Can a believing Christian lead a secular progressive political party?
Tim Farron just resigned as leader of the U.K.’s Liberal Democratic party, and his statement explaining why should enter the history books: “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,” Farron said.
And so he’s off.
The obvious rejoinder to Farron’s statement is that he had to resign because he had a disastrous electoral showing. And to a degree, that is true. The Lib Dems have seemingly lost their political base in the last two elections. David Cameron’s modernizing of the Tories took one bite out of it. And Jeremy Corbyn has done a remarkable job consolidating the anti-Tory vote under Labour. Perhaps the Lib Dem strategy of making itself the party of die-hard Remainers actually hurt it when it seemed like the rest of the political class had moved on.
But part of the disastrous campaign for the Lib Dems was the fact that its leader was constantly interrogated for his religious beliefs, beliefs that had little to do with his public leadership. Farron had a long record of supporting gay rights and access to abortion. But the media wanted to know whether he thought they were sins. Farron would get on television wanting to talk up a second referendum to be held upon the results of Brexit negotiations. His media inquisitors wanted to talk about personal morality.
Guardian columnist Rafael Behr explains that Farron’s “problem was that the culture of contemporary liberalism is avowedly secular.” That tells part of the story. The entire elite culture and much of the popular culture is secular in a quite specific way. It is not a secularism that encourages public neutrality while maintaining a generous social pluralism. It’s a secularism that demands the humiliation of religion, specifically Christianity. And in Britain it has a decidedly classist flavor, one that holds it impossible for an Evangelical like Farron — one of those people — to represent the better sort of person.
Farron sought relief from his public trial by recalling the proud history of his faith in the reformation of British politics.
This secularism is not without its sacred ground and hierarchical order. Farron’s religious beliefs may be publicly interrogated, even if he has an immaculate history of quarantining them lest they contaminate his liberalism. Farron’s beliefs are subject to casual public ridicule. If Tim Farron wanted his religion to be unreservedly praised in the British media, we all know what he had to do: Convert to Islam and blow up a few teenage girls. 2017 is the year we learned every Farron interview inspires people to kick Christianity and every terrorist attack starts a wave of public proclamations about the beauty of true Islam.
We live in an age in which our liberal media elite and most people who call themselves Christian in social surveys treat liberalism and Christianity as strangers to themselves and each other. Farron sought relief from his public trial by recalling the proud history of his faith in the reformation of British politics. No one wanted to hear it. He called upon the decency and forbearance that are supposed to mark British society. There is none left.
Unlike Tim Farron, I think the creative tension between political liberalism and Christian orthodoxy has ceased to be creative and is now just tension. But it is hard not to respect his witness. Today is the day Tim Farron landed on a truth in his statement: “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.” The truth has set him free.