June 19, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, June 19, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The illiberality of secularism: UK Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron resigns over Christian beliefs
Back on May 1st on The Briefing I discussed what was then a raging controversy in Great Britain. I was there at the time and I witnessed the controversy surrounding Tim Farron, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party. If you go back to the early 20th century, the Liberal Party, as it was then known, was the dominant political force in the United Kingdom. But by the 21st century it was largely a spent force, that until its fortunes began to turn especially over the last decade when the party became a very critical player on the British political scene.
Tim Farron was elected first to Parliament as a very young man in his early 20’s and he emerged as a fairly young political leader in terms of a party. But the controversy surrounding Farron, a white-hot controversy in the Spring, had to do with this Liberal Democratic Party leader’s position on the question of homosexuality. And it was a very revealing controversy indeed, because it came down to this: Tim Farron had been claiming for a number of years that he could be both the head of a political party and an evangelical Christian, not only a political party, but the Liberal Democratic Party, on many issues to the center left in terms of the British political scene. But the big issue came down to whether or not Tim Farron could separate his views, his personal convictions, on homosexuality and national policy.Show Full Transcript
Now here’s what’s important. He made very clear that he not only could but that he would. He would hold to his own Christian convictions on the question of homosexuality; he would believe in marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman; he would hold to what were believed to be pro-life positions on the question of abortion; but he would head a political party that would take opposing positions on those very issues.
Now that may sound, as I think it is, untenable in principle, but it also turned out to be untenable in practice. In April and May of this year, Farron was effectively outed on the issue of homosexuality, but the force was actually worse than what you might’ve heard. Because he was not only forced to declare himself on the issue, he was basically forced to repent of ever having believed that homosexuality was a sin. Pressed by the media in terms of questions, specifically in a way that he could not escape, Farron abandoned what he had held as his own personal convictions and instead said that he did not believe homosexuality was a sin. But his demeanor and the way he answered the question indicated that he wasn’t exactly sure of his position or how he should speak of it in public. And the thing to note here, that very equivocation on doctrine and biblical teaching, it turns out, didn’t earn Tim Farron any credit at all with the secular culture.
By the time the month of May dawned, his own party was putting pressure on Tim Farron to come to the new politically correct and officially sanctioned position on homosexuality in terms of the larger culture. Back at that time, Simon Heffer, writing for the Sunday Telegraph, questioned whether the Liberal Democratic Party was actually liberals in the classic sense at all. He said that the party’s controversy had shown itself to be neither liberal, as in open-minded, or, as Heffer said, even Democratic or responsive to the people. In his words,
“First, a political class that cannot help grandstanding about minorities pressed the party leader Tim Farron about whether he believes homosexuality is a sin. As an atheist,” says Heffer, “I find the idea irrelevant, but as a genuine liberal I believe Mr. Farron must have complete freedom of conscience in a supposedly free society to hold whatever religious views he wishes.”
Back then, in May, I predicted that this would not last, and it has not lasted. In recent days, Tim Farron has resigned as head of the Liberal Democratic Party, and he has been quite candid about the fact that he has resigned because of the inevitable conflict between his Christian convictions, his Christian identity indeed, and the demands of modern politics, even the demands of his own political party. Announcing last week his resignation as party leader, Tim Farron said,
“From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser. At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.”
He went on to say,
“Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit. The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.”
Farron then said,
“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. I’m a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.”
It’s important to recognize that Farron had never intended by his own declaration to have translated his personal convictions into public policy. It’s not a very tenable position, it’s untenable, because it’s hard to understand how one can say by conviction, “I believe these things to be true and not only true, but the very things that lead to human flourishing and happiness,” and on the other hand say, “But I will willingly set that aside in order to follow the party’s policies on these questions.”
What we learn from this case is that in spite of all of his compromises, in spite of the fact that he believed he was accepting and living entirely consistently with the modern liberal bargain, Tim Farron found himself not only under scrutiny, but he found his situation untenable as a political leader. He also said that even though he believed himself to be a liberal, he doesn’t believe that this society is very tolerant. He said,
“Even so, 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.”
Writing in Friday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, Sohrab Ahmari makes the point that is emphatically important here. The signal that is sent from this controversy in Great Britain is that there is absolutely no place whatsoever for a Christian believer in liberal politics, not by the rules that now determine how liberal politics is played. Ahmari writes,
“Does liberalism have any room left for Christians and other believers? The question has been posed countless times, and each time liberals answer more decisively than the previous: No.”
He goes back last week to Farron’s resignation and he said,
“The Liberal Democrats supposedly carry the torch of 19th-century classical liberalism, though more recently it’s been difficult to distinguish them from any progressive party, anywhere.
He then writes,
“Not least when it comes to gender-and-sexuality orthodoxy. The media and many in his own party have hounded Mr. Farron for years because he deviated—gently, almost imperceptibly—from that orthodoxy. A working-class evangelical Christian, Mr. Farron imagined that his liberal opinions on other big issues like climate change and the European Union would protect him.”
Ahmari then concludes,
“He was wrong.”
The deal that has been offered to those who are Christian believers who would be engaged in liberal politics these days is that you will be tolerated and allowed to participate so long as you buy into the reigning secular orthodoxies. That’s exactly what Sohrab Ahmari is citing here, and at the most important level the chief doctrine of that liberal secular orthodoxy has to do with sexual morality. It is the morality of the sexual revolutionaries. And what we now learn is that if you differ or deviate from that orthodoxy to any degree, even just in terms of personal conviction, well, you’re not going to be involved in liberal politics any longer, you’re not going to be welcomed at the table. You certainly can’t lead even a center-left political party in the United Kingdom.
But this isn’t just an issue in United Kingdom, this is very much an issue in the United States as well. By the time you get to the 21st century, liberal politics and liberal religion, not coincidentally, is moving largely in lockstep. The same thing is true on the right side of the political equation, and one of the things that comes to the fore here is the reality that even though there are those who hold to evangelical doctrines—they identify as evangelical Christians who were involved in the left—the very same deal, the contract that was required in Great Britain, is now required here.
But as we’ve just learned in the United Kingdom, that contract has effectively been canceled unilaterally by the secular left. On both sides of the Atlantic in the English-speaking world in the birth of modern politics as we know politics today, throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the pattern allowed for evangelicals to be divided between Republicans and Democrats in the United States, divided between those who would be identified as political liberals and those who would be identified as political conservatives. There could be no question, for example, if you look at the masthead of Christianity Today magazine, one of the central symbols of evangelicalism in the postwar period, you would find people who were both Republicans and Democrats, who identified as more conservative and more liberal. But as we’ve often discussed, even looking at the 1960 presidential election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, the issues that separated the two candidates were in retrospect almost inconsequential. What divided them was personality more than anything else. There was a great political center in the United States, the platforms of the Democratic and the Republican parties in 1960 were so close that it would be very difficult to distinguish them without the cover pages these days. But you fast-forward to the year 2017 and the world is radically different.
Just a few days ago we discussed the front page article that appeared in the New York Times indicating a resurgence of the religious left in terms of politics. But even as we discussed that story, I cited the quotation within it from Jim Wallis, a well-known member of the evangelical left, who said that the big problem is that the secular left is decidedly secular and furthermore, it is very much opposed to Christian involvement and Christian arguments. And now we’re looking at the very same pattern from the United Kingdom.
And one of the most interesting things is what was said in defense of Farron’s resignation, or we should say the demand for his resignation, by a member of his own party. In his article that appeared at iNews, a major British digital media site, David Laws, a member of this very liberal Democratic Party, said this of the resignation of his party leader,
“You cannot be a leader of a liberal party while holding fundamentally illiberal and prejudiced views, which fail to respect our party’s great traditions of promoting equality for all our citizens. Many of us have despaired over the last few weeks in seeing all the good work of Liberal Democrats,”
He goes on to say,
“Undermined by Tim’s failure to be able to give direct and liberal responses on his own attitudes to homosexuality.”
All of this is setting up the new deal, the new rules of the game. David Laws went on to celebrate, in effect, Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of his party saying that Farron has held to outdated opinions and views. He went on to write,
“Far more importantly, Tim has propagated the dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral.”
Now here is the new deal, here are the new rules. You can’t even believe on the basis of the authority of Scripture, you cannot believe, you cannot even merely believe in terms of the teachings of Christianity that homosexuality and homosexual relationships are in anyway morally insufficient, much less deviant. David Laws is abundantly clear in this article. Tim Farron had to go because it’s implausible, if not impossible for a political leader in the modern universe of politics to believe convictionally that homosexuality is a sin. Laws concludes,
“Of course, many defenders of Tim will argue that his position on these issues is perfectly liberal, and that it is his critics who are failing to be ‘liberal’, by not respecting his Christian views. Tim has made this point himself, and clearly implied that he views same sex relationships as wrong, but will as a liberal vote to tolerate people who are in such relationships.”
Laws then says,
“But as a gay man, I do not wish to be ‘tolerated’. I wish to be respected for who I am. And I want a party leader whose respect for human equality comes before outdated and frankly offensive religious views.”
But here’s what is so important for us to recognize. Tim Farron had indeed done exactly what David Laws requires here. He had stated that in every way related to public policy, the demands of his party and the principles of his party committed to full inclusion would take full precedence over any biblical beliefs he had concerning the morality of homosexuality. What we’re noticing here is that that deal really isn’t a deal at all. That deal has been revoked. David Laws made that very clear when he refers to Tim Farron’s biblical convictions on the question—or what we might have to say now were Tim Farron’s previously held Christian convictions on sexual morality. They were “frankly offensive religious views.” They have no place in modern politics or in modern public life. In so many ways the proof of this point is made not just by the Liberal Democratic Party in the United Kingdom, but also by the Conservative Party. That party under its now-previous Prime Minister David Cameron also fully endorsed the LGBTQ array of issues. Moral conservatism has these days no home in any major British political party, even within the historic Conservative Party. That party, you remember, lost seats in the recent British election and is having to find a coalition partner to have enough seats in Parliament to put together a majority to form a government. In order to do so, it turns out that the Conservative Party is reaching out to a very small party that is based in Ireland, the Democratic Union or DUP. It’s one of the old-line historic Protestant parties in Ireland and it is socially conservative. One of the most interesting things that has happened just in recent days in Great Britain is that major conservative leaders, including former Prime Minister John Major have publicly warned Prime Minister Theresa May that she must not turn to the Democratic Unionists in order to form a coalition. The message sent is entirely clear. Anyone who would identify as an evangelical Christian holding to biblical conviction is now toxic in the British political scene.
The hostility shown by Senator Bernie Sanders to a federal nominee in terms of recent Senate hearings points to the fact that this is not just a problem on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s a problem in the United States as well. The culture around us is not only turning increasingly secular, but right before our eyes increasingly hostile.
With loss of theological vocabulary, society no longer knows what to say in the aftermath of tragedy
Next, we shift in the United Kingdom to Canada and we ask the question, how does a secular society grieve? What kind of language can it use? Kay writes an article with the headline,
“In a largely godless world it’s hard to know what to say when tragedy strikes.”
The subhead in this article says this,
“The vague idea that we should respond to tragedy by loving one another more is sentimental and unsatisfying. But without God by our side, it seems to be about the best that a secular society can do.”
He points to recent terror attacks pointing out that terrorism,
“Blows up beliefs alongside bodies.”
The chief belief, he said, that was blown up in terms of the recent age of terror is that idea of the inevitability of moral progress and the idea that through education and mere economic improvement, peoples can be morally improved. Jonathan Kay seems to understand the moral identity, the moral question, as a great deal more to do than anything politics, education, or economics can touch. But the headline in this article really gets to a very important question. How does a secular society grieve? To whom does it turn? Kay points out even in the headline and in the subhead of this article that vague references to loving one another more, those references don’t seem to get us very far, they do seem to be overly sentimental and very, very temporary. Furthermore, we really can’t look at each other, we can’t look to each other, looking for rescue from the situation, because none of us or, for that matter, all of us together are not adequate for such a rescue.
Kay’s onto something else which is also of profound importance. In a secular society there is no backdrop of eternity, and because of that there is no real hope. The terror attacks seem to be the absolute period at the end of a sentence. That’s all there is. There is nothing more; there is no one to whom we can turn; there is no hope for the future. I noted that Jonathan Kay seems to write about this new situation from a basically secular perspective himself. He speaks of trying to explain to his own children how to think in the aftermath of this kind of terror attack such as what took place in Manchester recently. He found himself not knowing what to say. He said,
“I realized that I hadn’t the slightest idea how to talk to my children — or anyone — about death.”
He goes on to recognize what’s been lost. He says,
“Not so long ago, public grieving for the victims of a bombing or fire would be tempered by the consolations of heaven, where the souls of the departed would one day be joined by those of loved ones. Even if many Christians did not privately believe in the afterlife, the publicly expressed idea that part of us would survive death made the process of mourning more bearable. At the very least, it gave us something hopeful to say to one another after we’d exchanged grave looks and shaken hands.”
“We have preserved a few pale echoes of this religiosity.”
But he goes on to say it’s mostly gone. He even speaks of the hostility we recently noted as he makes clear that as early as in 1998, Christian clergy speaking at a public memorial service for the victims of a tragedy “were instructed by federal protocol officials not to mention Jesus or the Bible in their remarks, lest the audience become uncomfortable.”
Biblically minded Christians understand that there is a massive confusion in this very article about the gospel of Jesus Christ, about heaven and about hell. But it does testify to the fact that Christianity had been so dominant in the culture that a basically Christian understanding of the reality of heaven and of hell and of the hope that came in Christ and the gospel, all of this at least gave the society a vocabulary by which they could speak, even more generally there was the understanding of the existence of a God who rules over the universe and a God who would eventually rightly and righteously judge. All of that is now gone and in our secular society, Jonathan Kay is exactly right, people do not even know what to say to one another. The old British motto, “Keep calm and carry on,” is hardly a statement of hope.
Other changes in language are also noteworthy. Just in recent days for example, in the aftermath of the tragic shooting that left representative Steve Scalise in critical condition, one of the members of Congress tweeted that congressional members had been gathering together even at that very ballpark to pray for Representative Scalise. In a news report, National Public Radio picked up the very statement made on Twitter and the photograph that went with it, but changed the language from “praying for their colleagues” to “thinking of their colleagues.” Media observer Bobby Ross writing at the website GetReligion noted this change, the change that was made by National Public Radio from the Democrats praying for their Republican colleagues to the Democrats merely thinking of them. This is language we can track in the larger culture. It’s not just National Public Radio, it’s many. That shift from the verb ‘praying’ to the verb ‘thinking’ is not insignificant, but it references the very loss of confidence in the fact that we can safely say to one another in a secular society, even that we are praying for them.
Writing in a recent book for Oxford University Press, Kate Bowler notices that many people in modern society now use the word ‘blessed.’ For example, in answering the question, how are you? as making a statement that’s vaguely, but not specifically, theistic. It’s important that we recognize and pay attention to these shifts in the language, recognizing that many people in the secular society around us are themselves increasingly aware that they simply don’t know what to say, they simply lack vocabulary in the aftermath of a tragedy. They lack a vocabulary to speak of big issues of meaning and existence, of death and of what comes after death. But Christians have to understand looking at the situation that we can’t possibly recover the vocabulary without also recovering theology.