Christians understand liberalism. The LGBT community understands liberalism. The journalists who hounded Tim Farron do not.
Tim Farron is a rare thing on the left of British politics: a believing and practicing evangelical Christian. People were curious. So when, in 2015, he became leader of the Liberal Democrats, the first question that naturally sprang to Cathy Newman was whether Tim Farron thought gay sex was a sin.
She quoted a passage of Leviticus at him and asked if he believed it. Farron refused to answer, stressing –
– that his personal views were his alone,
– that he did not base policy on those views,
– that he should be judged on his voting record alone,
– and that he had voted in favour of same sex marriage at the bill’s second reading.
Fast forward to this year, with a new general election being announced.
The clip with Farron and Cathy Newman resurfaces, and Farron is once again accused of being homophobic. He gets asked the same question and again evades it. He then says he does not think being gay is a sin and, finally, says that he does not believe that gay sex is a sin.
I strongly suspect Farron is lying about his views. Had he never thought it was a sin he would have said it upfront in 2015.
This makes this whole affair even more sinister: not because a politician has been dishonest, which would be trivial; but because a politician has been broken into betraying his conscience.
Genuine liberalism is a great achievement. Most of us, by instinct, prefer to be around those who are like us or who think like us.
Liberalism, on the other hand, requires that we tolerate people and points of views that are radically at odds with ours. As Scott Alexander has pointed out: you do not get toleration points by tolerating someone or something who you agree with, but rather you get toleration points by tolerating those with whom you strongly disagree. You don’t need to tolerate those with whom you already agree.
In 1957 the Wolfenden Committee recommended decriminalising homosexuality, not on the basis that society now believed certain kinds of sex acts were morally permissible, but on the basis that it was not the job of the state to enforce moral beliefs about sex. As is evident from the debates in Parliament at the time, most MPs thought it was a sin for two men to have sex, but thought it was not proper for the state to criminalise it.
Similarly, in the course of the debate on same sex marriage, advocates of same sex marriage were at pains to stress that this was about the civil institution of marriage and that this was not an attempt to seek to change the religious definition of marriage.
This was true liberalism. The distinction was drawn between the freedom of everyone to let their moral beliefs follow whatever reasons and evidence they acquired, on the one hand, and the sort of reasons and evidence (and hence moral beliefs) that it was legitimate to rely on when deciding what laws we should have.
John Rawls, in his masterful work Political Liberalism, articulated this distinction clearly and precisely. He argued that in a liberal society everyone should have the right to believe what they want but that, when acting as citizens rather than as private individuals, they could only use arguments that appealed to premises shared by a consensus of one’s fellow citizens.
This meant that one was free to believe any religion one wants but that, in the public sphere, one could not use arguments grounded in that religion to advocate for or against certain legislation.
This is exactly what Tim Farron has done. He argued in favour of gay rights without reference to his faith. Tim Farron fulfilled the liberal criteria. He should be entitled to the protection of liberalism and so his private views should not be the subject of public scrutiny. As David Shariatmadari, a true liberal, put it in the Guardian “I don’t need a window into Tim Farron’s soul. I don’t care what he considers sinful, so long as it doesn’t translate into policy”.
This questioning of Farron illustrates a very worrying shift in our public discourse, a shift from liberalism to an illiberal progressivism.
A state can be perfectionist or anti-perfectionist. Perfectionism means that the state will promote or enforce a certain view about what human flourishing requires (a particular ‘conception of the good’). An anti-perfectionist state will try to remain neutral about conceptions of the good, leaving private citizens to follow their own moral lights.
Until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, the UK took a coercive, perfectionist view on homosexuality: what private same-sex couples did between the sheets was not considered by the state to be conducive to their flourishing, and so coercive means were used to prevent it. After 1967, the attitude switched to be being a non-coercive perfectionism with, for example, Section 28, an instruction on sex education in schools which excluded, in practice, educating children about gay and lesbian relationships. Finally, we had an anti-perfectionist phase, in which the state took no view as to which conception of the good was correct, in respect to sex, and did not seek to promote any particular conception.
But the pendulum has now swung the other way. Views about homosexuality, which were completely orthodox twenty or thirty years ago, are now anathema, and any expression of them is grounds for social exclusion, being thrown out of university or even criminalisation.
Worse, even those who do not express their traditional views, but rather refuse to express support for homosexuality also find themselves hounded. For example, the Ashers Bakery‘s refusal to write “Support Same Sex Marriage” on a cake saw them sanctioned by the courts (using very questionable legal reasoning).
As even the Guardian pointed out, the law should not compel one to express “an opinion they rejected with all their hearts. That’s wrong even when the opinion is right.” But at least the Asher’s bakery only faced a minor fine of a few hundred pounds. In the United States, businesses in similar situations faces damages in tens of thousands of dollars. For example, a bakery in Oregon was ordered to pay $130,000 in damages for failing to bake a cake for a same sex wedding.
But with Farron this has gone even further. Even if one never expresses one’s views and externally supports LGBT rights, this is not enough.
One must also privately reject any belief that gay sex is a sin. Moreover, it is not just politicians who are subject to this treatment. In November 2016 Buzzfeed did an ‘expose’ on a Christian couple who ran a home repairs TV show. Their crime was that they attended a church where the pastor believes gay sex is a sin. Note that there was no evidence of what they themselves thought: the views of the pastor were enough to justify that article. For the illiberal progressive inquisition, guilt by association is now enough
What is heartening is that this illiberalism has by and large not come from the LGBT community. Peter Tatchell has defended the Ashers Bakery. Andrew Sullivan, the man who invented same sex marriage, defended the rights of bakers not to bake a cake for same sex weddings. The Buzzfeed hit piece was heavily criticised by members of the LGBT community, and the top rated comments are all highly critical of Buzzfeed. The same is true with the Tim Farron affair.
Opinion polling shows that only about 16% of the population think that it is acceptable to sue a business like Ashers for refusing a service. Unfortunately, that 16% of illiberal progressives seems to have a lot of clout. They are heavily represented in the bodies in charge of enforcing anti-discrimination laws and in the media.
It is a good thing that many people have stood up to defend liberalism – but the treatment of Farron by Cathy Newman and others remains an appalling hounding of a heretic. I hope liberalism can survive but the fact Farron caved should give us cause for concern.
Christina Bradbury is a part-time clicktivist and a full-time troublemaker. You can read her last article here.
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