Yesterday I wrote about why Christians should and could be involved in public life. I wrote in the context of Tim Farron’s resignation as Liberal Democrat leader.
The root of Farron’s resignation can be found in a series of interviews he gave at the start of the General Election campaign. Farron was pushed hard to say whether or not he believed being gay and/or gay sex was a sin.
Farron’s initial defence and that of his supporters was that his religious beliefs about moral questions were a private matter and did not impinge on his public role as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Farron eventually stated that he did not think gay sex was a sin. However, I think he would have wanted to say that the principle he had argued still stood. Farron was also challenged about his views on abortion. Could he as a Christian see abortion as wrong whilst leading a party that supported it as representing a woman’s right to choose.
The big question was could someone be socially conservative in private whilst being socially liberal in public.
Now, I think there is a legitimate case to be made for taking a liberal, or more specifically libertarian position on public morals whilst having strong moral convictions yourself. Tim Farron did at times attempt a stumbling argument for this case. The argument is that whilst I may believe that something is wrong and dangerous such as taking drugs, watching pornography, having multiple sexual partners etc that it is not the role of the State to impose one particular moral view. Indeed, we may conclude that the Government legislating against those things is likely to be ineffective in preventing them. That indeed has been one of the primary arguments for decriminalising drugs and prostitution.
It is possible to take such a position but I would suggest that it is problematic for a number of reasons.
First of all, it rightly makes a distinction between sin and crime. We can believe that something is wrong without treating it as a criminal offence. The problem is that it assumes that we treat something as criminal if it is harmful to others and/or if it is non-consensual. Now, do you notice the difficulty here. Others are affected in some way or another, directly or indirectly by all of the choices that are made above.
– Abortion can only be considered as purely a matter of choice for the parent if we decide that the foetus is not a valid human life. Indeed, it is for that reason that pro-abortion campaigners do not like language such as “unborn baby” and “pro-life.”
– The person who watches pornography risks becoming desensitised to sex, objectivises women as mere objects and learns habits of secrecy, concealment and deceit. They are developing a lifestyle which will be harmful to their relationship with others
– When we say that pornography is okay, then we assume (as with prostitutes) that the participants were able to give full and willing consent. However, we really do not know to what extent they have been manipulated, groomed or forced by circumstances into making a horrendous choice.
– When we treat marriage as merely a private choice, we undermine the essence of its very existence. If who I live with and for how long is a purely personal matter, then why bother with marriage at all? Why should the government licence certain relationships. We recognise marriage as a public good. This goes back to the first marriage as a creation ordinance. Adam and Eve were brought together as man and wife in order that together they could worship God, rule over creation and fill creation. Marriage was the context in which God gave them the blessing that they would be fruitful and multiply. Our view on marriage determines who is responsible for bringing children into the world and raising them. Don’t be surprised if treating marriage as a personal relationship choice coincides with increased powers for the state to intervene in the lives of your children and how you bring them up.
Secondly, we are making a moral and public choice when we say that personal choice and consent trumps all other rights and responsibilities. We are also making a moral and public choice when we say that harm of others is the only reason why something should be treated as criminal.
Thirdly, we are assuming that politics and criminal law are the only true vehicles for influencing public life. However, if we see something as sin, then we will want to speak out about it. We will want to warn people about the dangers. As soon as we speak up in public venues, we are moving from private to public morality. Politicians shape public life not just by how they legislate but by what they say. This also means that community leaders, pastors, journalists and celebrities all play their part in shaping public life.
This leaves us with a number of important questions. If I am only allowed to hold unpopular moral views privately then:
-What is a preacher permitted to say from the pulpit? Does it make a difference if they are speaking at an Open Air event or a church service. Remember that church services are essentially public events open to all. Remember as well that many churches don’t own their own premises but meet in schools and public halls.
-Similarly, what am I permitted to say in a public forum such as a blog post or a magazine article?
-What are Christians permitted to talk about in their workplace?
– What do we expect from teachers in schools and colleges? Are they required to teach that certain things are valid choices of equal status with others?
-What advice are doctors and nurses required to give patients?
Fourthly, it neglects the point that we have already crossed the Rubicon and Christians are already facing dismissal from jobs and criminal charges because of their dissent from the prevailing world view. Do we simply defend their right to say unpopular things or do we go further and defend them because what they are saying is right in and of itself because they are obedient to God’s Word?
Be careful not to create a false dichotomy between public and private life. God is the Lord of the whole of creation and the whole of your life.