Britain has a somewhat confused attitude to religion. We take a dim view of religion’s overall contribution to the world but on balance we’d like a bit more of it in British public life. I suppose that many of us are thinking of militant Islam and wars in the Middle East when we think of the big, geopolitical picture. When we think of Britain we have an honest-to-goodness Anglicanism in mind and the hope it might provide a kinder, more ethical public life. Fifty-five per cent of us think Britain is a Christian country, and very slightly more – 58 per cent – want it to be.
The election of a churchgoing rather than census-only Christian to the leadership of the Liberal Democrats provides another test of the public mood. How are we going to react to a man whose faith is serious and, this is crucial: Evangelical? Tim Farron is not a Christian whose faith resembles the patchy reception of Magic FM radio on a journey through the Chilterns, fading in and out. You may remember that was how David Cameron once described his own belief. And it’s very different from Tony Blair’s too. Blair was a pioneering supporter of homosexual equality and a defender of abortion rights. Tim Farron abstained on the gay marriage vote in the last parliament and has described every abortion as a tragedy. He has repeatedly said that biblical Christianity is central to everything he is – as a person and a politician.
But where is Mr Farron now? He seems to have recognised the danger of appearing “too Christian”. Throughout most of his time in Parliament he wore a small, fish-shaped Ichthus badge in his jacket lapel to testify to his faith. That seems to have gone. He has also expressed some regret at his vote on same-sex marriage. He has not taken any substantial anti-abortion positions in recent times. Without these positional adjustments he might not have been elected as Nick Clegg’s successor: the Liberal Democrats are probably more socially liberal and permissive than the Tories or Labour.
The way that the media reacted to his election will have confirmed his instinct to be cautious. On Radio 4’s Today programme John Humphrys appeared worried that Mr Farron prayed. On Channel 4 News Cathy Newman appeared to believe that Mr Farron aspired to persecute gay people. It’s hard to believe that an atheist, traditional Anglican or Catholic would have faced quite the same kind of probing of their belief system. Devout Evangelicalism and its biblical certainties provoke a different level of interrogation, however. The media class probably would like to quiz Muslims in a similar way, but their fearlessness appears to know limits.
For however long Mr Farron is leader of his party he’ll be an ambassador for Christianity as well as for liberal democracy, and I suspect that responsibility rests heavily on his conscience. While I, as a Tory, will never vote for his bigger state, pre-Clegg interpretation of his party’s purpose, he can strive to do at least two important things for all of us.
First, he can raise the tone of the political debate. David Cameron once promised to end the Punch and Judy style of politics but admits to failing. Can Mr Farron succeed? With just seven MPs sat alongside him and media attention understandably focused on the SNP benches, he’s not going to get many parliamentary or TV opportunities to impress. But generosity to his opponents’ motives and a more civilised tone will win more admirers over the long-run than the short-run adrenalin spike that politicians get from incendiary attacks on opponents.
A second great objective should be to prove that Christian politicians have minds as well as hearts. There’s too much soggy thinking in the Christian contribution to politics. Church of England defences of the welfare state spring to mind. The Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change was also very disappointing. Unlike, say, Bill Gates’s forward thinking on investing in new clean technologies, Pope Francis embraced discredited thinking from 30 years ago. If Tim Farron can advance rigorous policy responses to the issues that matter to him – notably the housing crisis – he might persuade some sceptics that the Evangelical mind is in good shape. Over to you, Mr Farron.
Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for
The Times and Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute
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