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Tim Farron's resignation is a victory for the new puritans


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In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman has the cosmos ask, ‘Do I contradict myself?’

‘Very well then’, it concedes, ‘I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

It is a truth we would all do well to acknowledge. We are all large, we all contain multitudes. This is not to make a virtue of hypocrisy and self-contradiction; rather, it is simply a call for recognition. Intellectual consistency requires that we acknowledge our failure to meet its high standard.

If we are generous, and grant that Tim Farron’s decision to resign was a purely personal matter, then we might afford him some semblance of respect. He seems to have recognised his own irreconcilable inconsistency. (Though I am not sure we should be so generous; his resignation comes after Brian Paddick, the Lib Dem peer and Home Affairs spokesman, resigned ‘over concerns about the leader's views on various issues that were highlighted during GE17.’ It follows days of speculation about leadership challenges, and a general election in which Mr. Farron only retained his seat by the slimmest of margins, having lost some 300 votes to a man dressed as a fish finger. All of which suggests party pressure influenced his decision.)

Or, rather, he has almost recognised it. His resignation statement is not consistent on this point. He begins by saying that he ‘found [himself] torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader’, which must surely be true. He then laments his relative lack of wisdom, for a wise man might have been able to ‘[remain] faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment’, which is opaque by comparison with the preceding. Theological hermeneutics is a form of alchemy; a ‘wise’ man might have convinced himself – and others, which, to a politician, counts for more - that squares are circles, but persuasion and truth have little claim to familial ties.

One detects some particular emphasis placed on the phrase ‘in the current environment’, which is a shifty and dishonest manoeuvre. It suggests that one cannot remain ‘faithful to Christ’ because of the current environment, thereby pinning the blame for his difficulties upon said environment. Given his well-documented opinions about certain constituent elements of the current environment – abortion, say – we return to the fundamental disagreement, between liberalism and Christian teaching, something Mr Farron almost acknowledged before misplacing the blame.

Indeed, the statement becomes less coherent as it goes on. The next paragraph is worth quoting in full, for it is a consummate piece of doublethink.

‘To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me. I’m a liberal to my finger tips [sic], and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.’

I could simply underline the above and I’m sure the point would be taken. But let us examine it: Mr Farron claims it is ‘impossible’ for him to be a committed Christian and lead a liberal party. Yet he claims that he is ‘a liberal to [his] finger tips [sic]’. Well, one cannot have it both ways. If he recognises a dichotomy between his religion and his philosophy, he cannot claim to be equally devoted to both. If he is a liberal to his fingertips, he cannot be a committed Christian. If he is a committed Christian, he cannot be a true liberal. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that Victor Serge coined the term ‘totalitarian’, yet the Bible – both by its singular teachings and by the divine provenance from which they stem – is the creation myth of totalitarianism. (I anticipate the usual objections: what about charity? What about love? What about the kind and loving Jesus? I will happily list my objections to each of the above, but for now I can only call out such unlettered wish-thinking for the nonsense that it is.)

And yet…

As I’ve said before, Mr Farron’s voting record is remarkably liberal. Yes, he has made moral statements in the past, on abortion for example, which are definitively illiberal. (And his remarks on homosexuality play upon that typically religious tactic of claiming distinction where there is no difference; the question, newsreaders, is about the sinfulness of sex, not persuasion. The Bible does not explicitly condemn homosexuality, but homosexual sex warrants heavenly fury.) Yet his political career has been marked the erection of a Jeffersonian wall between pure and political morality. As he has said himself: ‘There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it – it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.’

(This makes him a deeply flawed Christian, as the Bible regards such reticence as disobedience, and insulting to God.)

If we are to count ourselves as liberals, either politically or socially, we should be familiar with – no, we should respect – this insistence upon the divide between personal morality and public policy. Liberalism requires tolerance, not acceptance. Mr Farron may view abortion as a moral evil, but he does not believe he has a right to impose his view upon others. I am sympathetic to those who argue that this indicates a certain wooliness and lack of commitment; nonetheless, a world of rabid absolutists could never function. Society is built upon tolerance; moral condemnation, yes, but not political duress.

Mr Farron’s resignation statement contains many unintended ironies. But the overarching irony is this: his position has been made untenable by those who think liberalism entails moral conformity, by those who brook no dissent or disagreement. That we have become obsessed by his personal beliefs, and paid no attention to his actions, is evidence only of this: Mr Farron’s faith may be incompatible with his politics. (Evidence, too, that we are selective in our outrage. Would this furore have been directed at a devotee of another monotheistic cult I might mention, one which is at least as bigoted in its approach to sexual ethics as Mr Farron’s brand of Christianity? I think not.) But it is we, so puritanical in our liberalism, who are the true hypocrites.

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