Recently Tim Farron, who was leader of the Liberal Democrats at the time of the election earlier this year, gave a speech at the Christian think tank Theos. I find myself in agreement with so much that he says. Even in an edited form it is very long, but has much to say about our need to engage with the world around us.
A full copy of the speech can be found here.
These are a few highlights, following on from last week’s blog.
As Liberal Democrat leader I spent much of the time I should have been using to set out the party’s case, batting away questions to do with my faith. ‘Yes, we see how you’ve voted Mr Farron, and we hear what you say…but what do you think…?’
Well, as a Christian, I hold to the Bible’s teaching.
Look through history. Where the gospel is preached, other freedoms follow. The abolition of slavery led by evangelical Christians most notably Wilberforce, the laws to prevent industrial exploitation led by committed Christian Lord Shaftesbury, the ending of the cruel practice of Sati in India after campaigning by Christian missionaries especially William Carey.
This is not a coincidence. If you believe that you have been saved by grace, by a God who commands that you then show that same selfless love to others, if you believe that God created every person of equal value and dignity and in his own image, and if you believe that you are answerable to that God, then that belief will not leave you unmoved. That belief will define your values and it will define your actions. Christianity, then, is the essential underpinning of liberalism and, indeed, of democracy.
If our values are relativistic, if they are shifting, if they depend upon the temporary norms of this age, then the freedoms you bank upon today, cannot be guaranteed tomorrow. Our liberties are in the hands of unstable forces, we cannot have confidence that our rights will still be our rights from one generation to the next because we cannot call upon any authority in support of those rights.
Christianity provides the values that permit liberalism to flourish.
In discarding Christianity, we kick away the foundations of liberalism and democracy and so we cannot then be surprised when what we call liberalism stops being liberal.
My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in 4th and 5th centuries. It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process. It isn’t very liberal any more.
So many who declare themselves to be liberals, really aren’t.
I believe in God. I believe that Jesus is His long promised Christ or Messiah. When Jesus says that all who believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life; and that he is the only way to the Father, I believe him.
I share God’s wish that everyone would come to believe this. It breaks my heart that people don’t. But God hasn’t created us robots, we have real choices, you and I matter and every human being is accountable, the decisions we make are real decisions, He allows us to reject Him and who am I to disagree with that? Edmund Burke said that all the laws against the Godless have not saved one single soul. To put it another way, what is the point in legislating to make people who are not Christians behave as though they were?
It isn’t liberal, it is counterproductive and it does not follow the Bible’s teaching.
You see, that’s the Biblical pattern. You come to Jesus in your wretched state, you don’t contribute to your forgiveness or salvation one jot, you receive that forgiveness… and then you must go and turn away from your previous life, deny yourself and seek to follow Christ and his teaching. You don’t have to clean yourself up first, you don’t have to be good for a bit and then try applying to become a Christian to see if you’ve made the grade. The point is that none of us has made the grade, but that’s OK, because Jesus has made the grade, and he chose to die in your place.
But making people live as Christians when they aren’t, is unwise, ungodly, counterproductive and illiberal. As a Liberal I say it is wrong, and as a Christian I say it is wrong and it doesn’t even work!
To believe in the Bible’s teaching and to also believe in people’s right to reject it and to live as they choose, is about as close to a pure application of liberalism as you could get.
And yet so many people who count themselves as liberals can’t or won’t grasp this. In part this is down to the growth of religious illiteracy in many parts of our society, but that’s not a good enough excuse.
The questions to me came thick and fast during those seven weeks of the campaign, mostly they went along the lines of…’ but how can you believe what the Bible says and lead a liberal party?’ Answer: easy, you just need to be a liberal. That people asked that question, makes me seriously doubt that they understand liberalism even though they may preach it. Liberalism has eaten itself.
When a liberal turns out to be an evangelical Christian, people are surprised or confused. If you are one of those who are surprised and confused… then you are a victim. A victim of liberalism’s comprehensive triumph… where the main loser, is liberalism.
Now let me be very clear, I handled loads of the questions that I got, badly, I sometimes demonstrated a lack of wisdom, please don’t think that I see myself as some sort of noble victim.
My observation is that for many years now our culture has considered that the absence of faith is the neutral position, and that the holding of a religious faith is eccentric. In other words, an absence of faith is the standard assumption around which we build our social structures, and if you have a faith we will consider you to be eccentric in the whacky and harmless sense… so we will tolerate you, as long as you remain on the edges.
What appears now to be happening is that while the absence of faith is still thought to be the neutral position, holding a faith is only considered to be tolerably eccentric if it is merely cultural. But if your faith actually affects your world view in any way that puts it at odds with the mainstream, then your faith is considered to be malign and intolerable.
So there is no neutrality. Absence of faith is a valid world view, but it has no right to supremacy. If you believe it does have that right, then I respect your view, but you are not a liberal. I have often been encouraged – by well-meaning people – to make sure that my faith doesn’t influence my decisions or actions as a politician. The more I think about it, the more daft that sounds. Do you leave your world view at the door before you enter a room? Do you enter every situation empty-headed and value-free? Nope? Neither do I. And neither will I.
I believe in pluralism, I am not a secularist but I believe in a secular society where there is no ‘state faith’. That in Britain we have a church trapped as part of the furniture of the state is a waste of a church. A boat in the water is good. Water in the boat, is bad. A church in the state is good, the state in the church is bad. Really bad. It pollutes the message of that church. It compromises it. Weakens its witness.
But the threat to liberalism is far greater than faith being relegated in social standing below the absence of faith. If you actively hold a faith that is more than an expression of cultural identity, a faith that forms the centre of your world view, you are deemed to be far worse than eccentric. You are dangerous. You are offensive.
Written by Tony Thompson