Tuesday, 25 April 2017

In defence of Tim Farron

Tim Farron's views on same-sex relationships have come under scrutiny over the past week
Whatever one thinks of his political views, it is difficult to deny that Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron is one of the good guys of British politics. An amiable, earnest northerner, Farron is likeable and principled, as well as possessing a good sense of humour; when he appeared as a guest panelist on the satirical TV show Have I Got News For You he came across as natural, self-deprecating and genuinely funny, in contrast with most politicians who reluctantly subject themselves to an evening with Paul Merton and Ian Hislop in order to appear more normal. Never mind his utterly objectionable views on Brexit, which he passionately opposes and overtly seeks to undermine - Farron is a good sort, and politics could do with a few more like him in all parties.

All of this makes the events of the last week even more upsetting, as Farron has been hounded by the press over his views on same-sex relationships. An evangelical Christian, he had previously been attacked during the 2015 Liberal Democrat leadership election over his decision to abstain from voting on the third reading of the same-sex marriage bill, a decision which he has since claimed to regret. Now, with the general election campaign in full swing, Farron is seeking to mobilise the Liberal Democrats as the primary voice of the 48% of British voters who opted to remain within the European Union in last summer's referendum, a moderate alternative to the increasingly polarised two main parties. The only problem is that so far, his election campaign has been completely overshadowed by his refusal to clarify whether he believes gay sex is sinful.

Today, Farron has finally moved to end this saga by stating that he does not view homosexual relations as sinful, whilst going on to say that 'as a political leader, my job is not to pontificate on theological matters.' He is right to draw this distinction between his own religious beliefs and his role as a political leader, and this entire episode has revealed the deeply distasteful lengths that the media is prepared to go to in order to smear a prominent Christian politician. For the record, I do not believe that homosexual relationships are sinful either, and unlike Mr Farron I do not hail from a wing of the Church where such a view is commonplace. However, in the past I have attended evangelical churches like the one that Mr Farron is a member of, and within such congregations the standard view is that homosexual acts are not compatible with ethical Christian living. This is not a fringe opinion held exclusively by fundamentalist zealots - indeed, according to data from the British Social Attitudes survey, a third of British Anglicans, the denomination to which Mr Farron belongs, believe that same-sex relationships are 'always' or 'almost always' wrong.

Now from a theological standpoint, I regret the prevalence of such attitudes within the Christian community, even in a relatively liberal denomination such as the Church of England. I could spend all day arguing my case for why I believe the biblical case against homosexuality is flimsy at best, relying on a few misinterpreted passages that have been ripped from their original context. Notice that Jesus never mentioned homosexual acts, nor do the Ten Commandments; the only Bible references we have are either alongside other ancient laws such as the prohibition of shellfish, or in a few writings of St Paul who was talking about the abusive and pederastic relationships between older men and their young slaves which were commonplace at that time. However, whatever conclusions our own understanding of the Bible leads us towards, we should all be concerned about the treatment of Tim Farron on this issue. By forcing him to clarify his own religious beliefs, the media has strayed into inappropriate territory and effectively questioned whether a conservative Christian can hold political office in Britain.

Of course it is entirely reasonable to examine Tim Farron's voting record on LGBT issues and to decide whether or not to vote for him on this basis; for some, his hesitance on same-sex marriage is enough to stop them from backing the Liberal Democrats (although it must be said that he did vote for the bill in the end), whilst others will look at his record and see that on social issues, Farron has consistently backed socially progressive causes including LGBT rights. That is a legitimate examination of where a political leader stands on the issues, and it is up to the individual voter to draw their own conclusions from the evidence. However, what is not acceptable is for the media to grill Mr Farron on what is inside his heart regarding matters of religion and faith. As long as he is not doing anything to negatively impact LGBT people, his own personal beliefs and attitudes should be a private matter.

The hounding of Mr Farron only fuels the arguments of those conservative Christians who seem to revel in their perpetual victim mentality, the fundamentalists who believe that this nation is becoming increasingly hostile towards orthodox Christianity. Of course, these are the same people who hold truly objectionable views on LGBT issues, and who would not hesitate in rolling back same-sex marriage, civil partnerships and other socially progressive achievements if they were given the opportunity; quite a contrast with the mild-mannered Mr Farron. It also reveals a double standard within the media, forcing Christian politicians to justify their views whilst refusing to hold adherents of other faiths to the same high standard. No one has ever grilled the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, whether he believes, as a practicing Muslim, that homosexual acts are sinful, and rightly so; faith should be beyond the remit of media scrutiny as long as it isn't translated into discriminatory policy decisions.