by Michael Meadowcroft
One of the most embarrassing episodes at the last general election was the sight of Tim Farron squirming when being pressed on the consequences of his Christian faith. It was embarrassing for him as much as for his friends watching not least because he was clearly genuine and very torn. Tim got himself impaled on what he saw as the contradictions between the political positions that his evangelical faith required and those that his instinctive liberalism instinctively led him to. The issues that became highlighted by the media, and on which he eventually foundered, were particularly, though not exclusively, the "ethical" questions such as abortion and gay rights rather than poverty or inequality. What was puzzling and, indeed, frustrating for colleagues, was that there was no need for Tim to have to agonise: there is no intrinsic dilemma and no incompatibility between faith and political belief.
What was curious in Tim's resignation speech was that he focussed on his position as leader as opposed to being an MP as such. In fact the only difference is the increased media attention; the issues and the necessity to go through the lobbies to vote on them are identical. Why then could Tim apparently be comfortable to be a constituency MP for ten years and then to find it impossible to be party leader?
Throughout history there have been Christians active in politics. In the early sixteenth century, Thomas Muntzer was a fiery preacher and, at least initially, a follower of Luther. He became an increasingly radical political figure eventually with communistic views and was finally tortured and executed in 1525. In the seventeenth century the "Diggers" were a politically radical group of Protestants. The best known of them, Gerrard Winstanley, argued for the common ownership of land. The eighteenth century, with the formalisation of political parties, saw evangelicals involved in parties the best known of which were William Wilberforce as a Liberal in the House of Commons, and Shaftesbury as a Conservative in the House of Lords and both were leading figures in the abolition of slavery and the transformation of social conditions. Evangelicals were prominent in many radical charitable causes but not many allied themselves with political parties. One who did was F B Meyer, a popular Baptist minister in London who allied himself ot the Liberal party at the 1906 general election and despite his socialist sympathies maintained his support for Asquith into the 1920s. Even more so, the great Methodist, Scott Lidgett, was actually the leader of the Progressive Party on the London County Council, albeit when it was in decline following its glory days in control as a Lib-Lab coalition. In 1964 Frederick Catherwood wrote "The Christian in Industrial Society" which drew together the findings of an evangelical study group. One non-conformist reviewer commented, "Political Liberals will find their next manifesto here"! As Sir Fred Catherwood, and somewhat perversely, particularly as a keen supporter of proportional representation, he much later became a Conservative MEP.
Political support can come from unexpected quarters. When I came to London in February 1962 to to join the staff at Liberal Party HQ I attended Westminster Chapel, the largest congregation in London, under the ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones who was regarded by many as the foremost biblical scholar of his day. I was staying at the old London Central YMCA building in Tottenham Court Road where there was a regular lunchtime meeting. With some temerity we invited Dr Lloyd Jones to come and speak. He agreed and joined a group of us for refreshments beforehand. When he discovered that I was at Liberal HQ we was delighted and said that he had always stated that "you could be a Christian Liberal but you couldn't be a liberal Christian"! He then recounted his opposition to Ramsay MacDonald when he had been a minister in Port Talbot many years before.
Also at that time there was a Friday lunchtime Christian fellowship which included a delightful young man who believed that it was a Christian duty to have the Ten Commandments as part of the secular law. I pointed out that it would be rather difficult to have a law against coveting. He was not at all cruel or harsh but as part of this belief in the universality of the Commandments he believed in capital punishment for murder. I then asked him how was it that three great men of God, Moses, David and Paul, had all been murderers - in Paul's case as an accessory to murder. He returned the following Friday and said, "I wish you had never asked me that question - it has disturbed me all week." All penal policy has to hold out the potential for redemption.
It is evangelicals, with their belief in the Bible being the only authority for their beliefs, who have the particular theological problem with certain political issues. Indeed one could point to many Christians actively involved in politics whom evangelicals would reject as not being theologically "sound", hence my concentration in this article on those Christians who rely on the application of biblical teaching for their personal views. Of course, the interpretation of biblical positions on current issues is far from being uniform and presents many significant problems. For instance, the extrapolation of certain texts on supposed God-given territory has led some evangelicals, notably but not exclusively in the USA, myopically to support the present state of Israel with its intolerable and unacceptable treatment of the Palestinians - who themselves include an indigenous Christian minority, under pressure both from Muslim bodies and Israeli occupiers and often ignored by evangelicals. Even evangelicals who do not go so far in their acceptance of a God-given right for Jews to occupy all Palestinian land, tend to be over-indulgent to Israeli claims and actions. The late Ian Paisley used his biblical interpretation to reject the European Union, with its founding Treaty of Rome. Latterly Dr Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, together with a number of British Conservative evangelicals, has used biblical allusions to back their support for Brexit.
However much some evangelical Christians rely on "proof texts" in support of political positions, any struggles with conscience or intellect are wholly unnecessary. It is neither possible nor necessary to enact personal views in legislation.
First, laws are not only words on paper but need to command a sufficient public consensus in order to be sustainable, as Mrs Thatcher discovered to her cost over the poll tax. It follows that for a Christian minority to seek to impose laws on the majority that have not had the Christian experience is not possible.
Second, one's faith is individual and is unique to human beings, thus no inanimate body including the State can, by definition, possess it. Consequently for the evangelical politician, just as their religious belief comes by faith, their political positions have to be determined by reason and logic, imbued, certainly, by faith and political values but, for Liberals, the State is essentially secular in its basis.
Third, whereas it is open to believers to share their faith and to proselytise, they cannot seek to impose by law that which they cannot persuade the electorate to embrace. Throughout history such attempts have led to more and more repression in the pursuit of what the particular religion regards as beneficial. Consent is essential to the survival of democracy.
Fourth, only a secular state can safeguard religious rights. A theocratic, or even a state controlled by political parties based on a specific religion, cannot ensure a plural society. In fact, my experience of working in thirty-five new or emerging democracies is that only a party structure based on political philosophy produces a stable democracy.
Fifth and last, paradoxically it is also in the interest of religion that the state itself should be secular; beliefs enforced by law cannot be rooted in hearts and minds. Arguably, for the evangelical, even having an established church, which implicitly prompts that country's citizens to believe that as a consequence they are "Christians", without having any necessity for a personal commitment. Thus a passive tokenism is assumed which militates against a vibrant evangelical Christianity, such as Tim Farron espouses.
Evangelical Christians often have curious hang-ups with homosexuality and gay marriage. Even if the individual finds it difficult to escape from a personal antipathy that has no bearing on him or her as legislator. The key issue for the Member of Parliament is how does one enable the greater good. Only Liberalism understands that individuals are made up of altruism and selfishness and the task of the Liberal politician is to enhance the former and to diminish the latter. The development of our laws over the past fifty years have had an immeasurable benefit to LGBT men and women with, it would seem, no downside. On a different issue where the same principle applies, the question of regulating surrogacy came before parliament in my time. Alan Beith was a supporter of the Bill and said to me that he did not like the idea of surrogacy at all but "It is going to happen and always has. It is up to parliament to establish the best regulatory framework for the optimum benefit of all concerned."
The second touchstone issue is often abortion. Frankly, the absolutists on both sides have not been beneficial to the sensitive and supportive treatment of women faced with the difficult decision. The "pro life" campaigners have behaved monstrously, picketing abortion clinics with callous disregard for the feelings of the women attending - and even on occasion murdering the doctors - and blatantly ignoring legal restrictions on election literature. On the other side, an over simplistic "right to choose" attitude diminishes the perception of the potential of human life, for instance, in accepting as "normal" the termination of a pregnancy where a scan shows the embryo to carry the Downs Syndrome gene, without pondering how close that comes to a dangerously eugenic concept of the value of life. Rather than taking up a stance anti-abortion per se the evangelical should, as always, adopt the "greater good" test and support the Steel Act test of the effect on the mother involved being the determinant.
Tim Farron need never to have got himself into such a corner. His personal views may well be out of kilter with the radical Liberal he clearly is but that is of no concern to anyone but himself. He should never have let those views been known. And, if raised by Andrew Neil or any other journalist, the answer from day one should have been, "my personal beliefs are just that, personal, and of no concern of anyone else. What matters is my actual record on any issue, including ethical non-party questions. My votes in Hansard are there for all to see."
Privacy is also a Liberal value, even for politicians!