There are many legitimate reasons why Tim Farron should have resigned as Leader of the Liberal Democrats. In 2017 they gained seats, but lost vote share; he oversaw a significant loss in local council seats. The Lib Dem message since he became leader has been to call for a second referendum, a chance for the liberal elite in this country to have another go at out-voting those that called for change. That central policy, designed to appeal to the 48% who voted for Britain to remain in the European Union only actually yielded 7% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats are in an identity crisis and his leadership has provided neither the clarity nor the vision from which they could mount a resurgence.
However, none of these reasons were given for the decision. Instead, it was his religious convictions about abortion and homosexuality that apparently accelerated his exit from the party’s leadership. It is the incompatibility of his religious conviction and his political ideology that forced him to go. Is this something to celebrate? Should the electorate feel vindicated that a man who believes in the idea of Christ has given up his post because his personal convictions are not compatible with popular discourse?
It seems at best unreasonable and at worst abhorrent for someone to leave a job due to a privately held and unarticulated belief. Yes, the man believes in the truth of the Bible and yes, that probably has implications on his own analysis as to whether or not abortion or homosexuality are sins. But do sins constitute laws? Were the rights of homosexuals at all threatened by the leadership of Tim Farron? The answer to both is, of course, no.
The word ‘liberal’ needs to be reclaimed. Liberalism means tolerance, especially of those that we disagree with, in order that personal liberty is not damaged. Farron accepted that, he did not suggest that his Christianity meant that he had a monopoly on morality and that LGBT rights should therefore be diminished. He accepted that the state should not legislate on such matters and that it is for the individual to make their own judgements and analyses. In that way, he extended to his adversaries a great deal more respect than he received himself.
Religious thinking should always be absolutely scrutinised. There is no place in an open society for the sacred, protected by impenetrable taboos. That means that these ideas and concepts need to be discussed and debated, brought out in to the public sphere and ceaselessly evaluated. If we are to properly maintain the separation of church and state then there needs to be a public debate about religious opinion and its place in political life. Liberals should be the champion of this cause, instead we seem to be heading the direction of maintaining a carefully calibrated set of values which themselves have been elevated to the point at which they are unchallengeable.
We cannot, and should not seek to, campaign against what is in a person’s heart or mind. There are those that are deeply homophobic, misogynistic and racist. Where those thoughts are articulated, it is right that they are exposed and challenged. But those individuals that hold religious ideas and do not act on them, either as an individual or in political office, cannot be hounded out of office. What does it matter what a person thinks if it does not affect their actions? Are we really in a position as a society to start attributing value to the reasons that people make decisions over the quality of their actions? Are we to be less disturbed by secular homophobia than its Christian equivalent? If we accept that both are wrong, how are we to ascertain as to who is in favour of LGBT rights because of advocacy for those communities themselves and who is a defender of the rights of all people against the state? Which has more value? The questions far outnumber the answers.
Tim Farron’s resignation forms just a small part of a worrying trend. Controversial and, yes, even abhorrent views are essential to the prosperity of an open society. I do not want my children to be exposed to attacks or abuse, but I do want them to be exposed to ideas. It is unlikely that the knowledge, tolerance and understanding of future generations is improved by the exclusion of religious voices from debate. It is much more likely that by making dissenting voices taboo they will grow unchallenged elsewhere and become stronger and more sinister.
Ultimately, if the church and state are to be separate, then this must work both ways. Let the politicians legislate on laws and the diocese legislate on sin. Where those religious convictions spill out into the public space and threaten the rights of individuals, let us debate them and fight for universal equality under the law. No-one is well-served by a social consensus on what can and cannot be discussed, least of all those that we may think we are protecting. Liberty and tolerance are words of huge significance and phenomenal meaning, we shouldn’t diminish them so lightly.