By Guy Brandon
20 July 2015
As the new Liberal Democrat leader and a Christian in the front line of politics, Tim Farron has encountered immediate and hostile media attention over his views on same-sex practice and marriage. Is there a better way to nuance these discussions than the reductionist knee-jerk coverage we have seen so far? Here are some initial thoughts.
It is nonsensical to claim that faith should have no impact in politics. Every political position betrays a worldview of one kind or another, whether religious or secular. Every policy is underpinned by a value judgement about what is right and wrong – including the basic traditional party dividing lines. It is simply that as a Christian, the thought-framework that underpins or at least contributes to those decisions is made explicit.
1) Sound bites are reductionist and demeaning
Christians are not a homogenous group, any more than politicians in general or Liberal Democrats or members of other parties are. Approaches to same-sex practice and same-sex marriage, sexual ethics more broadly and indeed wider Christian engagement with society, are hugely complex. For Christians, appropriate responses to sexuality may be entirely different at the levels of personal practice, Church teaching and pastoral care, and public policy. Questions that seek to reduce the complexity and richness of a biblical view of sexual ethics, or of the interplay of personal faith and public political engagement, to a one-word answer in the interests of adversarial reporting – with the primary aim of provoking an emotional response from audiences rather than helping to inform them – are therefore demeaning, both to those of faith and to the questioner who claims to be speaking in the public interest (and often with public money).
2) We have lost the Bible’s holistic view of society
Any meaningful faith will not be compartmentalised to limited areas of life. The Bible has a holistic and comprehensive view of what society should look like, and the policies (laws) it states all work in the same direction. Ultimately those laws were designed to create and safeguard strong and healthy relationships of all kinds – family, community, financial, business, international – throughout society (Matthew 22:34-40).
We must, of course, distinguish the purpose of the Bible’s laws (comprehensive right relationships) from their specific expression 3,000 years ago for the Israelites living in the Ancient Near East, or for the early Church in the Roman Empire. However, most people would accept the importance of relationship in its broadest sense. They might also accept the limitations of our current secular ideologies, including capitalism and consumerism. Lastly, they would accept that a joined-up vision of society is lacking. Policies are typically made on a short-term and reactionary level, in isolation from any ‘big picture’.
3) Every policy decision we make shapes the big picture of the society we live in
The world did not end on 17 July 2013, when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed. In one way we became a more liberal society, by definition, by giving gay people the same access to marriage that heterosexual couples have always had.
However, we might also recognise the wider context to this decision. We are a society that is more tolerant of gay people. In the process, we have seen that we have become less tolerant of free speech (regardless of faith). There was no clear popular mandate for same-sex marriage; the trade politicians tacitly made was that gay rights were more important than democracy or freedom of speech. We also glossed over the question of whether the government should be able to redefine an institution that has existed since long before the existence of government as we know it. Thus we have also become less liberal, and implicitly given more power to government. In the same way that political policy inevitably reflects worldview, both the decisions we take and the way that we take them reflect what we view as most important, and play a part in shaping the big picture of the kind of society we live in. Addressing same-sex marriage in isolation from any kind of joined-up vision of society is as short-sighted and illiberal as framing Farron’s suitability and capacity for leadership in the light of his faith.
The question is not whether faith should or shouldn’t be a part of public life, or whether we give new rights to one group of people. The real question is how we live together whilst acknowledging others’ differences in a just and open society that no longer has a unifying and guiding vision, Christian or otherwise. The Judaeo-Christian faith presents a different kind of corporate narrative than our fragmented secular ones offer, with its emphasis on right relationships across every area of life and an integrated approach to building a society.
Image: "Tim farron 2014" by West Berkshire Liberal Democrats from Newbury, England - IMG_1781. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.