Tim Farron’s religious belief and two distinct strains of secular liberalism…

First, Nick Cohen

The media complain about ‘career politicians’. Yet when politicians come along who aren’t Oxford PPEists, who have progressed via think tanks and spadships to safe seats without their feet touching the ground, journalists are shocked by their failure to conform to contemporary mores.

Then, “His Grace”

…when Jeremy Vine asked questions of Tim Farron’s Christianity and voting record on his Radio 2 show, he allowed him to answer and then quickly moved the conversation on. The difference is that Vine is a Christian too, but more than that, he knows how difficult it is to be open about your religious beliefs in the media.

Back in 2009, in an interview for the United Reformed Church’s Reform magazine, he said: “One of the things I think, which may sound bizarre, is that Christ is who he said he was. I don’t think I’d put that out on my show; I suppose there is a bit of a firewall between thinking that and doing the job I do.” He added that “blurting out” his religious beliefs would be “destructive” to his job because it is now “almost socially unacceptable to say you believe in God”.

Cohen again:

It would be very easy to denounce Farron as a hypocrite. Perhaps he is just waiting until he takes power (a wait that may be a long one, I hear you say) to unleash his prejudices on gays, women, who want abortions, and anyone else who transgressed this or that Biblical prohibition. He clearly believes in the literal truth of Leviticus and thinks homosexuality is a sin, but lacks the guts to say so openly.

Whatever else I may think of his doltish credulity, I do not think Farron is a danger to gays or that his public statements hide a malevolent purpose. He is just making an argument for tolerance, which anyone can make regardless of their beliefs. We don’t hear it too often because modern culture insists that we ‘passionately’ endorse the ‘life choices’ of others. Farron’s case is less phoney, and more likely to convince doubters because it does not ask them to lie, and feign an enthusiasm where none exists.

And finally, “His Grace”:

…it is the print media and broadcasters who have developed the opinion that faith is a hindrance to politics, and that anyone who has strong religious beliefs should be treated with suspicion.

So much of this is due to nothing more than ignorance and prejudice. Politicians, like all of us, get their values and motivations from somewhere: we don’t just wait for then to fall into our laps out of thin air.

And anyone who thinks that a secular outlook on life is more advanced and in some way benignly neutral has bought themselves a set of the Emperor’s new clothes. Too many attitudes toward religion are simply wrong because they are based on false perceptions.

The most valid journalistic approach would be to take the time to learn and understand what drives those with a faith, but it is far easier (and entertaining) to patronise them as a deluded minority who deserve both pity or ridicule.

Hard to think he could make it far in Northern Ireland these days, given the feverish levels of passion around marriage equality issue. [No one expects the Liberal Inquisition! “Cardinal, the rack!” – Ed]

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  • Disdain

    I find it very hard to object to how Tim Farron has handled this. How refreshing would it be to see (say) Jim Wells say

    1. I am a Christian
    2. My personal Christianity will not be the decisive motivation in my politics.

    To quote from a Guardian piece on this:

    “I think you should have every right to love who you love, marry who
    you wish,” he [Farron] told Sky News. “I believe and support equality under law,
    equal dignity and that includes people, whatever their sexuality. So,
    I’m a liberal to my fingertips.”

    “I am not the archbishop of Canterbury and I do not go around making religious or theological announcements,” said Farron.

  • “I find it very hard to object to how Tim Farron has handled this.”

    Others in his party are not so forgiving…

    Appearing on Channel 4 News, Tim Farron was asked three times if he believes homosexual sex is a sin.

    Three times, he didn’t give a direct answer, instead choosing to say “my firm belief is we are all sinners”.

    Plenty of Liberal Democrats who actively campaign for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have sought to offer Mr Farron their support.

    But others are worried.

    Still bruised by its crushing losses at the general election, Mr Farron’s critics don’t want to publicly clash with him just hours into his leadership.

    But those critics are there.

    “I was quite taken aback when I watched the interview, given he must have known he would be asked about it,” a former Lib Dem MP told me.

    “The fact that he thinks we are all sinners isn’t much comfort to those of us who firmly believe there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with homosexuality,” they said.

    “He needs to be honest about his Christian convictions, instead of trying to be too much like a politician about it. There are those of his faith and others that would agree with him, that it is a sin. He should say it. At least that would have the benefit of him being honest.”

  • Turgon

    A lot of this comes from the failure of evangelical Christians to explain what many / most of them believe the Bible says about sexual relationships. Furthermore many (including evangelical Christians) get obsessed by sexual sins and fail to note other sins which are just as important (all sins being equally important in the sight of God). Many of the Bible’s sternest condemnations are of greed, love of money, treating other people (and even animals) badly etc.

    The next issue is that many evangelical Christians suggest that the morality of Christianity is for those who profess Christianity and the world is under no obligation to show any interest whatsoever. This is the thinking behind the chief minister of Guernsey Jonathan Le Tocq (himself a minister in an evangelical church) supporting arguably the most “progressive” marriage law thus far suggested with his Union Civile proposal.

    Turning to what the Bible actually says about sexual sins. It suggests that sex outside (before or during) marriage is a sin. It also indeed suggests homosexual sex is a sin.

    Many try to suggest that Jesus never forbade homosexual sex. However, he arguably did more see Matthew 5:28-30:

    but I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. 29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and notthat thy whole body should be cast into hell. 30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

    The suggestion from this passage is that even a lustful look is a sin and there is absolutely no reason to suggest that, although the comment is made in the context of men lusting after women, it does not equally apply to women lusting after men or men after men or women after women.

    Then though there is the other side. Jesus prevented a woman taken in adultery being stoned to death but nonetheless told her to sin no more. John 8: 1-10. He then goes on to say he judges no one.

    Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. 3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4 they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? 6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their ownconscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? 11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

    The upshot of this is that Christians and everyone else sins daily but should try to sin less.

    Properly followed Christianity as understood by evangelical Christians is not meant to be an easy or even particularly nice to yourself religion (deny yourself and take up your cross etc.). It is mainly about the individual believers behaviour towards God and others, not really about those not involved in Christianity.

    Now not all Christians hold to such a position but it looks like Farron does. That may inform some of his actions but I doubt very much he would seek to impose such beliefs on those outside the church. This (originally Brethren) position of pretty complete separation between church or religious morality and state morality is becoming increasingly popular amongst many Christians possibly especially Calvinists (though Farron being CoE is unlikely to be a Calvinist).

    Trying to explain such in the context of a brief bit of a fairly brief television interview is pretty difficult.

  • Disdain

    Surely that MP has got the wrong end of the stick – I presume when Farron says “we are all sinners”, he is speaking in the universal, need-for-redemption sense?

  • AndyB

    I was at a church service last year when the minister said that you can’t expect non-Christians to behave according to Christian mores.

    In saying that, my personal Christianity is the decisive motivation in my politics (re @Disdain ‘s comment below), but socially I’m a liberal. Because I’m a Christian, there is legislation I would like to see passed to look after the poor and reward hard work (including hard work by the rich, just to be clear about this), because social justice is a massive thing in the Bible. I don’t claim a Christian monopoly on this either, because social justice is much bigger than the Church.

    On the other hand, as a Christian, I don’t think that “enabling sinful behaviour” is a reason on its own to oppose socially liberal legislation. Plenty of “sinful behaviour” is already perfectly legal – including greed, both financial and food (ignore my 19 stone 6’1 frame please!) – and for the sake of argument, my opinion on equal marriage is that it doesn’t affect me and my marriage, so I don’t think I can particularly oppose it, and on the other hand, it does very much affect my friends who cannot currently get married.

    It’s a question of choosing your battles – there is plenty that Christians should be opposing, but opposing equal marriage seems to me to be a diversion from things that have a serious negative impact on other people.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Nick Cohen’s grammar in the first line is somewhat difficult to read.

    The media complain about ‘career politicians’. Yet when politicians come along who aren’t Oxford (possibly replace with ‘Oxbridge’) PPEists (remove comma) who have progressed via think tanks and spadships to safe seats without their feet touching the ground, journalists are shocked by their failure to conform to contemporary mores.

    With the comma the non-PPEist seems like the one not pounded the pavement, rather than the ones who move through party ranks through party university groups and intern in party research groups.

    Congratulations to Tim Farron, but although not a PPEist, he does have a BA in Politics, which does make him a “P(sans PE)ist”.

  • Kev Hughes


    I found your piece above to be excellent, many thanks for sharing this here. Being a Catholic and a liberal, I find life somewhat difficult, especially explaining this to other liberals.

    Whilst you and I disagree on much, I am a firm believer of faith, even in god. I am a massive doubter also, but my childhood, schooling and background have made it so that where I may be an atheist or even agnostic I just find this a step too far for myself. So, thank you for this considered piece.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And thereby a recognition that there are other significant forces at play in our pick and mix age. It’s also useful to be reminded of the ‘doltish’ liberal fascist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCzKOYUvD3E

    Surely the politics of the personal can only go so far. It’s kinda like the Tracey Emin phenomenon where you have to like Tracey to like the work. By extension some of us show the ‘impossibility of dissociation’ by saying “I don’t like Picasso (his work implicit) because he was a misogynist/hated women/treated women like playthings etc.”

    Matthew 7:16 “Ye shall know them by their fruits”

  • Not clear why liberalism must be secular. Indeed the great liberalism was a heady mix of evangelical reformism, humanism, rational enlightenment and laissez faire capitalism/industrialism. Even today Liberal Party strength lies in the non-conformist regions – most notably in the Methodist South West. Liberalism did not arise as as secular movement, but from a sense that God entrusted man with wealth and good fortune and that this must be repaid through philanthropy and that men as equals should be supported when misfortune befalls. Was that perfect, no. Was it an aspiration that was humanly failed but no less desired, yes.

  • Disdain

    AndyB – I should acknowledge, I was implying in my below comment that Christianity could only lead to social conservatism. That is obviously completely wrong, as your case demonstrates, and was a touch lazy from me.

    Fair play to you in any case for being a Christian who can lobby for positions based on Christianity; lobby for positions counter to some aspects of Christianity; and see the distinction between your personal faith and everyone else.

    I am an atheist, but when a person of faith acts in such a way, I can have no objections to your faith and practice of it – á la your opinion of equal marriage, if it doesn’t directly and invasively affect me, who am I to give a feck?*

    *(And that, folks, is J.S. Mill’s liberalism in one paragraph!)

  • AndyB

    Thank you 🙂

    I reckon that “Who am I to give a feck” is pretty much why the equal marriage referendum passed down south.

    I would say, in my defence, that I wouldn’t say that I would ever knowingly lobby for a position counter to aspects of Christianity, or at least counter to fundamentals of Christianity, such as the right to be a Christian and tell others why.

    Perhaps counter to some interpretations of Christianity, mind you.

  • Disdain

    “counter to some interpretations of Christianity” is exactly what I meant, aye.