‘Doing God’ – Tim Farron’s legacy?

Posted by ap507 at Jul 27, 2017 11:47 AM |
Professor Peter Cumper discusses the former Liberal Democrat leader's legacy and what his resignation tells us about faith and politics in contemporary Britain
‘Doing God’ – Tim Farron’s legacy?

Tim Farron; Source: Wikipedia

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Tim Farron – a politician who ‘did God’! This may be how Farron, recently replaced as Liberal Democrat leader by Vince Cable, will come to be remembered.

Farron’s Christian beliefs became an issue during the spring election campaign when he (initially) failed to answer questions about his attitude to the morality of gay sex. Politically tarnished, the ‘gay sex’ issue continued to dog him, evidently contributing to his decision to resign as party leader. It is thus perhaps significant that Farron focused primarily on his religious beliefs when he announced his resignation as party leader last month: 

‘From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. … The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader … To be a political leader … and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.’

Farron’s recent resignation has provoked sharply contrasting reactions. Some regard him as having been hounded from office for being a Christian, while others insist that political shortcomings (rather than religious beliefs) lie at the heart of his resignation. But what does his resignation reveal more generally about faith and politics in contemporary Britain? In this regard at least four considerations are worth bearing in mind.

First, Farron’s decision to resign should not be characterised as a ‘faith versus gay rights’ issue. To do so ignores the fact that not every religious group condemns homosexuality, and that a significant number of people of faith embrace same-sex relationships. Accordingly, an important caveat must be entered – Farron’s resignation speech illustrates the tensions between conservative forms of religious belief and liberal sexual values, rather than a conflict between the latter and belief per se.

Secondly, the reasons adduced by Farron for his resignation add grist to the mill of those who maintain that appropriate respect is not afforded to (conservative) Christian beliefs today in Britain. Indeed, for some, Farron is only the latest Christian to be forced from office because of a commitment to traditional moral values – putting him on a par with the registrar who refused to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies, the sex therapist who objected to counselling gay couples, and the B&B owners who refused to host a same-sex couple in a double room.

Third, Farron’s resignation demonstrates the uncertainty of terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘liberalism’. Liberalismfor Tim Farron means being ‘passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me’. This implies that Farron is willing to tolerate religious beliefs that many would find offensive, such as the moral condemnation of gay sex. Yet, in contrast, others take a very different view, and insist that illiberal intolerance should never be tolerated. Disagreements about the parameters of liberalism are hardly new. But it is ironic that as the (now former) leader of the only mainstream British political party with ‘liberal’ in its title, Farron evidently interpreted ‘liberal’ values differently from many of his colleagues.

Fourth, Farron’s resignation highlights the fact that public affirmations of faith by political leaders tend to provoke hostility or mistrust. As Farron acknowledged: ‘I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in’ – sentiments also reflected in Tony Blair’s observation (made, significantly, only after having left office) that people who speak about their religious faith are seen as being ‘nutters’. The problem with this state of affairs is obvious. If we want our politicians to be open, honest and ‘real’, it is important that those with a faith are fully able to acknowledge its influence on their lives. Political life is surely enriched by the contribution of talented people from every religious tradition or none – so if Farron’s resignation is to dissuade able people of faith from coming forward to participate in politics, society will be all the poorer.

Alastair Campbell may have famously sought to curb the influence of faith in politics by saying ‘we don’t do God’, but it would be regrettable if Farron’s legacy were for some ‘people of God’ to say, ‘we don’t do politics’.

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