An Essay on Personal Religious Conviction and Political Duty

by Stephanie Redfern Jones

 A few nights ago, I watched an episode of the popular BBC television quiz programme, Mastermind, and although it featured notable celebrities, I was surprised to see Tim Farron. The ex-Liberal Democrat party leader resigned in June 2017 over what he said was clash between his personal Christian convictions and political duty.

The host of Mastermind, John Humphrys, took the opportunity to quiz Farron not only on his impeccable knowledge on the football triumphs of Blackburn Rovers but also on the reasons behind his resignation and whether he had any regrets since making the decision. Farron stirringly replied that some things are more important than political success.

The main point of contention which led to Farron’s resignation was because as a committed Christian, he repeatedly denied whether he believed gay sex to be sinful. Farron has consistently maintained that his role in British politics has been to serve the British electorate and the principles of tolerance and acceptance so closely held by the Liberal Democrats were defining features for his reason to become involved with the party from 1992 before eventually winning the Westmorland and Lonsdale seat in 2005.

Understandably in liberal British culture this is bound to stoke the flames of anger amongst the populace, partly because most people view it as an outdated belief but also because it is hurtful and pastorally insensitive. Regardless of whether this interpretation of gay sex is in alignment with Christian principles is another debate entirely. Despite this, it is worth noting that Tim Farron has previously voted for same sex marriage at the second reading of the Same Sex Couples Bill in 2013 and in the infamous ‘gay cake’ case in May 2015 he defended the court ruling that said that Ashers Baking Company was unlawful in its decision to refuse to bake a cake for a couple on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Largely however Tim Farron’s resignation is an issue as to what extent personal beliefs belong in the public sector, and to what extent politicians can issue their own thoughts and opinions or remain hushed into the seats of the Commons, tied by what is tiresomely now referred to as the ‘will of the people.’

In one sense I applaud Farron for remaining true to his convictions (however much I may personally disagree with them). I admire the courage he had not to just abandon them in the face of opposition so much so that it resulted in his political downfall. As he said to Humphrys, it meant he could look in the mirror each day at an honest man. More interestingly however was Farron’s statement on the political juxtaposition between America and Britain. He said that to be successful in American politics, one must become the perfect Christian, whereas in British politics religion is generally hidden.

It has been generally accepted for a while amongst most sociologists and culture commentators that Britain has been undergoing a process of secularisation over the last fifty years and this has undoubtedly meant two things. Firstly, the retreat of the dominant state religion of Christianity – although most British people do identify as Christians when polled, this generally seems to be in nominal terms only. An active life of Christian practices and knowledge of Christian history and tradition does seem to be lacking amongst many of the British population today. Secondly, the secularisation of Britain has allowed the increase in multiculturalism, coupled with the immigration effects after the Second World War. This has had many benefits including the prevalence of tolerance which is now considered as a central British attribute and it something to be much reminded of in the wake of the Brexit debate which had nasty undertones of blatant racism and disregard for migrants and refugees.

What is far more interesting about Farron’s resignation last year was that some newspapers described it as the result of a coup with the Liberal Democrat party which is startlingly worrying, if true, due to the high regard of freedom of belief and a right to appeal to conscience which has characterised the Liberal Democratic party since its foundation in 1988; although, since the 2010 General Election the party suffered a devastating blow after their decision to go into coalition with the Conservative party and sacrifice their principles on university tuition fees which sounded the death knell amongst their younger voters. It seems ironic to me that the reason the leader of the Liberal Democrats resigned was because of what seemed to be conflict between his personal opinions which were met with incredulity and disgust, something a liberal mindset would not entertain.

Indeed the reason I believe that Tim Farron felt compelled to resign was not because his Christian beliefs became an obstacle to him serving in British political arena. Indeed, Jacob Rees-Mogg is surely testament as an example of someone who can be a devoted Catholic Christian and still work within British public life in the face of opposition. Farron’s resignation is either a sign of personal weakness and inability to handle criticism or a symptom of a much deeper, nastier root of intolerance within the Liberal Democrat party and British politics more widely.

As Nick Spencer has commented, liberalism loses its value in British culture when it forgets the goals to which is has been built to strive for. Claire Mathys, the Co-Director in Politics and the Director of the Lib Dem Christian Forum (LDCF) stated that although it was encouraging to see a Christian involved in British political life, it wasn’t Farron’s Christian convictions that were central to his work. Rather it was because he was a “passionate communicator, a committed liberal and a brilliant campaigner, someone with integrity and charisma.” It seems therefore that personal integrity and belief should not put in direct contrast with political duty and instead we should always strive to find a way for these principles to work together harmoniously lest we divide ourselves in perpetuity.

Tim Farron‘ by Liberal Democrats is licenced under CC by-ND 2.0