This last week I have been on my yearly pilgrimage to Llandudno. It’s not so much a site of religious interest as an opportunity for me to serve with United Beach Missions. It is my nearest Beach Mission centre and it is one of very few with the sort of facilities that mean I can bring my family with me too.
I have spent the last week standing on Llandudno promenade doing public interviews with people about their faith, asking them to share their stories and pressing them to answer questions and objections people may have about the Christian faith. I have also been engaging with non-Christian holidaymakers (NB: only those who actually want to talk, we’re happy enough being told to push off) and sharing with them the Christian message of salvation in Jesus Christ. We’ve also been out delivering short gospel presentations in open air meetings and engaging in public apologetics.
None of that is to say bully for me. Rather, it is to set in context how truly odd such things have become in modern British society. For, as I reacquainted myself with social media and online news output, one particular news item – or one particular angle that kept reappearing in several different stories – seemed prevalent. The story, insofar as it is newsworthy, was the fact that Tim Farron, newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, is a Christian. Not only a Christian, but an Evangelical Christian. Not only an Evangelical Christian, but one who is actually prepared to speak about his faith in public.
Gillan Scott, at the Archbishop Cranmer blog, has given a good summary of how several of these interviews have focused not only on Farron’s faith but have pressed particular presumed outworkings of his religious beliefs. Specifically, a Channel 4 News interview with Cathy Newman pushed Farron repeatedly on whether he viewed homosexual sex as sinful. Since then, Labour MP and deputy-leadership hopeful Ben Bradshaw has called Farron’s approach to gay rights illiberal. Beyond these, The Times has referred to him as an “illiberal democrat”, based on little more than the fact he is an Evangelical, and John Humphries pressed him on his Radio 4 Today programme about whether he prayed about different aspects of his job. Some of this interrogation is legitimate – private views will affect what we do in public (unless, of course, you’re happy with a Magic FM in the Chilterns kind of faith) – but several things ought to be said.
First, these interviews have only been conducted and focused this way because Farron is an Evangelical. Although occasionally Tony Blair was asked about his faith, very little was ever made of it. David Cameron likewise is asked very little about his Christian beliefs, such as they exist. Moving away from those who identify as Christian in any regard, can you imagine Sajid Javid being asked for his views on particular Qur’anic suras which advocate less than liberal approaches to homosexuals or non-muslim believers? Would Clive Lewis, as chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, be pressed this hard on how his non-belief in a God would affect his moral compass? It is telling that perceptions of what Evangelicalism is persist (1) and such views are often held to a different standard than almost any other view, even among those in parliament.
Second, Tim Farron has been labelled illiberal by those who themselves are being illiberal. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of his position, and despite what Tim Farron’s actual views on the sinfulness or otherwise of homosexual sex may be (we may infer what he believes but he hasn’t actually said anything about it), Farron has repeatedly stated that he defends equal gay rights. Either, he doesn’t think homosexual sex is sinful and he defends gay rights or he does think homosexual sex is sinful but he nevertheless defends gay rights. The first of those may or may not be a liberal position – we all obviously find it easy to make legal or illegal all those things we personally think are right and wrong respectively – but the latter view certainly is liberal.
At the heart of the liberalism is the view that we don’t have to agree, we don’t have to be the same, but we can co-exist and defend the rights of one another. It is telling that Ben Bradshaw claims Farron is illiberal for not daring to affirm the moral eminence of homosexuality. In other words, Bradshaw argues you cannot do any other than affirm the moral zeitgeist, all contrary views are verboten. Hardly the words of a thoroughgoing liberal. Farron, on the other hand, defends equality for gay people despite (potentially) personally disagreeing with them. That is surely the same sort of liberal position as anyone who is not a Muslim, and disagrees with swathes of Islamic theology and praxis, yet doesn’t believe Islam must be forcibly renounced by legal dictate. True Liberalism defends your entitlement to your view, it defends your equality in law, despite our disagreeing over the issue at hand. It is utterly wrong to suggest Tim Farron is illiberal for (potentially) disagreeing with homosexuality but defending homosexual rights in law. It is surely illiberal to say he cannot hold such a view.
Farron was absolutely clear that “to understand the Christian faith is to understand we’re all sinners”. It is evidently not his view that, as we’re all sinners, we should all go to prison. It is clearly not his view that, as we’re all sinners, none of us should have any rights in law. Even if his view on homosexual sex (yet to be stated) is that it is sinful, it is evidently not the case such a view necessarily means he would do anything other than defend the rights of gay people in law. Even the Conservative American Evangelical writer Tim Keller, some while ago now, argued “you could believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal”. Whilst that is not his own view, Keller reported that while many Christians “still believe homosexuality to be a sin, they don’t think the government should put that belief into law for the nation.” There is every reason to presume Tim Farron holds to something akin to this Anabaptist position as described by Keller.
It is interesting to me that Farron has been pilloried, not even so much for his views (though that is certainly illiberal) but for his presumed position. The media have decided what they believe Evangelicalism stands for – regardless of the range of views even within this subset of Protestantism – and are gunning for a man based upon their own presumption rather than his actual position. This position is not necessarily the position of the man on the street. It is one pressed by media outlets.
As I was out on the streets of Llandudno, as an openly Evangelical Christian, we were generally not received with complete scorn. Those who didn’t want to talk, didn’t talk. Those who did, spoke politely and often disagreed with us (which is to be expected, those are the people we are generally trying to reach). When we disagreed, we spoke together about why and we had a reasonable discussion about the issues. Some people seemed to move closer to our view, some people didn’t. At the end of each discussion, nobody fell out, many were glad to have the conversation (even if we didn’t end up agreeing together) and nobody was forced to say, believe or do anything. We sometimes engaged with Atheists at the opposing end of the believing spectrum to us. It was a triumph for liberalism. Two opposing views who could, in the end, disagree strongly and yet remain genial. Nobody forcing anyone else to believe what they don’t believe and nobody taking such offence at opposing views that police involvement or legal proceedings had anything to do with either one of us.
It seems to me that illiberalism is a charge thrown around whenever somebody voices a view that someone else doesn’t like. It is incredible that someone can suggest, as Cathy Newman in her Channel 4 interview tried to infer, it is impossible for a Christian to be a liberal because they may hold illiberal values. But the essence of liberalism is defending such views even as we may disagree with them. If Newman is correct, then liberalism is not about defending alternative views but rather about insisting on the affirmation of prescribed state orthodoxy. For Newman, liberalism is authoritarianism. Up is down. Good is bad. It is Newspeak in every conceivable way. Beware the charge of illiberalism. One may be a bit more illiberal than our clarion cry suggests.
I am not a Liberal Democrat but I can spot a witch-hunt when I see one. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Tim Farron, irrespective of his political views, is being hounded for being an Evangelical Christian. It matters not whether he defends gay rights. It makes no difference if he upholds religious plurality. It is of no importance whether he has credible view on tax and spending. He is an Evangelical and has thus been branded a bigot. Much like the cry of illiberalism, we should be careful what we use as our rallying cry. If bigotry is defined as “intolerance of those who hold different opinions to oneself” [source: Google Dictionary], dismissing somebody politically as an Evangelical bigot – without engaging with what they say, think or do – rather, at best, smacks of the pot calling the kettle black.
- The Times comment that Tim Farron believes “every word of the Bible is literal truth” is clearly misleading to those who do not understand the doctrines of infallibility or inerrancy. It shows a naive ignorance of how the Bible was written and the various types of literature it contains, grossly misinterpreting anything Farron has actually said. Nevertheless, because he’s Evangelical and we all know what that means, it seems not to matter.