WHEN Tim Farron resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats last week, he said that he had found himself “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader”.
The message within Mr Farron’s resignation seems to suggest one of two things: either he is too weak and personally wounded at this time to lead any political party; or he has never adequately thought through the tensions between his political beliefs and a faith-based ethics in a way that allows him to articulate them robustly, honestly, and wisely in the public sphere.
I am convinced that Christians active in politics ought to appear more broad-shouldered than this. Drawing on deep theological reflection, the spiritual strength of prayer, the pastoral care of their Church, and the Holy Spirit’s ability to make them as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”, they surely need not surrender their influence over a single issue of tender conscience.
LIBERAL democracies rightly declare that toleration of different beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles are among their core values. Yet some of the dominant Establishment voices in these societies, in the media and in politics, find the toleration of certain conservative views problematic, and seek to offer “no platform” to those who express them.
Mr Farron seems to have fallen victim here, despite a voting record as an MP which shows little evidence of illiberal attitudes. During the General Election campaign, Mr Farron, a born-again Evangelical, was repeatedly questioned by reporters about his views on homosexuality. His refusal to give a clear answer was deemed unacceptable by the media and political Establishment (although he later asserted that he did not believe that gay sex was sinful) (News, 28 April).
Unfortunately, Mr Farron’s resignation has given licence to conservative Christians to play the persecution narrative. For a long time, they have perceived themselves as an embattled rearguard against the march of the locust armies of secularism. Former privileges of the Christendom regime are being challenged, but to call this persecution is inappropriate nonsense when set alongside the trials of Christian communities in North Korea, Iraq, or Pakistan, or the harassment and hate crimes that are regularly reported by both Muslims and Jews in the UK.
In reality, if Christians did not insist on taking a traditional stance on marriage and human sexuality, almost all the contentious issues would disappear. The wider Church is riven by these issues, and, for some, their literal reading of the Bible in this area is not merely an issue of conscience or personal ethics for the believer, but a gospel-defining issue, marking the boundary between the saved and the unsaved.
Out of such convictions and certainty comes the arrogant sound of condemnation and provocation, which hinders a meaningful engagement with contemporary politics and culture, and is poor apologetics. It is scarcely Good News, capable of being heard as a welcoming and loving invitation to follow Jesus.
IN AT least two ways, the Church has only itself to blame. Since the Confessions of St Augustine of Hippo, written between 397 and 400, the theology of sin has been framed in terms of its opposite: sexual chastity. Both Roman Catholic and Evangelical guilt complexes are deeply anchored in the struggles around the first of the seven deadly sins — lust.
If only the Church could reclaim a wider narrative and theology of sin — not only the other six deadly ones in the list, but the sins against which the Hebrew prophets and Jesus raged — Christian politicians would be better equipped to denounce as evil before God policies and actions that cause the oppression of the poor, the exclusion of asylum-seekers, the benefit sanctions that make people destitute and drive them to the charity of foodbanks, the sale of arms to monstrous regimes, and the self-serving egos of leaders who crave status and wealth above the common good.
Second, since the time of Constantine, the Christendom model of the Church working in alliance with the State has produced some false assumptions about the relationship of faith with power. Too often, we have mashed together the distinct spheres of personal belief and the practice of virtue, the declaration of public truth about good and evil, and the universal gospel as recorded in scripture and interpreted in the historic creeds, and the coercive power of the law and the State to bring behaviour and ritual into conformity with certain norms.
Of course, there are overlaps and influences between these areas of life, and Archbishop Temple’s concept of middle axioms (principles pitched between broad generalisations and specific policies) still has some power to bring a degree of Christian realism into the world of politics and social life. Even though we should seek to serve and emulate a powerless, slave-servant Messiah, faithful, believing politicians and other actors in the public sphere could be better equipped to understand and deal with the tensions involved in power and leadership than Mr Farron evidently was.
Greg Smith is an honorary associate research fellow at the William Temple Foundation. This is an edited version of a blog that was published at www.williamtemplefoundation.org.uk