There are plenty of people who think that you shouldn’t mix faith and politics. For some, such as the National Secular Society, they have made it a mission to keep the two as far apart as possible. But as we’ve seen repeatedly over the last few days, the newly-elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, is quite determined to make sure that, for him at least, the two should be able to come together without conflict or contradiction.
Having had a baptism of fire from the media on his first day in charge, one can’t help but wonder if he’s secretly thinking how much easier things could be if he’d followed the route of keeping things largely to himself, like his former leader Charles Kennedy did; or taking the ‘we’re just not going to go there’ approach of Tony Blair under the direction of Alastair Campbell.
The day started with The Times publishing an editorial entitled ‘Illiberal Democrat‘, which reasonably described him as an Evangelical Christian but then went on to say that “he believes that every word written in the Bible is literal truth”, which is a gross misinterpretation of what he has said in the past and demonstrates an ignorance of how the Bible, which includes poetry and allegory, was written. This portrayal of Farron as an irrational, religious fundamentalist continued by criticising him for failing to embrace the “quintessentially liberal idea that every person has equal moral worth”. All this because he didn’t fully support every aspect of the Same-Sex Marriage Act, and that he has also said that “every abortion is a tragedy”. Surely believing that a foetus is fully human is a strong indication that you do consider that each human is of equal moral worth?
John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme was Farron’s breakfast port of call, and rather than being grilled over his plans for the party, Humphreys devoted much of his time to interrogating him over whether he prayed about various aspects of his job. The assumption appeared to be that praying and asking God for wisdom and help is a completely bonkers thing to do, and that it can only lead to palpably unsound decisions. You could almost hear John Humphreys thinking to himself that ‘this man actually believes that God listens to him – he’s crazier than I thought!’
Later in the day, Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News was just as obsessed with discussing Christian beliefs, and was intent on giving Farron another hard time over it. Not long after the interview began, she went for the jugular: “Personally, though, do you think as a Christian that homosexual sex is a sin?” She knew full well that if she could extract such an admission from him, there would be uproar. Farron knew this too, and replied by saying that we are all sinners. Not happy with this response she dug her teeth in: “Ok, but when the Bible says that ‘you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination’, you don’t have any problem with that?” As you might expect, Farron refused to give a straight answer. It would be almost impossible for even the best biblical scholar to give a fully contextual and sufficiently well explained answer in the few seconds Farron had available to him.
This did not resemble a political interview: it had become a baiting exercise designed to trip up and discredit someone’s faith. And, once again, Christianity was seen as a soft target. Can you imagine the Secretary of State for Business and Innovation, Sajid Javid, who happens to be a Muslim, being repeatedly badgered over whether he agreed with the Qur’an’s sura 4:16, where it says that if two men commit a lewd act, they should be put to death? It just wouldn’t happen.
Or will we see Jeremy Corbyn being grilled at length on which bit of pseudoscience leads him to believe that homeopathy is a legitimate form of medical treatment? There’s no chance, in comparison, that the next Labour leader, whoever it turns out to be, will receive an aggressive probing about where any internal moral compass is derived, even though there is just as much necessity to find this out.
At least 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”.
It’s interesting to note that the criticism of Tim Farron mixing God and politics is, on the whole, not coming from his fellow MPs. Many of them from across the political spectrum are also Christians and hold similar views on the moral issues he has been attacked for. They, too, know how hard it is to hold these facets of their identity in tension, and how much of a backlash it could cause them if they were totally open and honest about some of those views which are tied, at least in part, to their religious convictions.
Instead, 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.
This whole episode has demonstrated that it is not Tim Farron who is being illiberal in his views and beliefs, but rather those who have set themselves up as a liberal elite, casting scorn and treating as pariahs those who do not bow down at the throne of secularism. God has been pushed to the margins, and religious illiteracy glories in its own folly. There is absolutely nothing in this arrogance that we should be cheering about. It is nothing short of shameful.