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In defence of Tim Farron (sort of)

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I’m not straight. I hold the Liberal Democrats in utter contempt, and take great pleasure from their misfortunes. And I loathe Christianity (and religion in general) in whatever form it takes, whether that be the bovine and hypocritical wooliness of the modern apologists or the extraordinarily cruel and stupid barbarism of traditionalists and literalists.

But for all that, I feel ever so slightly sorry for Tim Farron. The furore that engulfed him when, last Tuesday, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman put to him a question he had struggled to answer two years previously – is homosexual sex a sin? – has been unpleasant to witness.

Granted, it’s partly his fault. Mr Farron is silly enough to be a Liberal Democrat and chose – actually chose, at the age of 21 – to abandon his parents’ healthy scepticism and become a committed Christian. Either one of those positions provides a lifetime’s worth of hypocrisy and doublethink, but to marry them together? The mind boggles. We are all made of contradictions, but his are truly remarkable for their number and their scope.

He has invited criticism by the manner of his answers, which have been altogether too equivocal. Asked whether gay sex is a sin, he replies that homosexuality is not a sin; all very well, but even those with scant knowledge of Christian teaching are familiar with the well-worn casuistry of the believers’ claim to ‘hate the sin but not the sinner’, and see it for what it is: nonsense.

He hyesterday said that he does not believe gay sex is sinful. Yet so long has he prevaricated, and so uncomfortable was he when saying it, we can reasonably conclude that this is a lie for the sake of expediency. It’s too little and it’s too late, and the damage has been done. It is for this that he should be blamed.

And yet, and yet. Still I find him worthy of sympathy. It’s worth looking back at the original interview, from 2015, and examining his statements. Pay particular attention to the comments immediately preceding the fateful question. Cathy Newman asked him about his stance on abortion, and I happen to think his answer merits some respect.

He said that, as a Christian, he regards each abortion as ‘a tragedy’; and yet, as a Christian and as a liberal, he does not believe he has the right to force others to live by his beliefs. This is why he has consistently voted to uphold the right of women to have abortions.  Had he only been so succinct on the topic of homosexuality, he could have been absolved of almost all blame for the ridiculous state in which we now find ourselves: a politician, from an important political party, being asked repeatedly whether gay sex is sinful.

When the time comes to legislate, he places faith to one side and strives to base his decisions on scientific evidence and public interest. The divide is never perfect, but Mr Farron seems to believe that private faith and public interest can be non-overlapping magisteria. It is a worthwhile aspiration.

This is about as much as anyone could hope for. It is obviously impossible to believe in the truth of scripture and at the same time see nothing wrong with abortion, just as it is impossible to believe in the truth of scripture and see nothing wrong with homosexuality and its related acts. The Bible is not a liberal text. But Mr Farron has erected in his own mind a Jeffersonian wall of separation, and I think that admirable.

I am a passionate secularist and a committed anti-theist. I believe – I know – that religion is as harmful as it is stupid. But it is because I am a secularist that I uphold the right of people to have their faith and keep it. Tim Farron has that right, just as we all have the right to contradiction.

Faith must be divorced from matters of state, and Mr Farron has sought to maintain the divide. One needs only to look at his voting record to see how successful he has been: he has consistently voted in favour laws and legislation which protect and expand the rights of women and minorities. His faith may be conservative and reactionary but as a politician he has shown an admirable commitment to secular liberalism. He has voted for gay marriage (abstaining on the third reading, for which he has apologised) and criticised it for not going far enough. I do not doubt that he has voted against his faith on many other occasions. Ye shall know them by their fruits.

By contrast, his opponents have revealed themselves to be distinctly puritanical and reactionary. One might go so far as to call them illiberal. Even the hint of personal doubt is enough for celebrities, politicians and media types to hurl abuse. He has been branded ‘appalling’, labelled a ‘fundamentalist’ and a ‘homophobe’, found guilty of ‘intolerance and prejudice’.

The cheek! And can you imagine the response of these people, the likes of Owen Jones and John McDonnell and Jonathan Bartley, had Mr Farron been a devotee of another monotheism I might mention? The suggestion that belief in the tenets of Islam is incompatible with modern, secular, progressive British values is evidence of disgusting racism and animus, is it not? But Mr Farron is a Christian, and therefore has nowhere to hide. Not even behind his record, which even I, an opponent, will admit is impressive.

There are a great many reasons to despise the Liberal Democrats. There are a great many points on which to disagree with Mr Farron. But this is not one of them. His critics are showing all the tolerance and liberalism of a fanatical inquisition, and pillorying a decent man for the crime private thought and belief.

I would be happy if Mr Farron were to renounce his faith. He would be better for it. But it is his critics, so fanatical and mean-spirited, who should show some shame.




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