There was a time when being gay ended your career as Liberal leader. Now it’s practically compulsory.
At least Tim Farron might be forgiven for thinking so, given the hostile media treatment he has received in the past few days.
Farron is a Liberal Democrat MP (ask your dad) and a practising Christian (ask your granddad) who has just been elected leader of his party. In a more compassionate country, this would be an occasion for sympathy, perhaps an encouraging pat on the arm. “There, there, mate. It could be worse. You could be leading the Scottish Labour Party.”
Instead, the news media are pursuing Farron like Roman lions with the scent of blood. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale was asked three times on Channel 4 News whether he deemed gay sex a sin. The question also dominated an interview with Sky News. I avoided Songs of Praise this weekend for fear he might be consulted for his views on Grindr.
The Times generously allowed: “There is no intrinsic incompatibility between fervent belief and political leadership.” This will have come as a relief to Messrs Gladstone (High Church Anglican), Asquith (Congregationalist), and Campbell-Bannerman (Church of Scotland).
We are all treading the steps of a deceptive dance. We in the media know Farron is an evangelical Christian and are aware of the orthodox teachings on homosexuality. Farron knows we know but knows he can’t answer; the label “bigot” stings and weeks and months of fresh questions – “What is the Lib Dem policy on wearing a linen/wool blend suit to a casino on the Sabbath?” – would be personally and politically damaging.
So we will go on pressing the issue and he will go on dodging it but because the balance of power lies with the media, the question will not go away. It could very well come to define his leadership. The new Lib Dem leader will enjoy only a fraction of the news coverage of his predecessor. Every minute spent talking about Leviticus is a minute where the party fails to carve out a fresh role for itself in British politics.
It is legitimate for journalists to ask Farron’s policy intentions on same-sex marriage, Section 28, or the age of consent and for that matter on abortion, Sunday trading, divorce, stem cell research, or religious instruction in schools. However, he has indicated no desire to introduce or repeal any legislation on religious grounds. In fact, he says he wants to extend the benefits of marriage to transgender people by closing the “spousal veto” loophole.
His views on homosexuality, the nature of love, and fidelity to God are therefore a private matter. (As leader of an eight-MP party, very private indeed.) As I followed the coverage over the weekend, I began to feel uneasy about the tone and object of much of it. There was more than a hint of bullying but there was something more than that. It was as if Farron was being forced to account for his religious faith. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Anglican church?
This kind of gleeful inquisition, left unchallenged, risks establishing a precedent. If the treatment of Farron is allowed to stand, other people of faith who seek out public service could find their personal relationship to God under interrogation. Even the most aggressive atheist cannot relish the idea of resurrecting the Test Acts and setting them in reverse.
Are Muslim candidates for high office to be grilled on whether they believe Mohammed flew from Mecca to Jerusalem on a winged horse one night before ascending to the seven heavens and haggling with God over how many times per day Muslims must pray? The story of the Isra and Mi’raj will sound absurd to non-believers and individual Muslims will have their own interpretations. But adherence to all five pillars of one of the great Abrahamic faiths does not prevent a politician from reforming education or improving the health service.
What about Orthodox Jews? Should those who keep kosher be kept from power? We might demand that they offer constituency surgeries on Saturday mornings or renounce the Biblical claim to Eretz Yisrael. And while tolerance of Catholics in public life took many centuries to realise, wouldn’t it be a right laugh to watch a would-be prime minister squirm on Question Time when asked if he really reckoned he was eating flesh and blood at Mass.
The decline of organised religion in the West is either celebrated as a victory for rationalism or lamented as a symbol of moral decay. I have some sympathy with both views. The stranglehold of the Catholic Church, for instance, was by its end a spiritually and intellectually deadening force and one that gave licence at times to profoundly evil behaviour.
Nevertheless, the vacuum has not been filled by material wealth, political struggle, philosophy or New Age spirituality. Nor were all the inheritances malignant, and we have still to see whether Judeo-Christian concepts of the family, human dignity, and moral order survive the hollowing out of that tradition. Nietzsche’s madman may have been a lunatic singing in church but he may also have been right.
In a public discourse bent on identity, desire, and a soulless commerce between legal rights and civic responsibilities, religion now offers a space (ironically enough) to pursue Aristotle’s notion of The Good Life, characterised memorably by Leon Kass as “a binding up of heart and mind that both frees us from enslaving passions and frees usfor fine and beautiful deeds”.
If non-believers are not swayed by the intrinsic goodness of religious faith, they should at least recognise its utilitarian benefits. The influence of the social gospel lives on in mainline Protestant churches and even Pope Francis can sometimes sound like a liberation theology agitator. More and more there is less and less in mainstream Christianity that a secular progressive could disagree with.
Radio Four’s Thought for the Day has become the “And that’s why Jesus would have supported the living wage” slot, as earnest vicars strive to deputise the Saviour of Mankind into an apologia for the working tax credit. (At least the Church of Scotland – where a mere 37% of adherents say they believe in the divinity of Christ – has had the good grace to drop the pretence. Its Church and Society Council is the Salvation Army without all that weird Jesus stuff.)
And it is in these strains of Christian thinking and practice that critics of Tim Farron’s theology can be found. In conservative circles, such people are dismissed as “cafeteria Christians” who pick and choose the “nice” bits of scripture and gloss over the fire and brimstone. The reactionaries have a point, at least on logic. How anyone can read the Bible and be in any doubt about its proscription of homosexuality is beyond me. But an entire subset of progressive theologians have dedicated themselves to such a counter-textual reading and God bless them.
There are supermarket secularists too. Left-wingers often welcome helpful interventions from the clergy in social and economic affairs only to cry foul when they raise discomfiting questions about morality. How dare these cassocked cranks lecture us about sexual permissiveness or the spiritual vacuity of post-Christian Britain. They should stick to subjects they know about, like nuclear warheads and welfare reform.
Tim Farron’s politics are that of those trendy vicars on Thought for the Day. Anyone who cares about left-of-centre politics ought to make common cause with him rather than push him away. If Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can be forgiven their late conversions to the cause of marriage equality, surely there is space to acknowledge that this is not an easy question. Even some of us with skin in the game have come to the consensus position after much soul-searching. It is hypocritical to expect Farron to change his mind over the course of a weekend.
Britain is in desperate need of a dose of liberalism. The Conservative government’s security impulses are right but they have yet to grasp that they cannot snoop, monitor, and cudgel us into safety. The SNP administration in Edinburgh is so authoritarian one almost longs for the laissez-faire days of Scottish Labour, when ministers only wanted to move kids off street corners not assign every one of them a state guardian. It remains to be seen whether the Liberal Democrats can survive in the long term but there is a national interest in maintaining a strong liberal voice in politics.
In the short term, Tim Farron is that voice. His unpopular views and the reaction to them pose the fundamental question of whether we want religious people in public life. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. But if you drive away the faithful because of one or two moral disagreements, don’t be surprised if the next time you turn to the churches for ethical reinforcement against war or poverty or social injustice you find that no one answers your prayer.