London — Angry and sensitive to criticism that she has turned Britain into an uncaring society, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has come out fighting for the morality of her free-market revolution. In a series of talks in recent weeks, she has shared her personal views on religion and spoken out on the importance of the family and the traditional values of hard work and self-reliance which she insists underlie her programs of economic and social reform.
She told a women's conference this week that generosity has not died under her government but that wealth must be created before it can be shared. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, she said, ``You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.''
Mrs. Thatcher's moral offensive, which is rare for a British political leader, has taken the country by surprise. Her aides say it has been sparked by criticism from the opposition Labour Party and from church leaders that her policies show lack of compassion for the poor and disadvantaged and openly favor the affluent.
These policies include sizable tax cuts for the wealthy, social security reforms which tighten eligibility rules, and, most recently, a proposed poll tax to raise revenue for community services which is levied on each voter without regard to income.
Both as a woman and as a crusading reformer, her aides say, Thatcher has been upset that she is perceived as callous and uncaring. She is especially angry that the Labour Party, which presided over years of economic and social decline, still claims the moral high ground. Her response has been an attack on Labour thinking, which is rooted in socialist policies and a liberal Christian philosophy espoused by many leaders of the Church of England. She has defended her record by moralizing about virtues which she says are based on scriptural authority.
According to recent visitors to No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister has been preparing for her moral offensive by studying the Bible and reading essays by Britain's chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, collected speeches by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, and works by the Christian writer and scholar, C.S. Lewis.
But the core of her social ethics comes straight from John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church in which she was raised. She quoted Wesley in a speech on Wednesday when she advised the Labour Party to recall his words, ``Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.''
Thatcher's emphasis on diligence, hard work, and the use of money is ``pure John Wesley - the Protestant work ethic,'' said Gerald Priestland, author and former religious affairs commentator for the BBC. ``She remains very deeply a Methodist,'' Mr. Priestland said.
Methodists are commemorating this week the 250th anniversary of that day in 1738 when the young Wesley felt his heart ``strangely warmed'' in an experience which marks the beginnings of Methodism. Wesley is known for his work of Christian evangelism among the working classes and the poor. ``Wesley was a patriotic Tory with social concern,'' wrote Rev. Gordon Wakefield of Queen's College, Birmingham, in a recent tribute to the Methodist leader.
Wesley's famous sermon ``The Use of Money'' contains the tenets of the prime minister's understanding of the Protestant work ethic with its emphasis on honesty, thrift, and individual responsibility. Many of Thatcher's own supporters, however, wish she had more the image of Wesley as a ``caring Tory'' and less that of the Iron Lady who has carried out tougher policies than many men in her party have advocated.
Thatcher's most controversial talk so far has been a sermon to the leaders of the Church of Scotland last weekend in which she quoted with approval St. Paul's statement to the Thessalonians, ``If a man will not work he shall not eat.''
The text, she said, pointed to the importance of individual effort and the moral uses of wealth.
While acknowledging that making money could be a selfish activity, the prime minister added, ``but it is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but love of money for its own sake.
Because of the moral and religious dimensions to the debate over Thatcherism, it has been unusually passionate and at times intemperate.
But the prime minister's aides say the issues are mainly political.
``I'm not sure it's about morality; I think it's about the stuff of politics,'' said a senior aide this week.