Tim Farron’s resignation spells dark times ahead for Christians in politics

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron speaks to media and supporters after the 2017 General Election (Getty images)

The small earthquake that is the resignation of Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was presaged yesterday by Lord Paddick resigning from his position as the party’s Home Affairs spokesman. It seems that this had everything to do with Tim Farron’s “views” on homosexuality and abortion. Then came the bigger news that Mr Farron was resigning. The Guardian report tells us:

Farron issued a statement on Wednesday night saying he felt “remaining faithful to Christ” was incompatible with leading his party. It is understood several senior figures in the party had visited Farron in recent days to attempt to persuade him to step down, though he was initially reluctant.
“From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.
“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,” he said in a televised statement.
“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.”

This is another reminder, if we needed one, that anyone who holds to the traditional line on marriage and other moral issues such as abortion, will not, it seems, be tolerated in public life. Mr Farron, let us remember, was forced to recant, but this, it seems was not enough.

Let us also remember the continuing scorn poured on the DUP, soon to be the government’s allies in the House of Commons, for their unacceptable views. Nor should we forget what happened to the former MP for the Isle of Wight, Andrew Turner, who was “forced out” as a Conservative candidate, for saying that he believed gay sex to be wrong. Be warned. If you want to have a public career, then you must conform to the new orthodoxies.

But what does this mean for our political conversation and the health of our democracy? Nothing good, I fear.

Democracy is about the search for consensus in a pluralist society. In that pluralist society, for democracy to be healthy, no one must be excluded. All voices have a right to be heard. This is why, in this country, we have never, ever, made any political party illegal. Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts were allowed to campaign and to contest elections in the 1930’s, even though many must have found his political positions repugnant. Mosley was only imprisoned during the War under special measures that certainly do not apply today.

It would be hard to argue that the Blackshirts in any way enriched the national conversation, but the fact that they were not banned in peacetime is a reminder to us all that democracy is essentially tolerant, and that in political life we should aim to persuade rather than coerce.

The philosophy that should underpin our national conversation has been beautifully laid out by the late John Rawls. (Forgive me if you have heard this before: he was the subject of my doctorate.) Rawls invented the concept of the “Original Position” and the equally important concept of “the Proviso”. This latter says you are entitled to advance religious ideas in the public square as long as they are expressed in the language of rationality. Conversely, you are not allowed to advance religious ideas which rest solely on religious (one might say revealed) grounds, as such ideas will be opaque to people who do not share your faith.

So, if you are a Sabbatarian, you are perfectly entitled to advance the idea of Sunday being a day off, because all people need a day off once a week, and it is sensible, and enriching for society, to have a particular day set aside for this. That rational approach may well be heard in the public square, while a Christian fundamentalist one will not be.

Hence, when Catholics speak about the wrongness of abortion, we do so using the language of universal human rights, and speak of the absolute value of human life, rather than referring to the Bible. (Here am I on the radio, doing exactly that to the best of my ability, by the way.) When we speak about gay marriage, we need to do so in terms that are not exclusively religious.

At no point has Mr Farron acted like a religious fundamentalist, as far as I can see, and advanced ideas in a way that relies exclusively on religious revelation. He may have said things in the past that people like Lord Paddick do not agree with, but why should people expect unanimity on such matters? Do those who have forced Mr Farron’s resignation wish to see some modern version of the Test Act introduced? Why is it now the case that the Liberal Democrat party leader cannot be a Christian?

What people are failing to understand here is the relationship between religious belief and rational discourse. The two go together, and have always done so, and one inspires the other, while the other corrects the other if necessary. Religious belief plays a critical, integrating and stimulating role in forming political ideas. If religious people are to be excluded from politics, then politics will be the poorer. Remember what they used to say about the Labour party: it owed more to Methodism than Marxism; the Liberal party was also deeply informed by Nonconformity. Are these sources of inspiration now to be closed off for ever?

There is one final irony. The hounding of Mr Farron is hardly democratic and certainly not liberal. As he himself says: “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.” These words should depress everyone, religious or not, for they signal the impoverishment of our political discourse.