When I was growing up I distinctly recall members of my family suggesting that there were two subjects that should not be talked about in polite society: politics and religion. Paradoxically the people who I remember most frequently resorting to this quip were the most political people I knew! They couldn’t stop talking about the big political issues of the time, or about their MP Barbara Castle. They admired her character and intellect, but not I think it is fair to say, her politics. One of the tragedies of the current era is that a real tendency exists to denigrate people’s character based on their beliefs. Of course some beliefs are just plain odd, or even wrong, but surely it is unhealthy to categorize those we profoundly disagree with on various issues as either weak or bad?
For very many people, even those who aspire to inhabit ‘polite society’ it is impossible not to talk about either politics, or religion, or a combination of the two. As a Parish Priest I have to talk about Christianity and indeed have vowed to ‘proclaim the gospel afresh’ in and for this generation. For this Parish Priest the distinction between politics and religion is extremely blurred. My liberal internationalist politics, to some extent, flow from my faith and, I am sure that my faith is also informed by my politics. I don’t think we can easily demarcate the origins of our beliefs, try as we might.
Tim Farron was forced to talk about both politics and religion, by those keen to erode the borders of ‘polite society,’ during the election campaign and, clearly it was an extremely uncomfortable experience for him; it was designed to be an uncomfortable experience for him. Journalists after all like to see leaders squirm. Journalists like to invite their readers to categorize their victims as weak or bad. It is a very crude form of blood sport.
Tim has now decided that he is unable to manage the conflicts, perceived or real, between his life as a politician and, as an active Christian. This is sad. It is sad for Tim and, it is sad for the Liberal Democratic Party and, it is sad for politics. I hope that Tim continues to contribute to the work of parliament. Tim has accepted that he didn’t handle the situation as well as he would have hoped, but let’s remember the questions were designed to make him squirm and, to infantalise his faith. The hounding of Tim was designed to characterize him as both weak and bad.
So what could Tim have done differently?
He could have appealed to the long and noble history of parliamentary liberalism citing someone like Michael Ramsey who opened the debate in the House of Lord’s in favour of the decriminalization of homosexuality whilst still maintaining that homosexuality fell short of the highest moral standards. The trouble is the debate has moved on since Ramsey’s time. Where Ramsey was credited for his enlightened and progressive line of argument Tim would have appeared judgmental and, behind the times.
He could have suggested, and I think that this was his line of argument, that certain moral issues are of a purely private nature and, that it is not the remit of parliamentarians to stray into such territory, But, again this line of argument probably wouldn’t wash as the line between private and public is increasingly blurred and, in any case, parliament in making law frequently does so with an eye to public, or communal, standards of morality.
Or, he could have been up front and open about living with the tension between his religious and political convictions, with regard to issues of human sexuality. But, this again wouldn’t wash because the journalists were out to make him squirm. The idea that politicians (and people of faith) are as conflicted as the electorate on various issues and, that their views aren’t always as binary or as neat, tidy and orderly as the squirm makers would like isn’t afforded house room.
This for me is a serious issue for when we seek to stifle what seems to be contradiction we stifle good and honest debate. We trash any possibilities for the hard work of moral reasoning because we only care about an immediate result. Inter disciplinary discussions between say politics and theology become impossible because success or truth can only belong to one discipline. The result is that real people are made to choose. ‘Come on Tim what’s it to be your politics or your faith?’ Binary thinking becomes the only possible outcome.
If I had to be critical of Tim it would be for his presentation of Christianity in his resignation letter. He seems to believe that Christians can only hold one view on the thorny issue of sexuality. On this I believe he is profoundly wrong. But of course I would say this as an orthodox-progressive! I say it as someone who has had the luxury of time and space to do my theology. Unlike Tim I haven’t been made to squirm.
But, in saying good-bye to Tim as my party leader (there you go I am now bringing both my politics and my religion into the sphere of ‘polite society!’) I would like to say thank you for voting for marriage equality. Thank you for doing so despite any personal reservations. Thank you for living with your tensions and, thank you above all for being both liberal and, progressive and, I am just so sorry that you were made to squirm.