Remember during the General Election when Tim Farron (at the time the Liberal Democrat’s leader) was asked whether he thought gay sex was a sin or not? Well, you probably have noticed that he has been asked about it again, this time by Premier Radio. He now says that he regrets not sticking to his guns on what is and isn’t sin.
I shared my thoughts on this at the time and so I don’t want to use this space to go over the specific question again, not least because others have already written thoughtful articles on this.
What I want to pick up are three points that Tim makes.
- People wouldn’t really understand what a Christian means by sin.
- Journalists and broadcasters are not really interested in talking theology
- Society now assumes that having no faith is a neutral position and that people with some faith are tolerated, so long as it does not affect their world-view.
I want to look at these because they are linked to each other and to the specific question about gay sex and sin that Tim was asked about. I happen to think that Tim’s assessment is pretty much right. I also happen to think that he could have still done something better about it -and I get the impression he does.
This links to a point I made back at the time. A number of people have asked whether or not Christians can possible be involved in public life and politics, particularly at a senior level. My view is that they can but they need to think carefully about why they are going into public life and what they hope to achieve.
So, here are a few thoughts taking those things in reverse order.
First of all, Tim says that people don’t want religious people to let their faith shape their worldview but that is unavoidable. We know that for two reasons.
First of all, to a significant extent the politics of all of our main three parties are shaped by Christian heritage. Tim talks about how the Liberal tradition has its origins in non-conformist evangelicalism, it has often been said that the Labour movement owes as much to Methodism as it does to Marx whilst the Conservative Party used to be known as “The Church of England at prayer.” The values, principles and policies of those parties are shaped by faith.
Secondly, Tim will know doubt be able to articulate how his personal views about different matters are affected by his Christian faith.
At this point, you will notice that it isn’t so straight forward as to say that there is simply a uniform Christian worldview. I think that in broad-terms such a worldview exists and that Christians from across the political spectrum will find unity on those things. However, that worldview multiplies into different expressions so that it is possible to be Christian and liberal, Christian and socialist, Christian and Conservative. I would suggest that this is because Christians are asking the same questions about how to live in this world for God but their answers may differ based on economics, philosophy, cultural tradition etc.
Now, what if a Christian politician was to focus on articulating their world-view. By doing this, they would do two things.
First of all, they would be showing how their worldview is rooted in their faith, secondly, they would be showing how this leads to practical application. Let me give a couple of examples.
- Christians believe that we are made in God’s image. That leads to a respect for the dignity of human life. It means we value freedom. It means we are called to love our neighbours. This will lead to a few practical applications
- A concern for the poor and for social justice. We cannot treat some people as less worthy of love and respect because they are less well off.
- Tolerating others and the decisions they make, even when we disagree with them.
- Valuing human dignity at the start and end of life.
Now different Christians will answer how we approach those issues differently and put a different priority to each one but you can see how Christian faith provides the basis for those things. Think for example about how I tackled the question of eugenics. Instinctively we know that selecting embryos on the basis of IQ is repulsive. However, our society does not know why, especially when it looks like an arbitrary line between IQ selection and physical health selection. A world-view that is not rooted in something cannot answer the big questions of life and therefore cannot answer the big questions in politics.
Of course, an atheistic world view which sees us as nothing more than the accidental by-products of genetic mutation should produce its own policies if it is consistent and I would dare to suggest that it would have no reason to make the same value choices I have made above. This is the point that others like David Robertson have made – our country may not be a Christian country and properly speaking may never have been but it has long benefited from the moral capital provided by a Christian worldview.
This means that a Christian politician cannot help but talk theology because what she believes about humanity, this world and therefore our country is shaped by what they believe about God. Remember, what we believe affects how we live. Even if they are firmly committed to pluralism and a secular state, that view of separation of church and state is rooted in their understanding of how God relates to His creation and a theology that recognises General Revelation and Common Grace.
This also means that journalists and voters are interested in theology because they are trying to make sense of the world around us. We are all theologians; the question is whether we have a good or a bad theology. We are all worshippers; the question is whether we worship the true God or idols.
Of course, this does not mean that they want to listen to a theological lecture and certainly doesn’t mean that politicians, anymore than preachers, should overload their answers with technical jargon. However, every time anyone of us answers a political question, we answer a theological question.
Now, Tim’s wider point is that he does not think that politicians have the time and the space to answer those questions. Certainly, answering those questions is hard in the heat of a General Election campaign, especially if you haven’t really had a good run up in which to lay the foundations of your argument. However, that is true for any politician. A significant problem with Theresa May’s campaign was that she introduced questions and policies into the campaign without any build up (particularly on social care for the elderly).
This also comes back to the job of a Christian politician. Why are you there? One thing a Christian politician can start to do is to make those arguments. I suspect that the clue as to went wrong with Tim Farron’s campaign is that he allowed himself and his inner circle to believe the hype that his party were about to benefit from the collapse of Labour and surge on the back of the 48% Remain vote. That was a distraction from where a third party might have had the luxury to make bigger arguments. The questions Christian politicians may have to ask is “Am I prepared to play the long game like Wilberforce did?” and “Am I simply in politics to gain power?”
Tim did have a case to make which was that as a Christian he could hold strong views on sin and morality whilst fighting for the liberty of others whether or not he agreed with them or not. One of the sad ironies is that a lot of the social media outrage is about demanding that Farron should keep his nose out of other people’s sex lives. In reality, it is others that have been obsessed with getting him to answer this question and I get the impression that he isn’t much interested in the private lives of others at all.
This leads to the third point
As Tim points out in the interview, a lot of people see the word “sin” in purely judgemental terms. If I describe something as “sin” then I am judging the other person from a self-righteous perspective.
Additionally, sin is seen as control and perceived as specifically to do with sexual choices.
Now, this means that we need to talk about sin and what we mean by it – not just politicians but pastors, evangelists and in fact all Christians who want to share the Gospel. If people don’t know what the word means, then telling them that they are sinners isn’t going to help much.
So, here are three things I would want to say about sin:
- Talking about sin means recognising that there is right and wrong, good and evil. Generally speaking, we all agree with that. Pluralism may have attempted to neutralise the idea but there are things that we all agree as being simply wrong including genocide, murder, rape and sexual violence, slavery, racism, child abuse, exploitation etc. The question is “How do I know what is right and wrong?” Postmodernism says that I can’t really be sure and yet, day by day we are expecting Governments and societies to make those choices. As a Christian, I believe that I can only know right and wrong through God’s revelation.
- As Tim points out, Christians (should) talk about sin not in terms of moral superiority and judgement but in the sense that we are all sinners. A conversation about sin is an introduction to a conversation about love, mercy and grace.
- As I and others pointed out at the time, there is a vital distinction between sin and crime. This is an important conversation to have. It is particularly pertinent for those of a liberal disposition to make this point because it is exactly the confusion between “sin and crime” that leads to authoritarianism. Our society believes in sin, very much so. In addition to the sin mentioned above, it adds hateful thoughts and hateful speech, intolerance of difference and smoking and animal cruelty name but a few. Now the question is “Should all sin be against the Law?” A liberal society works on the assumption that the answer is no. This means that such a society must constantly decide that some sins are treated as crimes whilst others are not. An anarchical society insists that no sin is a crime and a totalitarian society treats all sin as crime. Our society chooses to equate the following sins as crime
– Smoking in a public place (but not smoking in private)
– Hate speech
– Animal cruelty with regard to treatment of domestic animals and the hunting of some wild animals.
So, talking about sin in public life means recognising that some things are morally wrong but also distinguishing between those things we should criminalise and those we shouldn’t.
I hope that Tim Farron will use the freedom of back-bench politics to talk about and argue those things. Maybe by doing so he will help pave the way for a future evangelical party leader, which ever party they happen to lead.
What’s this got to do with us?
It’s unlikely (but not impossible) that any faithroots readers are about to become political leaders at a national level anytime soon. However, all of this is relevant to us for three reasons.
- It is good when Christians engage in politics whether that’s at local grass-roots level or national. I hope some readers will consider getting involved
- There are other Christians like Tim Farron in national politics. We want to be better informed so we can pray for them.
- The principles above apply to our daily lives as we seek to give a reason for the hope we have. We may not get interviewed on national TV but every day there are opportunities to answer moral questions. Do we take them as gospel opportunities too?