There is no doubt that Christian representation in Parliament came out well in this General Election. A handful of prominent Christians including Simon Hughes, Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy lost their seats, but this was more than compensated for by an influx of new Christians across the political spectrum. Ed Miliband failed to become this country’s first atheist Prime Minister and David Cameron is back in power with a Cabinet full of Christian ministers.
Now that we are moving into the traditional phase of post-election leadership contests, there is a very real chance that for both Labour and the LibDems their new leaders could well end up being Christians, too. This country may be increasingly irreligious, but Parliament is bucking the trend. For Labour, the bookies favourite was Chuka Umunna – before he tossed in the towel. Now it is Andy Burnham. Both have stated publicly that they are Christians. Burnham, a prominent Roman Catholic, has controversially declared previously: “I’ve always said, and some people won’t like this, what I used to have to read in the Catechism, the enfranchisement of (the Church) on earth was the Labour Party.”
Many will disagree with Burnham on that assumption, including plenty of LibDems, of which, out of their remaining eight MPs, four are professing Christians. Included in that number is their ex-party President, Tim Farron, who is by far the favourite to take the top job, partly due to voting against increases to tuition fees during the last government; staunchly refusing to backtrack on his party’s previous manifesto pledge.
Farron is an intriguing political animal. There may be a large crop of Christian MPs, but few, if any, are as happy to talk about their faith as Farron. He is Vice Chairman of the Christians in Parliament group; he hosted the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in 2013; and stood up to the Advertising Standards Authority when it ruled that the ‘Healing On The Streets’ ministry in Bath was no longer able to claim in their advertising that God can heal people. He has described The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins as his least favourite book, saying: “I’m a Christian, but I don’t object to people criticising my faith or even trying to ‘disprove’ it. However, I do object to bright people like Dawkins writing uncritical and abysmally researched polemic and then parading it as a respectable work.” Most revealing, though, is his essay written for the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum’s recent book Liberal Democrats Do God, in which he writes:
To be a Christian is to accept that Jesus Christ existed, that he made the amazing claim to be God and the only true route to eternal life, and that those claims were true. If this last sentence is accurate, then, to be blunt, our personal opinions of Christians and Christianity are completely irrelevant because Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection would then become the most significant events in the history of the universe – and how you respond to these facts would be the most important decision you will ever need to make.
So what do Christians believe?
Well that God created a perfect world, that human beings have selfishly turned away from God and tainted that perfect creation, that God is a completely fair and just God and will justly judge all of us for our sin. Now, let’s explain what sin is: it’s rejecting God’s good and loving rule and choosing to put ourselves in his place. The kind of things we do to reject God’s rule over our lives differs from person to person, but the desire to push God out of our lives is the same for everyone. On that basis we are all sinners and so none of us can look forward to God’s just and fair judgement with any sense that we’ll be OK. Luckily for us, God isn’t only just and fair, he is also good, kind and merciful. He planned a way of sparing us by sending his only Son, Jesus, who took all of our sins on himself and died in our place – something that was God’s intention before creation.
He was the perfect and ultimate sacrifice. This means that anyone who puts their trust in this Jesus, will stand before God ‘clothed’ in Jesus’ goodness and purity, just as Jesus clothed himself in our rottenness and sin. This is the ultimate act of real love – Jesus was punished for our sin, and he did it willingly, not grudgingly. He did it because he loves us. Now, all we need to do to know that we can face judgement with confidence is to accept that we are a ‘sinner’, say sorry to God and ask for his forgiveness and accept Jesus as the perfect payment for every wrong thing we ever did.
To be a Christian is to submit to ultimate truth, fairness and goodness – some of which will jar with our current state of socialisation. To be a Christian is to seek to be radical, to be anti-establishment, anti-materialistic, anti-greed, other-centred, not self-centred, humble not proud, self-controlled not controlled by selfish desires… and if you are a Christian you will also know that you will fail on a daily basis to live up to all of this. But to be a Christian is to humbly kneel before God and confess those failures in the certain knowledge that God will forgive you, because he promised to. Unlike politicians God always keeps his promises.
How many politicians could or would give such a passionate presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Even many clergy would struggle to be so articulate. But Farron’s last line is also his biggest challenge to himself. Outside of Church circles such religious views are not always welcome. David Cameron’s version of Christianity, which certainly states a belief in Jesus as the Son of God but is rather fuzzy on its soteriology, is more palatable to many than one which declares that Jesus is the only way to God without exception.
But words cannot be judged apart from actions: reputations are built on substance. Tim Farron has had the luxury of not having been a government minister or having to face the pressures of compromise, like some others in his party. He has strong grassroots support, but the same cannot always be said of his (now former) colleagues. In March, following some criticism by Farron of the LibDems’ role in the Coalition, Lord (Paddy) Ashdown responded, saying: “Tim’s a very able guy but at the moment judgement is not his strong suit.” To which Vince Cable added: “He’s a very good campaigning MP, but he’s never been in government and has never had to make difficult decisions and I think his credibility isn’t great.”
Credibility is crucial in politics, and voting records are an easy way to knock people down. Just as Nicky Morgan found when she became Education Secretary, any lack of support for same-sex marriage, especially on the grounds of religious belief, is not left unchallenged. The knives quickly came out from a whole range of groups and individuals following her promotion, leading to her stating that if she had another chance she would now vote in favour. Farron now finds himself under similar pressure from his fellow contender Norman Lamb, and we see Farron publicly regretting that he was one of the nine LibDem MPs who abstained at the Third Reading of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill.
There is, of course, far more to politics and religion than views on sexuality, but Farron has a mixed record when it comes to certain ethical judgments relating to those moral matters which Christians tend to be more concerned about. He has stated in the past that he believes abortion is wrong and so voted against his party when the Termination of Pregnancy (Counselling and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was presented to Parliament in 2007. However, he was absent for the 2008 vote to reduce the upper limit for termination. When Nadine Dorries approached him in 2011, looking for his support for her Ten Minute Rule Bill on teaching abstinence as part of sex education, she received this response:
I spoke to Tim because he’s a Christian and a member of Christians in Parliament. I asked for his support and this is what he said – “I can’t Nadine, it’s a bit different now that I’m President. I really have to be careful and think of my new position first.”
In an interview with Pink News this week, along with giving his full support for same-sex marriage, Farron has also said that it was right that Ashers Bakery lost it’s ‘gay cake’ case in Northern Ireland, and that, given the choice, he would prefer faith schools not to exist. He also believes that the Church of England should be disestablished.
The LibDems have traditionally had a sizeable Christian presence in Parliament, but also have a strong and vocal LGBT and pro-abortion contingent. Any leader of a party needs to hold the views of its members in tension, but Farron’s desire to reach the top would appear to be leading him to pander to certain groups. In his essay, he writes: “To be a Christian is to submit to ultimate truth, fairness and goodness – some of which will jar with our current state of socialisation.” Sometimes that means sticking up for certain values even if it makes you unpopular and draws criticism. For a Christian, submission to God should always come before submission to man.
There is a belief among many Christians that party politics and faith can never really mix. To have a party leader with a sound grasp of the gospel and who is fully committed to his or her faith – to the point of demonstrating it in the voting choices they make – would go a long way to disproving this view. Tim Farron has that chance and he carries the hopes of many Christians and non-Christians both within and outside of the Liberal Democrats. This could be an opportunity for him to forge ahead with a leadership built on personal integrity and strong moral conviction. He has many fine qualities that will serve him well should he win, but, as it stands – certainly on recent evidence – the indication is that when it comes to political ambition and Christian conviction, there is only one winner.