One of the central arguments of the Christian right (and their secular conservative allies) is that political liberalism is incompatible with Christian belief. An associated argument is that political liberals despise and will not tolerate Christian believers.
Making these arguments in the American political context is not that easy. The national Democratic ticket of 2016, after all, included two religiously observant candidates, one Protestant, one Catholic.
But the Christian right just received a big gift from across the sea, when Liberal Democratic Party leader Tim Farron resigned his position while complaining that he had “found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.”
Farron is an evangelical Protestant, apparently of the sort that views the Bible as providing clear and unchanging norms for behavior, especially sexual behavior. In the very recent past, including the election campaign, he constantly professed to see no conflict between his religion and his political positions, though he visibly struggled with the question of whether homosexuality “is a sin.” It seems now that he never quite meant it.
“To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”
And he appears to believe he was treated intolerantly, if not persecuted, for his beliefs.
“I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”
This was music to the ears of conservative Catholic commentator Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing for National Review, because it confirmed his view that Christianity and progressive politics have now become impossible to reconcile. Poor Farron, he suggests, now knows that:
The entire elite culture and much of the popular culture is secular in a quite specific way. It is not a secularism that encourages public neutrality while maintaining a generous social pluralism. It’s a secularism that demands the humiliation of religion, specifically Christianity.
Dougherty gives the argument a particularly nasty twist:
If Tim Farron wanted his religion to be unreservedly praised in the British media, we all know what he had to do: Convert to Islam and blow up a few teenage girls. 2017 is the year we learned every Farron interview inspires people to kick Christianity and every terrorist attack starts a wave of public proclamations about the beauty of true Islam.
Now Dougherty may have a point in suggesting that Farron’s views on homosexuality would not have been of as much interest to the media had he been something other than a conservative evangelical. Prime Minister Theresa May, after all, is the daughter of a Church of England vicar who seems to be religiously observant. She and her Conservative Party are firmly in favor of marriage equality and legalized abortion. But the C of E (despite its recent divisions over same-sex marriage, much of it attributable to the fear of offending conservative Asians and Africans who numerically dominate the worldwide Anglican Communion it leads) doesn’t place rules about sex at the center of its take on the world, and doesn’t tend to view the Bible as some sort of prescriptive handbook of dos and don’ts. The point is: Identifying Tim Farron with “Christianity” as a whole, or even with “evangelical Protestants” as a whole, is simply wrong.
Making Tim Farron the epitome of “persecuted” Christians in Britain and America alike without examining who that excludes is an act of bad faith.
In any event, the idea that Tim Farron was driven from the leadership of his party for his religious beliefs runs up against the rather massive alternative explanation that he wasn’t a very effective leader, as evidenced by the disastrous LibDem showing in the recent elections. Yes, the LibDems picked up a few parliamentary seats, but its share of the popular vote (7.3 percent) was its worst ever. The LibDems seemed, moreover, to miss a historic opportunity to recover from their calamitous performance in the 2015 elections. The LD was the only squarely anti-Brexit party in a country evenly divided over that lurch into peril, and it should have also benefited from serious public misgivings about the Tory and Labour leaders. A lot of this was not Farron’s fault; the most common explanation for the LibDems’ problems was lingering anger at its facilitation of Tory austerity policies as part of David Cameron’s governing coalition. But as martyrdoms go, the case for Farron’s is exceptionally weak.
Besides, it’s not like Tim Farron’s religious views were a secret when he was chosen to succeed former leader Nick Clegg — an avowed atheist, as it happens, like many prominent figures in British politics — less than two years ago. Did progressive secularists just forget to persecute him then? Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t say.