There’s nothing illiberal about being a Christian. Nonetheless, the new Lib Dem leader is still prone to making mistakes where his faith and politics intersect.
So here are some hastily thrown together thoughts about the kerfuffle that has emerged following Tim Farron’s interview with Channel 4 news. They involve quite a bit of conjecture. I’m not privy to my leader’s private thoughts. Nor can I be considered an expert on the man, I once went to Wagamama with him but that’s the sum total of my direct experience of the man. So I’m making some educated guesses based on what he’s said publically and on what I’ve learned from spending a fair amount of time hanging around churches.
1. The personal is not (necessarily) political
While taking evasive action around Cathy Newman’s question Tim invoked Gladstone as an example of someone combing a strong faith and liberal politics. The Grand Old Man is indeed a rather good illustration of this point: when the atheist Charles Bradlaugh was elected to parliament Gladstone fought for his right to sit and eventually changed the law to ensure it. Nonetheless, he found the notion of atheism so repulsive he would not actually speak directly to Bradlaugh.
This is not only an idea with a long pedigree but great contemporary relevance. Indeed, anyone who isn’t a totalitarian to some extent buys into it. We just don’t ask whether given that Farron evidently personally disagrees with people voting Conservative he would want to legislate to obstruct people from doing it. However, when sex and religion become involved we tend to forget this.
Farron pointing out the distinction between his personal convictions and his political views is not some kind of cop-out; it is the very essence of his politics.
2. Tim probably doesn’t care about your sex life
I suspect that the obvious explanation for Tim’s failure to answer Newman’s question is the correct one: he does indeed think gay sex is sinful. In fact, given that he’s said “the Bible is clear about sexuality of all sorts” and that “the standards that define my personal morality as a Christian are not the standards of public morality”, I imagine he thinks all sex, gay or straight, other than that between married couples is sinful.
[Side note he’s wrong about that: the Bible’s spectacularly unhelpful when it comes to getting clear answers about questions of sexual morality.]
But intellectually assenting to a position and having a deep conviction in something are two different things. If Farron really was disgusted or outraged by same sex relationships then I imagine he’d find it pretty taxing to play such an active part in a political party with such a disproportionate number of out gay activists, at least without resorting to the kind of disdain that Gladstone showed Bradlaugh.
I also doubt he’d have been able to bring himself to vote for equal marriage not once but twice.
I suspect the way he deals with the discordance between thinking the Bible says that homosexuality is malign and being able to see in his day to day life that it isn’t, the same way many other Christians of my acquaintance do: by thinking about it as little as possible.
3. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem for Farron to deal with
Firstly, there’s perception.
Secondly, 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.
The most obvious example of this is his having abstained on the third reading of the legislation to allow equal marriage, when he now admits he should have voted in favour. But there’s also the small but telling example of him signing a letter defending faith healing that he later admitted was ‘crass’ and that he shouldn’t have signed it as written.
I quite understand how this happens because it happened to me in my rather less illustrious political career. When a proposal came forward to open a lap dancing club in the ward I represented as a councillor, my liberal instinct was that as distasteful as I found such places, they were conducting a legal business involving consenting adults and therefore I shouldn’t oppose it.
However, I then began being lobbied both by the local churches, one of which was next to the proposed site, along with student union and various feminist groups. At which point I began re-evaluating my view. I would up concluding that it wasn’t a private issue after all; there was a legitimate public concern regarding the impact on the neighbours. I began campaigning against it on this basis and if memory serves correctly, I was quoted in one of the student papers saying something like “this isn’t about the morality of lap dancing but keeping the area safe and pleasant for all its residents and visitors”. The worse part was that I put pressure on other Lib Dems, many of who saw the situation with much greater clarity than me, to take positions they were uncomfortable with.
In the end the club operated at two locations for a number of years and I never saw any evidence that it was adversely affecting either the public at large or its neighbours specifically. Which is what I would have predicted when the issue first arose. But when a lot of people I liked and respected began telling me I ought to be actively opposing it that made it hard to stick to that position. Surely their conviction was a good guide to what mine ought to be? And at a certain level it’s just really awkward and uncomfortable to say no to people, especially people who you feel are basically on your side.
So I can empathise with how challenging it must be for Tim when fellow Christians come to him with unfounded worries or unreasonable requests. Telling members of a community that you’ve been steeped in and which has to a great extent defined your life that you’re not going to help them because they are wrong (in this case) to think they deserve help must make you feel like a traitor. There’s thus a strong psychological temptation to find a way to feel like you’re helping them at least a bit.
Nonetheless, it is a temptation that Lib Dems can and should expect our leader to be able to resist. We need consistent good judgement from him rather than having it periodically suspended on behalf of a community he has strong emotional attachments to.