In my first three articles about the resignation of Tim Farron, I looked successively at
- the growing hostility in western culture to some traditional Christian beliefs – a hostility so strong that some people seem to think that people who hold these beliefs have no place in public life;
- Tim Farron’s personal struggles
- some significant stories about the Liberal Democrats (especially the long-running Jenny Tonge saga and Tim Farron’s role in it) – and what these tell us, not only about what was actually going on and what the party stood for, but also about modern political culture and Tim Farron.
All these things show that Tim Farron faced various problems. Some, undoubtedly related to his own personal qualities – including the matter of whether he had been as wise (and as consistent) as he ought to have been. But he faced a problem which is much more significant – because of what it says about modern culture, and about the future of Christianity in the public square.
Aliens and strangers
The problem is two-fold.
Firstly, it is ideological. The culture is changing. While Christian values used to be, to at least some extent, part of western culture, that is rapidly changing. Christians who hold to the values of the Bible are now aliens and strangers in our culture – pretty much like the Christians in the pagan world of the Roman Empire in the days of the apostles. In a strange sort of way, we find ourselves back in New Testament times.
Anna Strhan is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent and, author of a recent book about how conservative evangelicals see themselves fitting into modern Britain – entitled Aliens and Strangers. In a recent blog post on the Tim Farron’s resignation, she tells of how the minister of a church, in a question and answer session after the sermon at a Sunday evening service, stated that the ‘social and political tectonic plates of Britain are shifting radically, as we move from once-Christian – at least nominally – through to post-Christian Britain….’
Tolerance and liberalism
But this is not just about secularisation. There is a second problem: western society’s increasing unwillingness to tolerate views that it finds unpalatable. In particular it does not like beliefs that are seen as criticising or condemning other people or groups of people.
- Bernie Sanders was horrified that someone can believe that those who reject Jesus Christ stand condemned. He feels that is an insult to Muslims, and is therefore Islamophobia.
- Many have been horrified at Jenny Tonge’s strong criticism of the actions of the Israeli government, and see this as an insult to Jews, and therefore antisemitism.
- David Laws is horrified at the thought that someone can believe that same-sex relationships are immoral. He sees this as an insult to gays, and therefore homophobia.
- And apparently there is widespread horror at the belief that abortion amounts to deliberately killing a human being, because this amounts to condemning women who have abortions, and since men cannot have abortions, if you are against abortion, you are a misogynist.
Strhan speaks about Christians feeling that “wider society is not especially liberal” when it comes to their holding to traditional Christian teaching as private beliefs. One could say that it comes down to an increasing unwillingness to tolerate what seems to be intolerance – but I think that Strhan’s use of the phrase “not especially liberal” is much more helpful in the current political context.
What is liberalism?
The question for the Liberal Democrats is “what exactly does it mean to be liberal?” David Laws says “you cannot be a leader of a liberal party while holding fundamentally illiberal and prejudiced views, … and speaks about “Tim’s failure to be able to give direct and liberal responses on his own attitudes to homosexuality. ” For Laws, being liberal seems to mean not to disapprove of a person: “as a gay man, I do not wish to be “tolerated”. I wish to be respected for who I am.” He speaks about recognising the equality of all people regardless of “sex, sexuality, race, creed or colour” and concludes “Tolerating irrational prejudice has nothing to do with the liberalism I know and love.”
Ian Dunt (and Tim Farron) see liberalism differently. Speaking of the pressure Farron came over about his own personal views, Dunt (in an article entitled The illiberal persecution of Tim Farron) says
“After a while, he had to give in and say gay sex wasn’t a sin. The sight of him doing so troubled me deeply. It felt like a witchhunt. And it looked like someone having to renounce a tenets of his faith in order to satisfy modern societal norms.”
“This is not liberalism. Farron is entitled to think gay sex is a sin. That, after all, is in the Bible that he adheres to. He is entitled to think abortion is wrong. What he is not entitled to do is to limit the freedom of others to do these things. Liberalism is not about approval. Liberalism couldn’t give a damn what you approve of. It is the belief that each individual must be free to do whatever they like up until the point where it limits the freedoms of others. As long as he does not plan to stop gay men having sex or women having abortions, Farron can hold whatever spiritual mumbo-jumbo in his head about their actions that he likes. Liberalism is defined by actions, not thoughts.
It is hard to shake the feeling that Farron has essentially been persecuted because of his faith. It is not really his record that is under question. It is that his personal convictions are unsayable among liberals. And that seems to completely miss the point of what liberalism is about. ”
Notice that Dunt is willing to accept a distinction between sexual behaviour and sexual orientation, whereas for Laws, sexual behaviour is part of what you are. Laws thinks in terms of respecting people groups; Dunt thinks in terms of allowing opinions and actions. And, significantly, Dunt speaks about freedoms 6 times in 1000 words, but Laws doesn’t mention freedoms at all in his 600 words.
How should we then live?
For Christians, the message is that we need to get used to being aliens and strangers in our culture. In fact, we need to be comfortable with it – as comfortable as a Christian can be in the present world. This is not our home, and we should not expect the culture that surrounds us to be Christian. If we do expect our culture to be be Christian, we are going to be perpetually disappointed. That was not a mistake the early Christians (living in the pagan Greco-Roman world) made. We need to stop making it. And church leaders need to ensure that Christians to see this, and to enable them engage with their neighbours in ways that help people see the Christian message positively.
That is the message – the crucial lesson that we need to learn from Tim Farron’s resignation. But there is, I think, a practical application – about the nitty gritty of the messy business of Christian political involvement. The story of Tim Farron shows what a messy business it is. It also shows the need for wisdom – particularly for those who get actively involved, but even for those who just vote. (Of course, one could make a case that Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics at all, but since that is very much a minority viewpoint, I’ll not address it.)
Liberalism and the golden rule
It seems to me that the main political lesson Christians should take from this is the need to value tolerance – or, if you prefer, ‘liberalism’. Tim Farron ended his resignation statement with a call for tolerance:
“I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.”
But he didn’t just use the word tolerance. He also used the word “liberal” – the word that Anna Strhan used when she spoke of evangelicals feeling that wider society is not especially liberal when it came to what they believed. The word “liberal” is used in many different ways, of course, but Strhan is using it in the way the way that Farron and Ian Dunt were using it. This is what Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel would have hoped for in Babylon; it is what the early Christians would have hoped for in the midst of the pagan Roman Empire. They would have wanted society to have been happy to allow them to believe what they believed – and to respect their right to believe it.
And if we want it for ourselves, then the words of Jesus Christ – that we should do to others what we would like them to do to us – suggest that Christians should forthright in supporting tolerance towards beliefs that we strongly disagree with. In other words, we ought to be, in the best sense of the word, liberal in our politics.