15 June 2017

Tim Farron was true to his faith – is that such a bad thing?


Tim Farron says he has resigned as Liberal Democrat leader because he found the role incompatible with being a faithful follower of Christ. Less kind souls than you and I, Dear Reader, might speculate that Vince Cable would have taken his leadership job anyway, whether he resigned or not. But let us take him at his word and ask whether it is indeed possible to be a leader of a liberal party as Christian.

Traditionally, liberalism was regarded as having arisen from Christianity, not being in tension with it. Classical English liberalism is typically seen as reflecting the principles of John Locke, as set out in his famous Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke, in that book, is heavily influenced by (and quotes at length) the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker. Locke’s model of political society is an extension to the political realm of the principles Hooker sets out for the organisation of an earthly church.

Hooker regards the specific organisation of earthly churches or political society as one of the “things indifferent” to God. We can organise our society this way or that, have this policy or that one, and even if the policy is not the perfect one, that is only a secondary matter that we should not allow to conflict with our personal piety.

Hooker, in turn, gets the doctrine of “things indifferent” from the reformation humanist Melanchthon — a man you’ve probably never heard of partly because so many of his ideas became utterly dominant that we later thought of them as the standard or orthodox view. Only thinkers who have “alternative” schools of thought need their names attached to them. The truly great thinker is so victorious that everyone forgets his.

Melanchthon sought to find a means by which Catholics and Lutheran Protestants could coexist, perhaps even within one Church. His concept was that, provided all could agree on a set of core doctrines (in particular, concerning the means of salvation) other practices such as what vestments priests wore and some other aspects of worship and even of Christian conduct could all be regarded as things indifferent.

In modern parlance, we might say that provided people are not violent, respect private property, obey the law (driving offences and tax deadlines aside) and respect democracy, it’s fine if they think it’s taboo/sinful/wrong (whatever you want to call it) to eat kosher food or carry out kosher butchery, or not eat meat or be a vegan, or allow your daughter to go out in public with her face showing or to forbid your daughter to go out in public with her face showing, or to listen to heavy metal or to make your children learn to play the violin, or to divorce your spouse or to stay in a loveless marriage.

A classical liberal would also normally believe people could be classical liberals while holding a range of opinions. For example, you could believe kosher butchery immoral/taboo/sinful (whatever you want to call it) and at the same time believe the law ought to permit kosher butchery.

That has the convenient result of allowing not only that a range of secondary matters (“things indifferent”) be permitted as everyday conduct, but also that those that make the laws can come with a range of personal opinions provided they defend classical liberal policymaking. We would think it a rather rum sort of “liberalism” that said, for example, you can be a Muslim or vegan or a heavy metal fan in everyday life, but Muslims and vegans and heavy metal fans are forbidden from being MPs.

Not everything is a secondary matter, though, and not everything needs to be tolerated. The Elizabethan settlement in the Anglican church excluded the papist and the puritan. Toleration has its limits. And opinions that we might tolerate as oddball views among individuals might rule you out from being in charge.

Someone who claimed that he was Julius Caesar and had found that the Ides of March attack had made him immortal might be regarded as an amusing eccentric but that view might be seen as rendering him unsuitable to be an MP. A woman who said that of course she wouldn’t lynch interracial couples herself and accepted  such marriages should be permitted by the law, but didn’t see why past lynching of such couples was such a big deal might be tolerated if she were the only person one ever met with that view, but you wouldn’t want her as prime minister.

The question then, is, whether in our society orthodox Christian beliefs have ceased to be secondary matters that wider society can disagree with but tolerate, either in general or more specifically in policymakers such as MPs, even if those MPs are themselves classical liberals.

For Farron, the point he was most challenged on was his attitude to homosexual sex. He was repeatedly asked if he believed it wrong, because the Christian fellowship of which he was a member quite straightforwardly does regard gay sex as taboo/sinful/wrong (or whatever you want to call it). He initially tried to defend himself as any classical liberal would — saying that the core of his politics is the view that one’s personal beliefs about right and wrong do not and should not determine one’s views as to what should be forbidden or required by the law.

That wasn’t enough. He was pressed and pressed and finally said he did not regard gay sex as wrong. The only conclusion one could draw from that was that his initial reluctance to state his view was because he did not want to confess to fellow members of his church that he did not agree with them. It’s perfectly possible that, if his congregation was very conservative, stating publicly that he dissented from them on a matter as fundamental as that (which is basically saying he doesn’t believe the Bible is right) might lead to his being de facto dis-fellowshipped (ex-communicated). If that was the result, I hope the journalists who hounded him feel proud of their work.

If indeed for a Christian to have the same view of gay sex as a Jew has of pork-eating is now a primary matter in political society to the extent that political leaders are not permitted to have such a view even if they do not state it publicly and even if they have classical liberal views about how the law should regard gay sex, that quite straightforwardly means that orthodox Christians cannot be political leaders — certainly not political leaders of classical liberal parties.

Because let us be quite clear: for Bible-believing Christians, the belief that gay sex falls into the same category vegans place egg-eating (sinful/wrong, or whatever you want to call it) is a primary, not a secondary matter. To believe that gay sex is not wrong is to not be a Bible-believing Christian. And if you are not a Bible-believing Christian that is likely to mean you are not in full fellowship with other Christians.

The question, then, we as a society need to grapple with is a simple one. We are not obliged to tolerate everything — indeed we should not do so. Do we want to tolerate Bible-believing Christians? And in particular, do we want to tolerate Bible-believing Christians among our political leaders? If the answer is no, does that mean we also believe we cannot have political leaders from other groups that, likewise, regard gay sex as belonging to the same category as Jews place pork-eating — Muslim political leaders, for example?

And if we feel we cannot have either Bible-believing Christian or Muslim political leaders, can we really claim, with a straight face, to be a liberal society at all?

Andrew Lilico is an economist and political writer