Liberals may not want to defend Tim Farron. We still should.

TimFarronPortrait

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.

Conclusion

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?

Tim Farron and the search for an equilibrium that wasn’t there

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One of the sub-plots of the recent General Election was the discomfort of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron any time he was asked about LGBT issues. It reached its  endpoint today with his resignation. In an e-mail to party members he reported that:

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I wrote back before his election as leader, that there were issues when Farron’s faith became politically relevant. Nonetheless, I would still endorse Jennie Rigg’s defence of his actions as a public servant. I also share Isabel Hardman and Nick Cohen‘s sense that there’s something (ironically) retrograde about our unwillingness to let a man’s private thoughts stay private.

I would also stand by his performance as leader more generally.

In many ways, he became leader at the wrong moment. A personable northern bloke in a wax jacket representing a farming constituency in the Lakes who had stayed aloof from the coalition, would have been the perfect antidote to Nick Clegg in 2015. Likewise, he would have worked well in a 1997esque period of progressive harmony, in which the Party’s ambition was to defeat the Tories in individual constituencies where Labour would fear to tread. But as an alternative-alternative Prime Minister in place of the (apparently) doomed Corbyn, or as a spokesperson for upmarket remain voters? For that we needed someone urbane, a bit posh, someone who’d have convivial lunches with Times opinion columnists and get puffy columns in return, basically an Emmanuel Macron from Southwark, or a Nick Clegg from an alternative dimension where the coalition never happened.

Both of those figures being figments of my imagination, Tim Farron stepped up and, while not ideal, still made a series of broadly correct decisions. He realised we needed a clear answer on Brexit. And that we continued to need it after the vote. That decision allowed the party to (modestly, electorally and in the short term) co-exist with a Corbynism that proved to be much stronger than we imagined. Angry remainers gave both Labour and the Lib Dems opportunities to make gains off the Tories. It will also – I hope – ultimately serve to solidify the party’s identity.

Nonetheless, he still had to go. I say that regretfully and as a matter of political calculation, rather than convicition. The reason is not Farron’s views. It’s not even their potential unpopularity. They did not represent some huge inundation that would sink HMS Lib Dem, but an ongoing problem that would have required the leader and his followers to be constantly bailing out water. Using up energy that might carry the party forward to stop it sinking, is not something a party with as many head-winds as the Lib Dems could afford.

It might have been different if Farron had been more assured in his stances, but as his resignation email made clear, he was wrestling with internal conflicts. Indeed, let’s be honest, the interviews he was giving before the election made that pretty clear too. It is hard to watch them and conclude that Farron was ever going to find a stance from which he could have dodged, repeled or absorbed those questions. Had he stayed on as leader, he would have been signing himself, and the party, up, for an ongoing beating. His decision to forestall that was correct.

 

Farron’s faith

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.

Why I’m not quite yet convinced it’s #TimeForTim

Where I am now.

So it looks like the Lib Dem leadership race will come down to a choice between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb.

In that event, I am strongly inclined to back Farron. Both men are admirable individuals and, as someone whose struggled with depression in past, Lamb’s work on mental illness is one for which I feel a great deal of personal gratitude. However, Farron seems like the leader we need at the moment.

We have gone from being part of the government to an opposition party with less than 2% of the MPs. We are therefore no longer in a position to demand attention from the media; we need a leader they will want to cover. Farron’s gifts as a communicator fit that bill. He has a similar ability to Nigel Farage to deliver the party line while appearing to be just talking his mind. That means, if I had to guess, there’s an 80% chance I’ll wind up voting for Farron.

However, the choice would be easier were it not for three concerns:

1. Equal marriage

There’s no getting around the fact that for someone wanting to be leader of a liberal party having abstained on equal marriage and voted to delay its passage is awkward. Equality is a cultural touchstone for the kind of cosmopolitan voters the party needs to win in order to rebuild itself as a cultural force. So being perceived to be less than fully committed to it is potentially very damaging.

Now Farron has an explanation for these votes. While I find it unpersuasive as a piece of policy analysis – fears of churches being forced to conduct same sex marriages are in my modestly legally trained opinion ludicrously overblown – it’s an effective refutation of the notion that he is a secret opponent of gay rights.

However, the very fact that he might potentially have to explain this is a problem. As Ronald Reagan said “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”. If Farron has to defend himself against this charge then that’s a distraction, and there’s always the risk some voters remember the accusation but not the refutation.

I’d therefore be more comfortable voting for Farron, if he has a plan to avoid having to repeatedly explain his record.

2. Differentiation from Labour

Farron is (to put the issue far more crudely than it deserves to be) on the left of the party. That means to (be equally crude) under his leadership we’d be likely to adopt an economic policy more closely resembling Labour’s. In that event we need to have an answer of what we are offering that is distinct enough from Labour to justify gambling a vote on a party with just 8 MPs.

Unfortunately, the answer probably can’t be the obvious things: civil liberties, electoral reform, being more ardent on Europe and the environment. They may be important but the group of voters who seem them as such is probably relatively narrow. What else if Farron going to offer to broaden our appeal.

3. Nuclear power

One of the ways the Party was improved by being in Coalition was that it precipitated us shedding our longstanding opposition to Nuclear Power. For a party that takes climate change seriously, it was simply not viable to be opposing the source of up to 70% of the UK’s low carbon electricity.

Some of Farron’s past statements on the issue make me concerned that under his leadership, we would revert from our new sensible position to our old incoherent one.

Where I want to be

I’ve mostly sold myself on Farron as the next leader. I invite any of his supporters who are reading this to see if they can get me the rest of the way.

Can you tell me if your guy knows how he’ll avoid being bogged down explaining his positions on gay rights and how he’ll make us distinct from Labour? Or alternatively, do you think I’m wrong to be worried about these things?

Update (18/05/2015):

An encouraging response from the man himself:

Some predictions for 2015

Umunna as leader of the opposition? My most tentative prediction.

My more or less educated guesses for what will happen in the next year. I’ve put a % by each one to indicate my guess as to the probability that it will happen:

  1. The UK general election will result in a hung parliament (80%). I’m reasonably sure about that but not much else. If I had to take a stab in the dark I’d say that we’ll end up with a minority Conservative government (40%).
  2. Ed Miliband (60%) and Nick Clegg (90%) will not survive as leaders of their parties and will be replaced by Chuka Umunna (30%) and Tim Farron (50%). In the event, David Cameron ceases to be leader, I would think that Theresa May is his most likely replacement (50%).
  3. Hilary Clinton will announce she’s running for President (90%).
  4. Greece will exit the Eurozone (60%).
  5. The highest grossing film globally will be Avengers: Age of Ultron (60%). However, in the US it will be Star Wars: the Force Awakens (60%) and in the UK Spectre (50%).

UPDATE (30/01/15): When I made the predictions regarding the highest box office takes I did so under the misapprehension that the Force Awakens was being released this summer. In fact, it’s not out till the final week of December. Therefore, I now think there’s a 70% probability that the Avengers will top the US box office and am prepared to raise the probability that Spectre will top the UK box office to 70%.