Tim Farron’s resignation does not reveal secular intolerance

British Christians have been writing to the newspapers complaining that the resignation of Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats shows that liberal secularism has revealed itself to be intolerant. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society”, said Farron himself. The resignation “should make us wary of those who pretend to be tolerant and liberal” (Telegraph), “… is evidence of wider intolerance in British society” (Christian Institute) and “… symbolises the decay of liberalism” (New Statesman), opine others.

When Christians are unhappy it is usually because they are waking up to the fact that society is increasingly unwilling to grant them the special privileges to which they are accustomed, and to which they think they are entitled. The special privilege being asked for here is not that they be allowed to advance their beliefs in the public arena. That is accepted and not under threat by any secularist or Western atheist, however much Christians try to pretend otherwise. Rather, the special privilege being asked for is to advance such views and to have them exempted from critical scrutiny.

The suggestion that Christians can no longer hold high office in Britain is bizarre given that all recent Prime Ministers have been openly and vocally Christian. It is even more bizarre in a nation where families are routinely discriminated against by taxpayer-funded schools merely because they don’t go to church, where school pupils are legally required to worship the Christian god (!), and where Church of England bishops are given automatic places in the House of Lords.

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat leader

I’ll also say this about Tim Farron. As an evangelical Christian he recognised that his religious views are minority ones within the UK, and thus quite genuinely did not want to impose them on others or on society at large. This contrasts with Theresa May who sees her Christianity as mainstream and as entitled to establishment privilege (despite the fact that only 4 per cent now attend church on a typical Sunday). Thus Theresa May, not Tim Farron, is the one trying to increase the amount of religious discrimination in state schools.

“No religious test” for public office is of course at the heart of liberal and secular principles. But “no religious test” is a restriction on the government; it is not a restriction on the people. In a democracy people must be allowed to consider someone’s opinions and views in deciding who to vote for. Indeed, isn’t that the whole point?

Christians want politicians to be open and vocal about their religious views, and are quite happy if that makes people more likely to vote for them, but where it makes people less likely to vote for someone they want to cry “Intolerance!”.

Tim Farron was leader of a party that promoted full equality for gay people. Yet it seems his private views are that a gay lifestyle is sinful and against Biblical teachings. People, understandably, questioned him about that discrepancy.

That is not “intolerant”, it is simply asking for consistency. If the leader of the Conservative Party, publicly promoting a free-market economy, revealed that in private they were actually a Marxist, there would be just as many questions!

It was Tim Farron himself who considered that his public role, leading a “progressive, liberal party in 2017”, had become incompatible with what he saw as “living as a committed Christian” and “hold[ing] faithfully to the Bible’s teaching”. That is a contradiction he really should have sorted out for himself before running for public office. People are entitled to hold compartmentalised and inconsistent views; but voters are entitled to take note.

To claim that tolerance demands that the media and public just ignore such inconsistencies is to ask that religious beliefs be granted a very special status where they be exempt from scrutiny, a status where voters may react favourably to religious views but may not react unfavourably. There is nothing illiberal in rejecting that request.

6 thoughts on “Tim Farron’s resignation does not reveal secular intolerance

  1. Phil

    “Christians” is a term which points to at least a couple of billion people. Your post shows no grasp of the variety which exists within any group of that size. Thus, you are in danger of becoming that which you reasonably reject.

    1. Coel Post author

      Your post shows no grasp of the variety which exists within any group of that size.

      Not quite true, given that the 4th paragraph distinguishes Tim Farron’s Christianity from Theresa May’s. Anyhow, the post was really about British Christians (not all Christians worldwide), and the diversity within them is not really the topic of the article.

  2. Roo Bookaroo

    For those of us who don’t follow British politics too closely, a little background paragraph at the beginning would have been helpful. Who is Jim Fallon? What does being an “evangelical” Christian in Britain entail? What’s the exact place of those Liberal Democrats in the overall political landscape? Why did he resign from whatever position he had? What were the objective factors in place? All this — a kind of exposition of the conflict before the play starts — as a preamble to your discussion and refutation of the interpretations attached to his action.

    1. Coel Post author

      Fair point, Roo, it’s sometimes tricky to get the balance right on how much background to include. Though hopefully the main facts behind the resignation come out through the piece.

  3. Phil

    Sorry Coel, just not buying it. Your post continually refers to “Christians” as if that were one thing. In your mind it clearly is, but in the real world it is not.

    As example, American Catholics differ greatly and often quite enthusiastically with each other about major issues of the day such as abortion, gay rights, Donald Trump etc. Whatever anyone’s position on these issues might be it would be easy to find millions of Catholics who agree or disagree. There is no monolith, even on such central questions as the proposed divinity of Jesus.

    There are some nutjob wackos within the realm of religion, that is clearly true beyond doubt. But there are nutjob wackos in any population of such enormous size.

    You seem to be afflicted with a simplistic equation such as religion=bad, atheist=good. That’s just ideological emotionalism at work, not a clear minded observation of the real world.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      As example, American Catholics differ greatly and often quite enthusiastically with each other about major issues of the day such as abortion, gay rights, Donald Trump etc.

      Sure, this is well known, and was not really the subject of the piece. The post was more about the idea that religious belief should have a privileged position in public discourse. Many British Christians do support that idea (though obviously not all of them do).

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