Tim Farron

Poor Tim Farron! He took over as leader of the Liberal Democrats at their lowest ebb, just after they had been brilliantly undermined in the 2015 General Election by their Coalition partners and hated by everyone else for propping up an exceptionally divisive government. His chances of success were never good.

For the media, his weak spot was his disapproval of same-sex partnerships, an aspect of his Evangelical Christianity. Theos invited him to give their annual lecture on Tuesday. The full text is here. This post summarises the speech and offers an alternative account of Christian liberalism.

Farron’s liberalism

I believe in the equal worth and value of every person, I believe that every person should be free to live as they see fit, to hold their beliefs, their conscience, their world view and to express them as they wish. I reject forced conformity whether that comes from the law or from social pressure.

Thus Farron summarises his liberalism. He describes the background:

British Liberalism is founded in the battle for religious liberty. The non–conformist, evangelical Christian groups that were persecuted by a society which favoured adherence only to the established church, built a liberal movement that championed much wider liberty, for women, for other religious minorities, non–religious minorities, for cultural and regional minorities, for the poor and vulnerable.

On how it differs from the alternatives:

I think Liberalism is better than Conservativism because it doesn’t accept the status quo, the absence of freedom for the sake of tradition and the convenience of the powerful, instead Liberalism asks tough questions and doesn’t accept glib answers. I think Liberalism is better than socialism because Liberalism dictates that we must all be free, but that we must not all be the same.

So what’s the problem?

Liberalism has apparently won. Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties call themselves liberals today. Let’s be honest, you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Even most of the journalists who write for the right wing press are in truth liberals.

In reality, however,

Liberalism will eat itself. Is eating itself. May already have eaten itself…
Five minutes on social media will give you a window into a society which condemns and judges, that leaps to take offence and pounces to cause it – liberals condemning those who don’t conform as nasty and hateful, the right condemning liberals as fragile snowflakes.

I have a lot of sympathy with Farron’s position here. I leave aside whether it represents what the Liberal Democrat Party has done in power – plenty of others have much to say on that – but it is worth recognising that it represents classic liberal political philosophy.

What it lacks is an awareness of how the freedom to dissent is suppressed by power inequalities. Farron’s lament about the judgementalism of social media tells us nothing about how to reform it. Lord Rothermere, Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers have plenty of eccentricities but they have power, by means of their newspapers, to present their views as normal and suppress contrary views. To tackle the problem we need to look at who controls public discourse.

Farron’s Christianity

Farron’s biblical literalism is repeatedly emphasised. Here are a few of the many references:

My pastor preaches faithfully from the Bible without compromising or watering it down.
As a Christian, I hold to the Bible’s teaching.
I am a Bible believing Christian who seeks to live obediently to God.

There is also a great deal of the counter-cultural group loyalty rhetoric common among Evangelicals today, among them:

You should be a decent, good mannered citizen in Babylon, but you should never feel at home. You are to be a resident alien.
Christianity is deeply counter cultural… It tells us that… our greatest need is forgiveness from the God who made us.

And so to his disapproval of same-sex partnerships. In the past he has made it clear that he doesn’t really want to talk about this. On the contrary, he tells us that Christianity says

Don’t judge, show kindness, show gentleness, show patience.

So why disapprove? Although the speech doesn’t tell us, his earlier responses indicate that he accepts the disapproval as part of his Evangelicalism.

But if this is the case, his Evangelicalism is doing exactly what he is criticising: imposing a uniformity of opinion.

Then there is this:

Live openly as a Christian, and seek to share the gospel when you can because the Bible makes it crystal clear that this is a matter of eternal life and death.

This sentence doesn’t quite say you’ll be punished for eternity if you don’t live as a Christian, but this is what it means if it means anything at all. On this point, he’s standing in a centuries-old tradition of terrorising people into conformity.

I therefore think the critics are right: his version of Christianity is inconsistent with his liberalism. However, there are alternative accounts of Christianity more in keeping with liberal principles.

Rights, equality and freedom

One chapter of my book Why Progressives Need God describes the relationship of Liberal political philosophy to Christian theology. Farron quotes John Stuart Mill; I make more use of John Locke, the earliest major figure in this tradition. They both emphasised the importance of rights, equality and freedom, those central principles of liberalism.

For Locke, unlike Mill, these principles were rather obviously derived from Christianity.

Equality is hardly self-evident: what we notice is how different we are from each other. The conviction that we are of equal value comes from the belief that we have all been made by the same God and are equally loved by God.

Rights are a moral concept. For one person to have a right, others must accept a duty to respect the right. Where do moral duties come from? In Locke’s day nobody doubted the answer: God.

Freedom, in Christian thought, is also a gift from God. We have the ability to be creative, and choose what to do. It matters that we can use it well or badly.

Locke was writing towards the end of the Religious Wars, seeking principles to establish peace. One of the main causes of the wars was anxiety about eternal punishment in Hell after one died. Preachers had been whipping up anxieties for centuries.

As long as the focus of attention lay there, it hardly mattered about equality, rights and freedom. If some are destined for Heaven and others for Hell, there is no equality. Nor rights: the only moral duty that matters is to get on the escalator to Heaven. With all that hanging over people, there was no real freedom.

So liberal theorists of the early Enlightenment were reaffirming some of the better features of Christianity at a time when most church leaders had become obsessed with other things.

Later, unfortunately, a division opened up. It took a long time, but today most people take the result for granted. Those Enlightenment values, originally inspired by Christianity, lost their theological basis and became standalone principles for secular society.

When God is omitted, they all lose their earlier impact. Equality survives as a slogan, telling us we are of equal value or ought to treat others as equals, but can no longer explain why. The immense differences of pay packets and lifestyles today shows that we no longer take it seriously.

Rights, without God, can only be granted by social consensus; so whatever rights we have depend on who controls the means of mass communication.

Freedom changes its character. Instead of being a gift to be used wisely, it becomes an objective to be maximised for its own sake. As such it tells us to oppose every limit on our freedom: government regulations, taxes, anything that interferes with the individual’s decision to do whatever they like. The result is that the powerful indulge their own freedom by reducing the freedom of others.

Christian liberalism

When we understand what has happened to these liberal values, it becomes clear that their true home is in Christianity – or, to be more precise, in an account of how humanity relates to the divine. They may fit other faith traditions, and in their watered-down versions they still survive in secular culture.

Where they are not at home, perversely, is in those authoritarian, anti-liberal versions of Christianity that dominated the era of the religious wars and have been revived from time to time.

Christianity, at its best, is also liberalism at its best.