Tim Farron is either "wrong or compellingly correct"
|Tim Farron: "Christianity is not a bit true.
It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true."
I know what I believe.
I also know what I don't believe.
I don't think it's a terribly positive testimony for the President of the Liberal Democrats to chair a prayer breakfast in Westminster Hall at which Oxford University's Professor John Lennox described atheism as a "fairy tale for those afraid of the light". Worse still, when the President of the Liberal Democrats follows that up with the assertion that "Christianity is not a bit true. It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true", questions have to be asked about whether Tim Farron is able to separate his personal faith from the responsibilities of his secular position.
Farron has proved himself a very capable party president, as well as an excellent campaigner. No-one can deny his incredible work ethic and infectious enthusiasm. There is no question that the Liberal Democrats are stronger for having him as President. He has enormous political intelligence - and yet, when it comes to the matter of his personal faith, he seems not to grasp how unwise it is to make public proclamations in support of a particularly fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity.
It's not the first time he's done this, of course. Farron has upset a few people with his voting on sections of equal marriage legislation. He also made a few headlines when he co-signed a letter to the Advertising Standards Agency apparently arguing for the literal, physical healing power of God and demanding that the agency produce "indisputable scientific evidence" to the contrary after it banned a leaflet. He did later admit this was a mistake and that he should not have signed the letter "as it was written", but he clearly believes that God's in the healing business. I thought his apology was well-considered, but highlighted the lack of thought given to signing the initial letter. Furthermore, he has intervened on the sensitive matter of terminating pregnancy by stating that "Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time." (The War Cry, 24.2.07).
It's not so much that he makes these statements and believes in them that concerns me, but the lack of consideration shown for those who think differently. No doubt he'll disagree, but in referring to "Bible-believing Christians" in a speech at a conference fringe meeting in 2011, he makes the distinctions between "real" Christians and those who presumably are less than real. This is particularly offensive from the perspective of the inclusive and tolerant liberalism that he has been elected to represent.
I was invited to the prayer breakfast (as a member of LDCF) but I'm pleased I wasn't present because the contribution of Professor Lennox would not have sat comfortably with my interpretation of Christian values. But I'm more disturbed by Tim Farron: what exactly does he mean when he says "'Christianity is not a bit true. It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true"? Is he suggesting Christianity is merely an inflexibly prescriptive and fixed set of beliefs? Is he asserting the moral and spiritual superiority of Christianity? Is he reducing the truth of all religion and spirituality to the simplistic test of scientific scrutiny - something that surely hands the argument to atheism? Furthermore, what precisely does Tim define as "Christianity"? More seriously, does he not realise that there is usually some truth in all faiths and ideologies...and that (in respect of the "absolutely true" assertion) any belief that believes it has an absolute majority on truth is fundamentally dangerous?
I have my own personal faith. I still call it Christianity, because that's what it is. I rejected fundamentalism years ago. I no longer believe in a theistic, all powerful God living somewhere beyond the visible sky intervening in response to appeals to direct the course of human history. That understanding of God is not credible. But I have an attraction to many of the reported teachings of Christ and I still believe in "God" - although my God is unlimited and boundless, the expression of life itself. As someone who has actually taken the time to study theology, while I may have rejected many of the claims made for Christianity I continue to have time for liberal, inclusive religion and indeed spirituality more generally.
It is not Christianity that is either utterly wrong or completely correct. It is Tim Farron. There is no scope in his thinking for any "middle ground"; his views are either entirely true or completely mistaken. Very few theologians of standing, let alone the vast majority of moderate church leaders, would make this kind of claim. There is truth in Christianity, as indeed there tends to be in most religious, social and political philosophies. There is also a fair amount of error - at least in regards the claims often made for Christianity by its more fundamentalist advocates who have subjected Biblical interpretation to the straitjacket of literalism. It is thoroughly depressing that Farron is unable to grasp that truth goes beyond the mere literal and indeed is far more subjective that he cares to believe. In any case, Christianity is more than a list of alleged "absolutes" and the Bible itself a collection of historically confusing and theologically contradictory texts, some more reliable than others and each written for various religious or political purposes. This does not negate that there is indeed some truth within its pages, but the idea of accepting it as a single globule of divinely-inspired Truth is frankly absurd in the light of 21st century theological understanding.
However, I accept that Christianity as Tim understands it must be right or wrong - the notion that the meaning of Biblical texts must be either accepted in full or wholly rejected (irrespective of the varying interpretations that may be made of such) is not an academically sustainable position to take. What stems from Farron's assertions is an intolerance towards other expressions of Christianity (and indeed atheism and other religions), an assumption that issues of faith are black-and-white (and "his" Christianity is presumably always right) and a disregard for the values of secularism. Fortunately, however, Farron's brand of Christianity is not the only one out there.
There are many Christians within the Liberal Democrats who do not see their faith as having a monopoly on truth and who value - indeed, even promote - secular society. It is disappointing that Tim Farron's increasing ventures into religious controversy have the effect of making him, and therefore the party, appear more than faintly ridiculous. It is not a mainstream Christian view to characterise atheists as "afraid of the light"; nor is assertion of absolute correctness of Christianity (as inevitably interpreted by the individual) something most Christians cling to.
Tim Farron is the obvious favourite to succeed Nick Clegg when he eventually steps down as party leader. He has evident attributes, but while I would happily have Tim as an MP and campaigner within the party I'm becoming gradually more uncomfortable with the idea that someone who so frequently courts controversy on the basis on his religious beliefs (or, more accurately, his inability to express them in sensible, moderate ways) leading our party.
Of course, this issue not merely about one man - it's about how these values are being communicated and promoted within the Liberal Democrats. We had a number of Lib Dem MPs either vote against or abstain on the issue of marriage equality; more worryingly we have the likes of anti-abortion and Gay-cure promoting Christian "charity" CARE providing interns to parliamentarians including Scottish leader Willie Rennie and, in the recent past, Mr Farron.
Perhaps a step forward would be for someone to run for party president next year on a secularist platform?
Update: There has been some interest in this page recently, especially in relation to the quote from the Salvation Army's newspaper (The War Cry). Some question the authenticity of the quote and it seems the War Cry cannot be found online. Therefore I am posting a scan of a section of the original article (left, please click on it to open at larger size), which hopefully will allow people to see what Tim actually said and read his comments in the relevant context.
I would add, however, that as the quote is ten years old people should accept that Tim's views on the issue may have changed. I also hope they will listen to what he is currently saying about women's rights. AP, 20.4.17
Further update: I see The Guardian has now taken an interest in this post, claiming that this interview with The War Cry has just "emerged". This is clearly nonsense, as I quoted from it in 2013 so it's hardly new.
While I don't apologise for writing what I did 4 years ago and for drawing attention to some unfortunate ways in which Tim expressed his religious views, I am unhappy with the way others have seized on it. Labour's Alison McGovern, who I usually have a lot of time for, has reacted by saying: "That a woman’s right to choose is being questioned by the leader of the Liberal Democrats in this day and age is frankly astonishing. He must urgently clarify his position on this important issue." This is deliberately disingenuous. The quote is ten years old, Tim did not make it while he was party leader and has most definitely clarified his position as "I am pro-choice. I believe that abortion should be safe and legal and that the limit should be set by science". I agree with him.
I'm not going to withdraw the post, but I ask that people read it in its correct context. I criticised certain things Tim said at a certain time - but he's clearly learned from the past and as leader he's been very careful not to make statements on the issue of religion. I'm happy that, whatever he thinks privately, Tim isn't going to be pressing for a change in the law any time soon.
I would also hope that The Guardian, and others, understand that this General Election is about many things of greater significance than an interview Tim gave to The War Cry a decade ago. AP, 18.5.17