I’ve only met Tim Farron once, and am in no position to comment on his actual views on either of these things. I’d be surprised if someone became leader of the Liberal Democrats who was strongly opposed to either of them, but the perception that Tim is lukewarm on gay rights kept coming up in the 2017 General Election campaign. My sense is that it reached the point when there was nothing he could say that would lay this one to rest because denials were being heard as evidence that there was something to deny.
The Christianity bit
There are plenty of Christians who use their faith to legitimate anti-gay positions, and plenty who do the opposite. A particularly affirming moment in the 2015 campaign came when Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, LibDem Candidate in Vauxhall, gave an interview in which he spoke candidly of how he had come to be HIV+. It came across my radar when LibDem president Sal Brinton, Vice-Chair of Christians in Parliament, posted a link to it on Facebook, with an expression of her full support for him.
In my time as Secretary of the East of England Faiths Council, I was very involved in relations between faith communities and regional governance. It was a complex dynamic, where regional civil servants sometimes seemed not to want to talk with the churches – or to sidestep the churches in order to talk with other faiths, or to see faith as just a way to reach hard-to-reach groups. I could have heard that as anti-Christian bias. It wasn’t. It was a reflection of contemporary society, where church attendance and church involvement have dropped, and people simultaneously do expect the churches to take a lead, but are also sensitive when this goes too far.
Where it gets tricky is that some will argue that their faith gives them the right to tell others how to live their lives, and cry discrimination when that is stopped. But that is representative of a minority in Christianity, who do a lot of damage. They get reported in the media partly because of the (justified) sense of anger, and partly because this reflects our complex relationship with Christianity.
There are strands in Christianity that will cry discrimination at the drop of a hat. That does not put it in the same league as serious discrimination as experienced by people of minority faiths or ethnicities. Tim’s was resignation statement was heard as suggesting thathis Christianity made it hard for him to be Liberal Democrat leader. Charles Kennedy seemed to cope very well as both leader of the Liberal Democrats and a Roman Catholic, and he was a long way from being the only pro ment Liberal Democrat also to be a Christian. At its best, Christianity motivates many people to engage in things for the good of society – and many people to enter politics to achieve that. At its worst, it can fall horribly short of that.
The Gay gaffe
Tim’s big gaffe was an interview with Cathy Newman in July 2015, when he repeatedly ducked the question when she asked him whether he thought gay sex was a sin, and instead said that “we’re all sinners”. If anything, the theology was even worse than the politics. In terms of evangelical understandings, then yes, we are all sinners, but that is not to say that being gay is more sinful than being straight. Seeming to duck the question inevitably left listeners assuming that he was trying to avoid admitting that he does think it is a sin, especially some parts of the evangelical world have been in the forefront of Christian homophobia.
There are two big problems here. One is general perception. Now that homosexual equality is widely recognised, leaders who are homophobic can expect to be attacked for this. That is a huge step forward for gay rights. That’s a stark contrast with the time when Ted Heath was assumed to be gay, but unable to talk about it. What it does mean is that this gave Labour a stick to beat the LibDems with. By the time of his resignation, Tim was in the unenviable place of having people react to his denials of homophobia by assuming that there was something to deny. That’s an unenviable and unwinnable position. The fact that this needed him to step down is a positive statement on LGBT rights.
The other big problem is one of recognition. At Spring Conference a few years back, Nick Clegg’s leader’s speech ended with a few rallying cries – his speech was aiming to inspire people, and the rallying cries named Liberal Democrat achievements in coalition and each brought applause. When he mentioned equal marriage, his body language said that he was delighted by this, and it had the longest and loudest round of applause. The effect was to unequivocally signal “welcome” to LGBT people in the hall.
Nick is married and has children, but never spoke of them as leader in a way that could make people who were not married (or not in straight marriages), and people without children, feel under-valued. Tim’s attempts to connect with a wide audience by referring to his family speak of someone to whom that is important, and were heard as qualified welcome to some outside that world. That is a serious blind spot in an LGBT-friendly party and an increasingly LGBT-friendly world. It speaks of questionable judgement. This is not to act in a way that alienates straight people with families, but there are ways of communicating that reach across that divide, which an accomplished politician should have at their fingertips.
Tim Farron’s speech ended:
“Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.
In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.”
There is the nub. That deep personal commitment is also what people speak of in committed sexual relationships. The parallels matter because the sexual and the spiritual are so intertwined. The snag is that it is very easy for a straight person to tip over into assuming a straight God without even noticing. Along the way, it almost inevitably ends up getting heard as creating an understanding of God which is closely linked to a heterosexual understanding. In essence that is where the anti-gay strand of Christianity comes from. The lesson of LGBT theology is that God is bigger than this, and everybody gains by exploring additional possibilities. But Tim’s language was heard as missing that point.
I don’t know what he actually thinks, but he had ended up in a space where he could be presented as homophobic. Stepping out of role now need not preclude a come-back at some point in the future, but it does create space for feelings to settle.