Some years ago I attended a memorial service for a friend of mine. At it, one of the people giving a eulogy said something along the lines of “As someone who goes through the same conflicting emotions, I know how hard it was for him trying to reconcile his sexuality with his Christianity.” It was a very emotional part of the event, and it stuck with me and I still remember it many years later. Not only because the person giving the eulogy had at that time spoken little about his own sexuality, but also because many of those who knew the person for whom the memorial service was being held probably didn’t know he was a Christian. But this must be something that affects thousands of people in this country. It is also a conflict that will affect many more people who whilst not gay, have a strong Christian identity and have strong liberal convictions.
I deliberated a while before writing this post, as adding yet another post to the discussion about what Tim Farron’s attitudes are or are not on both religion and the morality of homosexuality or abortion, didn’t necessarily feel helpful. But when the quote above came to mind again, it felt like something I wanted to get off my chest. As someone who doesn’t believe in any religion and was brought up in a resolutely atheist household, wading in to any discussion on religion is also perhaps not helpful. However that’s what I am about to do.
I imagine being a Christian has many parallels with how people such as myself became Liberal Democrats. We hadn’t initially thought about why we were, we just sort of knew deep down that it felt right. Later on as you read more about it, you get to know more people involved and you start to deliberate either with others or internally some of the issues that arise, you realise that your gut instinct was right, and yes you are a Liberal Democrat. But like being a Liberal Democrat you also find some of the things that are said or that are written don’t tally with quite how you feel about the world. Largely they aren’t fundamental issues, but they are places where if pressed you find it hard to reconcile your gut instinct view with the accepted view of what being a Liberal Democrat is about. In the end you have to accept that no one will ever agree on what is ideologically pure and even if they could then everyone’s beliefs are always a bit of a compromise as you have also been heavily influenced by other life experiences, the opinions of others or you simply just take a different view from the accepted wisdom of other Lib Dems.
I once wrote a comment on a blog where I disagreed with the party’s views on how education was structured. One person came back and asked me “why on earth therefore was I a liberal” because of my views on that one specific subject. It was, and is, entirely unfair to question someone’s whole political outlook based on their views on one issue, or even one part of an issue. Just as I have tended towards a more traditional socialist structure on the organisation of education, I have also over the years not agreed with votes at 16 (these days I tend more towards ambivalence) and I have also not felt entirely comfortable with allowing gay couples to adopt (although I’ve accepted that it’s better than the alternatives). These are all issues about which many Liberal Democrats feel passionate and they see as something that makes them identify as a Liberal Democrat. For me, they aren’t but I am a Liberal Democrat in nearly every other respect so why should a tiny handful of specific issues make me fundamentally not a Lib Dem.
Which brings me back to Tim Farron. Tim Farron has clearly supported same-sex marriage in parliament, and whilst there were parts of the specific act of parliament that he quibbled with, he has still on the whole supported it. He has also argued against changing the law on abortion. But that doesn’t stop him having some internal conflict about these issues based on two instinctive but at times conflicting beliefs that he holds. The words “at times” are also important here, as much of the time there won’t be conflict with the two and will actually reinforce each other. But at the end of the day, there are a number of issues, on which there is a conflict between what Christianity says and what the instincts of a liberal are, which makes it tough for those who are both. I won’t go in to here what is the truly Christian view on these or what exactly the Bible says, as I’ve realised how few Christians agree on that anyway. In the end Tim Farron has voted with a strongly liberal stance throughout his time as an MP. If we knew that Tim Farron was a massive homophobe – which he absolutely clearly is not to the point where even just writing that sentence dismissing the idea still feels ludicrously unfair – then as Liberal Democrats we would question his views. But in reality he has a conflict between two powerful and at times contradictory, yet instinctive beliefs. He won’t be the only person to have that, and the reasons for his conflict on these specific issues are probably far more convincing that the doubts I have about the issues I mentioned earlier which can be summed up as “well it’s just how I feel”. Tim perhaps needs a better way of expressing this conflict that doesn’t resort to religious terminology (which does put off a large proportion of the country who aren’t religious), but instead looking at any conflicting instincts that we all have, which for the majority of apolitical people don’t involve their political stance, and arguing why his political instincts win out.
We all get different aspects of what we believe in from different parts of what goes to make us who we are. For some people it’s religion, for others it is family or friends, for others it is reading literature, and so on. It’s not what gets us there, it’s what our general attitude is at the end of it. And on that, I have no doubt about Tim Farron’s liberalism and it’s that liberalism that matters.