winston Churchill. I am so thankful that that long line of Churchill biographies did not end at 1009.

Andrew Roberts: Thank you very much.

Albert Mohler: We now have the 1010 and I commend it highly. I just want to thank you so much for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Andrew Roberts: Thank you very much indeed, Dr. Mohler. I’ve absolutely loved it. It’s been fascinating. Of all the interviews, you’ve really got to the number of the matter, again and again, thank you.

Albert Mohler (Postscript): I began this conversation with Andrew Roberts about his new and wonderful biography of Winston Churchill by looking at the subtitle, Walking with Destiny. That rightly defined Winston Churchill’s life. As we said in the beginning though, it establishes a tremendous distance from our own times and his.

Indeed, you had Andrew Roberts saying that someone who believed in destiny, as Winston Churchill did, would probably be diagnosed as pathological today. I would go further in saying that just about anyone would describe him by today’s psychotherapeutic culture as being narcissistic, power hungry, delusional, obsessive (you could go down the list), but without all of those qualities, and yes I call them qualities, you would not have had the Winston Churchill. The Winston Churchill that in so many ways saved Western Civilization.

You would not have had the Winston Churchill who at the right time, in the right place, knew how to do the right thing; knew how to rally the British people; knew how to confront Hitler; and knew how to diagnose even earlier that Prussian militarism that would eventuate in World War I. He understood the dynamics of power; the necessity of defending freedom and democracy; and the unique role to be played by not just the British Empire, but by the union of peoples he identified early in life as the English speaking peoples.

It would be Winston Churchill born the first son, of the second son, of the Duke of Marlborough, who would be also the son of an American mother, who would understand the unique relationship between Britain and the United States, that would in so many ways forge the modern world as we know it.

He understood an entire value system. He understood a distinctive understanding of humanity held by those English speaking peoples. He understood religion. A religious foundation and heritage of classical European Christianity that had established the entire frame of reference for the English speaking peoples. He understood a unique relationship. A relationship that he thought, and saw, and articulated as running for example from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence.

Now, just consider what it meant in the 19th and then in the early 20th century to have a singular man who rose to such political prominence in Great Britain, who would have years in power, and then a decade in the wilderness before being called back again in order to save the Kingdom, the Empire, and the civilization.

You have an individual who understood the unique relationship that had to emerge between England, that is to say, Britain, and the United States long before others saw it. It’s not just that he had a noble British father and an American mother. It is that he more than just about anyone else in his age understood the past and understood the present and saw into the future.

That would sometimes get him into trouble. It got him into trouble when he saw Prussian militarism and spoke of it when everyone else wanted to believe that the grandchildren of Queen Victoria would not possibly engage each other in war. He saw this in his wilderness years when he was out of office and thus largely out of influence, but he understood exactly who Hitler was, and what Adolph Hitler was doing.

He wrote about it. He spoke about it. It made him even less popular but it also when the moment came made him indispensable. But, ponder again for a moment, what it meant for a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough to then turn to the American Declaration of Independence and say that it was a logical extension of the Magna Carta.

What Winston Churchill did, and almost no other British Statesman could have done, was to say at the very moment that the United States was rising in influence on the world scene and Britain was receding, that this was actually a continuation of the British project, of English identity. A union of the English speaking peoples. By the time you get to the actual drama and the terror of World War II, it was Winston Churchill who understood that eventually the war would have to be won, could only be won, for freedom and for democracy by the overwhelming power of the United States of America.

That’s why the very night after Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill was able to say that he slept the sleep of the contented. He knew that now that America was in the war, the war would eventually be won.

At the conclusion of his 982 pages, his page-turning biography of Winston Churchill, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Roberts concludes with these words: “His hero John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, won great battles and built Blenheim Palace. His other hero, Napoleon won even more battles and built an empire. Winston Churchill did better than either of them. The battles he won saved Liberty.”

I think one of the most lamentable dimensions of the contemporary generation is ingratitude. Ingratitude towards those who stood astride history and made possible the very world we know today. The very liberties we enjoy and take for granted today. And, of course, we see this when we consider the recent death of President George H.W. Bush.

The last World War II veteran to serve as President of the United States. We see this over and over again with figures passing from the stage. But, we certainly see this in that figure who passed from the world stage in the year 1965 but simply will not pass from our imagination. Winston Spencer Churchill.

As I told Andrew Roberts, Churchill has been something of a fascination, maybe even in an odd way an obsession, since the time I was 13. That is to admit I don’t think I’ll get over this. At no point does Andrew Roberts fail to point out Winston Churchill’s many mistakes and to correct those mistakes with the lens of the historian. But that just makes the story better because, after all, “being a man of many parts,” as the Victorian’s would say, means being honest about all of those parts.

But then it also requires putting all of those parts together in a single individual, at a singular moment in world history, and understanding how that man and that moment came together. The only secular explanation for that is destiny, but as I discussed with Andrew Roberts, the secular world is losing any ability to speak of destiny. Destiny might not at first appear to be an explicitly theological word. But at the end of the day it turns out to be so because without understanding a God-centered, divinely ruled universe, there’s really no place for destiny at all. And, no one left to walk it.

Many thanks to my guest Andrew Roberts for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking in Public you’re going to find more than a hundred of these conversations at under “Thinking in Public.” By the way, you’ll discover a previous conversation with Andrew Roberts about his wonderful history of World War II: The Storm of War.

For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to SBTS.EDU. For information on Boyce College go to

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.

I’m Albert Mohler.