Religion is not an excuse for discrimination. But that should not blind us to the fact that evangelical Christians are now a minority in the UK, whose rights liberals may need to fight for.
Part 1: What liberalism is NOT
To the surprise of essentially no one, Tim Farron has confirmed that he does in fact believe that gay sex is sinful. Equally unsurprisingly, this has led some to question his liberalism and whether he belongs in a party that espouses liberalism.
Writing in Prospect, the philosopher Julian Baggini explains the misapprehension this view embodies:
Suspicion of Farron’s equal rights credentials reflects a wider misunderstanding of the very nature of politics and its relationship to morality. Secular, pluralist democracy rests on the assumption that members of society have different, often very divergent conceptions of morality and the good life. It negotiates these differences by distinguishing between public and private space, allowing individuals to live according to their own consciences as far as that is compatible with allowing others to live according to theirs.
To be a liberal in such a polis is to be firmly committed to this principle of individual liberty of conscience. It doesn’t require actually having a liberal personal morality. A political liberal can be a moral conservative. What matters is not whether Farron believes that gays will burn in hell for their sins but whether he believes they have the legal right to secure their own damnation before rule passes from the human to the divine.
Part 2: the wages of Tim
Now, one can give Farron too much credit when it comes to separating politics and personal morality. As I blogged about back in 2015:
there does seem to be a pattern whereby Tim is lobbied to do something by Christian groups, does it and then on reflection realises he shouldn’t have.
And one of those instances does seem to be what initially provoked journalists to begin asking questions about what Farron thought about homosexuality. However, these infractions are generally minor. For example, instead of voting for equal marriage three times, he did so twice and abstained once. For that reason, I still feel comfortable endorsing the position taken by Jennie Rigg, acting chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, that the two things that matter in this regard are:
1. How Tim Farron votes in parliament
2. How he treats people – LGBT+ people in particular – in everyday life
And that on both these matters he has a defensible record.
Indeed, it is striking how removed the discussion about Farron and his views have become from these concrete concerns. It may have begun with a discussion about how he voted on equal marriage, but it has ended with us parsing a purely psychological phenomenon, and seldom bothering to consider why Tim Farron’s views matter beyond the confines of his skull.
It would be different if he had used his public position to preach to his fellow citizens about what they should do in their private lives. But that was emphatically not he was doing. Indeed, he spent his entire tenure trying to avoid telling us his views on the matter – and on occasion claiming even to hold a wholy different view. Even now, his coming out and saying he thinks gay sex is sinful, seems to be less an attempt to convince others of his viewpoint, than to set right a moment of dishonesty on his part. Throughout, he seems content that his private views to remained private. It is his critics, who made them a matter of political salience.
Part 3: the wider issue
Now I am wary of taking this argument, where I am about to. I appreciate that many in the LGBT+ community would take umbrage at a straight Christian – even an LGBT affirming one – making a case that conservative Christians deserve to be seen as oppressed rather than oppressors anywhere close to the issue of gay rights. I completely acknowledge there are valid reasons for that, including but not limited to the fact:
- In many parts of the world churches continue to perpetuate extreme legal and societal repression of people on account of their sexuality
- That has historically been the case in the UK too
- Nor has such behaviour in the UK entirely disappeared. Evangelical churches continue to be a major barrier to equal marriage in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, too many churches – even in the UK – continue to make life miserable for any young person unfortunate enough to grow up gay in their orbit.
- When Christians make claims about their rights not being respected, they often do so in an overwrought, intellectually lazy manner that fails to show empathy for others. It often involves exageration, hyperbole, equating the inability to discriminate against others with being discriminated against oneself, making unwarranted connections between the challenges faced by Christians in the UK and indisputable instances of oppression in places like Saudi and North Korea, or making resentful comparisons with the supposed preferential treatment given to Muslims that manage to imply either that the predicament some Christians face is the fault of Muslims or that Muslims do not deserve to have their human rights protected.
- Being fined for not baking a cake or being asked unpleasant questions by politics reporters are problems of a wholly different magnitude to being imprisoned or prevented from being married.
That said, a real problem remains. We cannot ignore the extent to which secularisation has changed Christianity’s position within the UK. Those professing a Christian faith in an active manner are clearly no longer just a minority but a small minority. For some Christians – myself included – this does not pose an especially acute challenge. We are what Tim Farron would describe as – perhaps ‘dismiss as’ – ‘cultural Christians’. We see secular humanism not as a threat to our faith but an outgrowth of it. For us, its concern with equality and human flourishing, accord with the all human beings being made by God and loved by him. However, for others, no such harmony exists. As they see it, God has decreed there to be a certain order to things, and now humans are messing with it. That sets them against the values of the majority, and history suggests that in such a situation the temptation for the majority to act intolerantly will be strong.
As I have already mentioned, it is quite possible to overstate this danger. If you had to be out of step with the values of any society, you’d choose a liberal and humanist one because part of its essence is that it affords strong protections to minorities. Hence the authorities will not shutter churches, believers will hardly ever face prison, and the mobs they confront will be allegorical. That said it is also to understate the problem. Besides, what happened to Farron, there is also the case of the evangelical bakers fined by Norther Ireland’s equality commission for refusing to produce a cake with a pro-LGBT slogan on it and at least one case of the courts having to step in after someone was unlawfully dismissed from their job for posting to their private Facebook page that equal marriage was ‘an equality too far‘. I have on multiple occasions heard generally liberal-minded people using anti-Christian language like ‘God botherer’ or ‘Bible basher’. It is also worth considering the possibility that the changing demographics of the church-going population are liable to increase the possibility of anti-Christian discrimination. Black majority churches are growing whilst white ones contract. That creates the ugly possibility for racial and religious prejudice to align and feed off each other. In this context, the mixture of bemusement, derision and revulsion that characterise the reaction to Farron’s views on homosexuality, should seem like a warning sign of a minority in a vulnerable position, which should also be a call to action for liberals. That might feel uncomfortable because his opinion might seem abhorent, but that’s kind of the point. It is not the people who hold pleasing, widely shared views, whose right to hold them requires defending.
It is perhaps instructive to consider what would happen if the law allowed politicians to bring cases for unlawful discrimination against the electorate and the wider polity. [For clarity: I am not advocating that – this is just a thought experiment!] It seems pretty clear to me that if Farron were to pursue such an action, he’d likely win. The courts have previously recognised that for some Christians, opposition to homosexuality may be a manifestation of their religious beliefs. Given that, placing someone in a situation where they must affirm support for same-sex relationships or lose out on the chance for advancement at work (in this case leading a larger parliamentary party) would potentially amount to indirect discrimination, which is prohibited by the equalities act. It is possible to ‘justify’ indirect discrimination, if one can show a good enough reason why it’s needed. But could we as a body of voters? If it were necessary to defend the rights of LGBT+ people, then absolutely it would be. However, given Farron’s voting record it seems that argument would falter for lack of evidence.
Which brings me to what is the nub of the issue for me. Is stigmatising a man who voted for equal marriage, campaigned against section 28, tabled a bill to end the ban on gay men donating blood and pushed for the UK to take stronger stances on LGBT+ issues globally for thoughts he is reluctant to express, an effective way of promoting LGBT+ rights? Or is it punishing him for belonging to an outgroup that thinks differently from the majority of us?