Sunday, 19 September 2010

Tim Farron on faith and politics

I attended a fringe meeting at Conference organised by the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. The event was addressing the question "Christianity and the Lib Dems - a match made in heaven?"

Those who know me will already know my views on this. I am unashamedly suspicious of those who use their faith for political purposes. I have strong concerns about faith schools, am a passionate advocate of gay rights and the equality of marriage and - partly due to my experience in working in maternity - I have no truck with moralising on the abortion issue. I welcomed the abolition of the homophobic and discriminatory Section 28 and have campaigned for a more inclusive church. And from a scientific perspective, I refuse to be an apologist for creationism which in my view lacks genuine scientific basis and plays into the hands of the likes of Richard Dawkins. I believe, in one sense at least, that there has to be a separation between personal faith and a secular position. That doesn't mean that faith is incompatible with political conviction, but I have difficulty when some people's less than liberal religious ideas translate into an equally fundamentalist political position.

I have a genuine appreciation of the work of secular organisations, within and outwith the party, as they help to promote justice, equality, diversity, respect, social freedom and a faith in humanity. I don't disagree with that. I admire the work they are doing to help forge a more progressive and liberal society which can not, and should not, either discriminate or protect on the basis of religion. I am a strong believer in secular democracy.

But then, I also a Christian. I often say this is because I don't have enough faith to be an atheist. There is more to it than that, though, and I was brought up in the Hebrides where Christian expression is particularly important. I accept that you won't find too many ecumenists within the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but I value my religious heritage, even if in some respects I have grown apart from it. While I am a convinced liberal, there is also no escaping the fact that I will always be - in part at least - motivated by a personal faith.

All the same, I'm the kind of Christian who, on social issues particularly, often finds myself siding with atheists and humanists and being criticised by Christians who are unable to grasp liberal concepts.

There have always been people who are similarly motivated - Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Elizabeth Fry, Thomas Barnardo and William Wilberforce are but a few whose religious convictions have prompted them to achieve real change. Tim Farron MP is another who accepts that, while his faith "is personal, it isn't private" because it shapes his personal motivations.

Tim - following on from the excellent Dr Stephen Backhouse who argued that the Christian concern for liberty, the individual and equality are reflected within the party's liberal tradition - argued that the history of the Liberal Party is rooted in "evangelical", "Bible believing" (I prefer non-conformist) Christianity. He showed how there have always been Christian influences running through the party, which has remained a "broad church" with a "peculiar attraction" towards both Christians and non-believers.

Tim expressed concern about promoting a "liberal perspective on faith" which "liberate[s] the church...from being compromised by being part of the furniture of the state" and rightly pointed out that imposing "a Christian Society" on a secular world is less than Christian. "You can't force people into a value system on the basis of a faith they don't subscribe to" explains Tim. Absolutely.

Tim went on to talk about his personal faith and defended it: "There's a value system at the heart of every one of might be as right or better than mine but it's no more bring your beliefs into your politics."

I would contend that this is true and while I might not agree with Tim Farron on every point it is an inescapable reality that we all have our own values - shaped by our unique experiences, circumstances and understandings - that heavily influence the way we relate to the world and hope to change it. Society, and parliament, would be poorer for being home to a less inclusive and broad range of value systems.

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