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Tim Farron on Faith in Politics

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Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron MP, gave a bold lecture on the role of faith in politics this week. In it he defended the rights of Christians to live out their faith in society, and the truth of Christianity which he said is the “essential underpinning of… democracy.” He also argued that there is no such thing as a neutral worldview. Tim Dieppe reviews the speech, finding some points of disagreement, but lots to be encouraged by in what he said.

 

Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron MP, gave a bold lecture on the role of faith in politics this week. The full text is available here, and it is well worth reading through. In the lecture he says a lot of things that need to be said, and said them well. There are one or two points where I would disagree, but overall it is great to see a politician speaking courageously about the role of faith in politics and society.

 

Live openly as a Christian

Farron makes clear that Christians should not be ashamed of their faith:

“In other words, live openly as a Christian, and seek to share the gospel when you can because the Bible makes it crystal clear that this is a matter of eternal life and death.”

It is encouraging to see an MP talking about eternal matters and the importance of sharing the gospel.

 

A free society

Farron argues that we live in a society where Christianity is not outlawed. He says:

 “If anyone tries to threaten my life or liberty for seeking to live as a Christian, I can count on the state to protect me.”

Sadly, the reality of our cases betray that this is no longer the case. The state has so far failed to protect Felix Ngole who was expelled from university for expressing his faith on Facebook. Neither has it protected Barry Trayhorn who was forced to resign from his position at a prison after a complaint was made about him quoting the Bible in a chapel service. Nor has Richard Page had protection from the state after being disciplined by a Cabinet minister and England’s highest judge for saying that a child’s best interested lie in being raised by a mother and a father. Mr Page was also suspended as a non-executive director of and NHS Trust as a result of expressing his views. Many other cases have been won in the courts, including those of street preachers and teachers, but the fact that they had to go to the courts in the first place is a sign that our liberties are being eroded.

Farron says:

“If you want to live freely as a Christian, you would struggle to find a country as committed to your liberty as this one. Christians who complain about a loss of liberty need to start by acknowledging that reality. And being grateful for it.”

We should certainly be grateful for the freedoms we have in this country, which were hard won by brave and courageous people in past generations. History teaches us, however, that freedoms that are not fought for are freedoms forfeited. Farron gives little acknowledgement of how much these liberties are threatened or have been eroded in recent times, as evidenced by our cases. Perhaps Farron gives tacit recognition of ‘a loss of liberty’ here, but that is as far as it goes.

 

Countercultural

Farron speaks very well about how Christianity critiques culture. He talks about Babylon and how in the Bible, Babylon is representative of societies that “choose to live for themselves and not for God.” He rightly names the idols of our culture, sex, image, identity, comfort, holidays, friends, possessions, achievement, self-worth.

“Christianity is deeply counter cultural. It offends us because it tells us that we are not our own, that we belong to God. It tells us that we are not good, that our biggest need is not food, water, money, relationships, success or acceptance by society…our greatest need is forgiveness from the God who made us. Christianity is a two-fingered salute to your ego.” 

This is great stuff!

 

Liberalism has won

Farron points out that:

“Liberalism has apparently won. Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties call themselves liberals today. Let’s be honest, you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Even most of the journalists who write for the right wing press are in truth liberals.”  

He then talks of how Christians went from being persecuted to being persecutors and says:

“Liberalism faces the same fate today.”

Farron recognises that he is “an uncomfortable case study” in the oppression of Liberalism today. He was hounded by the ‘liberal’ media over his views on homosexuality, and later felt forced to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats. In his resignation speech he said that it had felt impossible for him to live as a committed Christian and to be a political leader, “especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017.” Because of this he argued then that “we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”

 

Christianity underpins democracy

In a brilliant passage from his speech this week, Farron says:

“Look through history. Where the gospel is preached, other freedoms follow. The abolition of slavery led by evangelical Christians most notably Wilberforce, the laws to prevent industrial exploitation led by committed Christian Lord Shaftesbury, the ending of the cruel practice of Sati in India after campaigning by Christian missionaries especially William Carey.

“This is not a coincidence. If you believe that you have been saved by grace, by a God who commands that you then show that same selfless love to others, if you believe that God created every person of equal value and dignity and in his own image, and if you believe that you are answerable to that God, then that belief will not leave you unmoved. That belief will define your values and it will define your actions. Christianity, then, is the essential underpinning of liberalism and, indeed, of democracy.”

He continues:

“In discarding Christianity, we kick away the foundations of liberalism and democracy and so we cannot then be surprised when what we call liberalism stops being liberal.”

 

The role of legislation

Farron cites Edmund Burke in order to argue against legislating morality:

“Edmund Burke said that all the laws against the Godless have not saved one single soul. To put it another way, what is the point in legislating to make people who are not Christians behave as though they were?It isn’t liberal, it is counterproductive and it does not follow the Bible’s teaching”

I am not persuaded by the logic here. Let us agree that laws do not save souls. Does it therefore follow that we should not legislate good behaviour? Should we not outlaw stealing, for example?  Why is it counterproductive? Don’t good laws protect people? How can we say that doesn’t follow the Bible’s teaching? Rather, the Bible provides the moral framework for laws across societies. Indeed, Edmund Burke spoke of:

“that Law which governs all Law: the Law of our Creator, the law of humanity, Justice, Equity; the Law of Nature and of Nations.”

Farron appears to have a confused understanding of the role of law. All laws require the consent of society. Laws that follow God’s righteous moral law allow for the best flourishing of society.

 

No neutrality

Farron discusses worldviews, and how currently “absence of faith is still thought to be the neutral position.” Against this, Farron proclaims:

“There is absolutely no such thing as neutrality.”

Farron is absolutely right here, and it is great he said it. There is no such thing as a neutral worldview.

Sadly, in just a few paragraphs he violates this maxim:

“I believe in pluralism, I am not a secularist but I believe in a secular society where there is no ‘state faith’.”

But there are no neutral worldviews. A secular society is therefore not a neutral society. It will obtain its morals from secularism. Secularism will therefore be the ‘state faith’. Whatever is the source of morality for a society is effectively the God of that society.

Farron recognises that atheism is a religion too:

“It is just as illiberal, and just as silly, to make atheism the state religion.”  

Once again, there is no neutral option. Whether society formally recognises it or not, there is always a worldview (or religion) that is the source of morality. See Bill Muehlenberg’s recent article “Challenging our Secular Theocracies” for more explanation of this.

 

Freedom to offend

Farron then articulates how liberalism feels threatened by those with faith:

 “If you actively hold a faith that is more than an expression of cultural identity, a faith that forms the centre of your world view, you are deemed to be far worse than eccentric. You are dangerous. You are offensive.”

He rightly argues that freedom to offend is crucial to a free society:

“What is at the heart of a liberal society?  It is to uphold that we have a right to offend and a duty to tolerate offence. George Orwell said ‘if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’”

He cites the example of Jesus offending Pharisees on the one hand, whilst caring for the outcasts on the other. Grace and truth.

 

Shared values

Farron believes that we have no shared values:

“We don’t really have shared values. There is no unifying set of British values. It’s a myth.”

If that were really the case, then society would collapse. If we did not have even shared values of democracy or rule of law, we would become anarchistic. Let us hope and pray that this is indeed not the case and that it will not become the case.

Farron aptly cites the book of Judges:

“Let me quote from the book of Judges  ‘in those days Israel had no King; everyone did as they saw fit’. Everyone did as they saw fit. If we have no king, no unifying code, then we will make it up as we go along.” 

The point in Judges, which Farron appears to miss, is that if everyone is doing whatever they think fit then the people are rebelling from God’s laws. That point also applies today. Clearly, to the extent to which this is true for Britain, this is a reflection of judgement on the nation.

Britain used to have a clear sense of identity as a Christian nation, with shared Christian values. This is what is best for the nation and is what we should desire for the nation. Farron, it seems, doesn’t realise this.

 

Defending Christianity

Farron concludes with great rebuttal of atheism and a defence of Christianity.

“Well look, atheism is not the absence of belief, it is a belief in absence and therefore the absence of common values. It’s a belief in there being no unifying truth. But if there is no unifying truth then, by its own standard, the belief that there is no unifying truth must also be bogus.” 

“So, look, this isn’t an evangelistic talk, but I’d want to persuade you that it is rational and reasonable to take Christianity seriously. I also want the freedom to be able to commend Christianity as the best foundation for a plural, liberal society. A foundation that holds to objective truths about what a flourishing human life is, but one that holds those objective truths with generosity, grace, respect and love.”

Objective truths indeed! He also has a go at what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. The idea that because we are the latest generation then we are also the greatest.

 

Conclusion

There is much to commend in Farron’s speech. I long for more politicians to speak like that. Perhaps now he is out of leadership he feels a greater freedom to say what he really thinks. I hope so. Let us pray for more politicians and leaders to speak with courage and conviction about their faith. It is time for Christians to unashamedly assert the truth and benefits of Christianity.

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