Tim Farron, illiberalism, bigotry and Evangelicals

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.

Notes

  1. 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.

11 comments

  1. Doesn't it occur to you that the reason Tim Farron is being asked about this is that his beliefs_do_ seem to have affected his voting record – on same-sex marriage, on the Equality Act and on abortion?

    And while there's no inherent contradiction in politicians of other persuasions legislating for others according to their own religious beliefs, it's pretty fundamental that liberals _don't_ do that.

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  2. Everyone's beliefs have an outworking on their politics and their voting decisions – that is something I say quite clearly in the piece.

    But I don't agree that liberals don't legislate according to their own beliefs. Of course they do otherwise they'd legislate nothing at all! What liberalism says is that it will allow freedom of individual conscience – both religious and secular. It also allows for a range of views to be held and defended. It essentially says we will permit everything that does not impinge on the inherent rights of another.

    In Farron's particular case, I'm not sure quite what you mean re his voting record. Abortion – for example – is not an issue on which a diverse range of views can be permitted. You either allow it (contra pro-lifers) or not (contra pro-choicers). Liberalism doesn't insist on either position. It merely says where a range of views and positions are possibly accommodated, they should be. So whether Farron's religious views impacted on his position on abortion or not says nothing for his liberalism. One has to take a position and enforce it and both cannot be permitted simultaneously. Equally, the issue of inherent rights is up for debate (even within liberalism). If your view is that life begins at conception, rights extend to the unborn. Of not, then you have some other marker of when they apply. Again, it is not illiberal to hold either view and one is consistent if they claim to be liberal but pro-life (defending the inherent rights of the child against murder) or if one is pro-choice (defending the inherent rights of the mother against the lack of rights that don't apply to a non-human). So his voting record on abortion has nothing to do with his liberalism one way or the other.

    His position on other areas of equality, as noted above, seems perfectly liberal. His view on gay marriage, for example, he hasn't actually stated (other than to say, if the vote happened today, he wld vote in favour). Now, it seems perfectly liberal to me to say (whether we agree with the view or not) – as per the anabaptist position outlined above – that homosexuality may be sinful but we won't legislate in any way against it in law (nor against those who hold a traditional Christian view). Liberalism doesn't seek to pit the two against one another. Farron was quite clear he thinks we are all “sinners”. As noted, he evidently doesn't believe all sinners lose their rights and must be legislated against (otherwise we'd all face prison time, according to him). So he hardly seeks to legislate in an authoritarian way against homosexual equality whether he believes its practice sinful or not.

    More to the point, what he was asked was not what he would or wouldn't do in law re homosexual equality (a perfectly valid question) but was pressed on whether it is sinful. Repeatedly. The inference was (and the explicit view stated by Ben Bradshaw) was that this view is illiberal and, therefore, verboten. That is itself a thoroughly illiberal position given that liberalism permits a range of views, not prescribed state utterances

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  3. Hey, I enjoy this conversation, as I also was amazed to see Channel 4 'blugdeon' Farron with the 'sin' question, without asking the same demanding questions of Muslims or other candidates with traditional 'religious' views. I put 'religious' in quotes because everyone is religious; i.e, everyone has a set of beliefs that they hold which answers the questions of existence and the meaning of life: to have reason is to reflect and come to some conclusion for our existence,and therefore be religious. The strong intolerance and verbal violence within those who seem to wave the flag tolerance and libertine values, incorrectly and conveniently label themselves as non Religious. Anyhow, thanks Steve for writing your views!

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