The Resignation of Tim Farron: 1) Bernie Sanders and the place of Christians in public life

(Note: It seems to me that the resignation of Tim Farron is a highly significant event – more significant, I suspect, than most people realise.  As a result, I will be writing about it at some length, and have decided to split it over a few posts.)

Bernie Sanders and Tim Farron have two things in common.

The first is that both, in their own countries, would be called “Liberal Democrats” – indeed they are both well known enough that someone asked to name a liberal Democrat in America might well have said “Bernie Sanders”, and someone asked to name a Liberal Democrat in the UK might well have said “Tim Farron”.

The second is that this month, within the space of a week, they both managed to hit the headlines on the question of the position of Christians in public life in their countries. And I don’t think that is completely coincidental.

Bernie Sanders and the interrogation of Russell Vought

First, Bernie Sanders, a member of America’s Democratic Party. On the 7th June, the US Senate was having a confirmation hearing for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Emma Green of The Atlantic takes up the story. During that hearing,

“Sanders took issue with a piece Vought wrote in January 2016 about a fight at the nominee’s alma mater, Wheaton College. The Christian school had fired a political-science professor, Larycia Hawkins, for a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims. Vought disagreed with Hawkins’s post and defended the school in an article “

Sanders repeatedly quoted one passage that he found particularly objectionable:

“Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” Sanders told the committee during his introductory remarks. “This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms … we must not go backwards.”

Later, during the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, Sanders brought this up again. “Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?” he asked Vought.

Absolutely not, Senator,” Vought replied. “I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.”

After a long exchange on tax cuts for the wealthy and other issues directly relevant to Vought’s proposed role in government, this issue—Vought’s beliefs about the exclusivity of his religion—seemed to be the reason why Sanders saw him as an unacceptable candidate for office. “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders said. “I will vote no.”

The crucial part of the exchange between Sanders and Vought is as follows:

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

Sanders: I understand you are a Christian! But this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

Emma Green’s comments are, in my view, precisely correct:

Where Sanders saw Islamophobia and intolerance, Vought believed he was stating a basic principle of his belief as an evangelical Christian: that faith in Jesus is the only pathway to salvation. And where Sanders believed he was policing bigotry in public office, others believed he was imposing a religious test. As Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement, “Even if one were to excuse Senator Sanders for not realizing that all Christians of every age have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation, it is inconceivable that Senator Sanders would cite religious beliefs as disqualifying an individual for public office.”

However, on the face of it, that is precisely what Bernie Sanders did. He effectively said that anyone who holds to what was a core belief of the early Christians – and what was regarded as standard Christianity in America at the time of the when America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written – is unfit for public office.

The resignation of Tim Farron

Which brings us across the Atlantic to the case of Tim Farron. On the 14th of June – just a week after the exchange between Sanders and Vought – Tim Farron, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party, resigned.

In his resignation statement,  he said

“The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. . . . To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me.”

On the face of it, Bernie Sanders would agree. If what Sanders said to Vought is any indication, he would tell Tim Farron, “It is indeed impossible. If you hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, then you should not be in public life.”

Of course, since Sanders spoke of “what this country is about”, perhaps it would be truer to say that Sanders believes Farron should not be in public life in America. But it does seem clear that on this matter, Sanders sees things very differently from Farron.

And it is, indeed, a very interesting co-incidence these two events, both involving “Liberal Democrats”, one on each side of the Atlantic, should happen within a week.

Which indicates that the strange resignation of Tim Farron is not just about Tim Farron, or his party, or the British political climate.  It is a sign of something that is happening throughout the western world.


(To be continued).


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