Nick Cohen

Tim Farron is a reminder of what it actually means to be liberal

Tim Farron is a reminder of what it actually means to be liberal
Text settings

The media complain about 'career politicians'. Yet when politicians come along who aren’t Oxford PPEists, who have progressed via think tanks and spadships to safe seats without their feet touching the ground, journalists are shocked by their failure to conform to contemporary mores.

We want politicians to be different, it seems, as long as they stay the same. Tim Farron is that rarity in modern life: a senior politician from the north of England. The north has become the British equivalent of America’s flyover states, lost in the no-man’s land between the centres of real power in London and Edinburgh. Farron did not leave it until he came to Westminster. He was born in Preston, and educated at Runshaw College in Leyland and Newcastle University. He worked as a teacher in Lancaster and Ambleside before becoming MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale. He is also an evangelical Christian.

There was a time when no one who knew the North would be surprised. The Lake District farmhouse where I spent my childhood holidays appeared as cut off from modernity as it was possible to be. At the back of Skiddaw and on the edge of the edge of the Solway Plain, it was even too far away from the Lake District’s hiking centres for anyone except the most eccentric walkers to visit. The television rarely worked because the fells blocked the signal, and we could play in the single-track road by the farm gates without worrying about the traffic.

Yet the farmer and his wife had more chapels than shops to visit, and did not raise an eyebrow when their daughters went off to do missionary work in countries the most sophisticated metropolitans had barely heard of. They could go from a rural backwater and tour the world because they were doing the Lord’s work. And when one came home with a thoroughly unsuitable but extremely handsome ex-drug addict, and insisted she could marry him because she had saved his soul, they had no answer. Religion, I realised then, had many uses.

I thought the spirit that filled the chapels of the Pennines and Cumbria had long gone. But apparently not.

If you turn, as I am sure so many of you already have, to Liberal Democrats do God  - a collection of essays on the 'positive contribution that the Christian faith brings to politics' – you will see that Farron keeps it alive.

He believes in original sin; and that ‘anyone who puts their trust in Jesus will ‘stand before God clothed in Jesus’s goodness and purity just as Jesus clothed himself in our rottenness and sin’. His absolute conviction in Jesus’s divinity is based on a literal reading of the Bible that asks no questions and examines no evidence.

Farron was not raised that way. By his own account, his parents were sensible sceptics who read the Guardian. But instead of being grateful for the advantages nature had bestowed on him, and the lucky break his parents had given him in the lottery of life, Farron converted when he was 18. He has all the convert’s customary zeal.

Christianity, I am convinced, is not 'a bit' true. It is either not true, or it is so compellingly utterly true, that almost nothing else's the most important thing in the universe bar nothing; and if it isn't, we should close all the churches and sell them off for something else. There is no middle way.

There is no doubt that Farron believes Christianity is ‘compellingly utterly true’.

Every interviewer who has questioned him since he became leader of the Liberal Democrats has focused obsessively on his God bothering, and particularly his unwillingness to support gay rights. I can see why. They take it for granted that you cannot be a modern party leader unless you believe in gay equality, and yet here is a strange man from the charismatic churches of the north, who ties himself in knots when they ask him whether he thinks that homosexuality is a sin.

All he could say to Channel 4 was:

Somebody who is a Christian does not go enforcing their views on other people. It’s not our views on personal morality that matter, what matters is whether we go out and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they want to be – and that’s what makes a liberal. To understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners…Every minority, every individual’s rights matter.

It would be very easy to denounce Farron as a hypocrite. Perhaps he is just waiting until he takes power (a wait that may be a long one, I hear you say) to unleash his prejudices on gays, women, who want abortions, and anyone else who transgressed this or that Biblical prohibition. He clearly believes in the literal truth of Leviticus and thinks homosexuality is a sin, but lacks the guts to say so openly.

Whatever else I may think of his doltish credulity, I do not think Farron is a danger to gays or that his public statements hide a malevolent purpose. He is just making an argument for tolerance, which anyone can make regardless of their beliefs. We don’t hear it too often because modern culture insists that we 'passionately' endorse the 'life choices' of others. Farron’s case is less phoney, and more likely to convince doubters because it does not ask them to lie, and feign an enthusiasm where none exists.

To see how, imagine an atheist politician who believed religion was a foolish superstition from humanity’s infancy. Suppose that after a brief reading of history and an even briefer glance at the Middle East he or she concluded that religion was sinful because it made people commit great crimes. If they were running for office, there would be nothing wrong if they said:

Somebody who is an atheist does not go enforcing their views on other people. It’s not our views on religion that matter, what matters is whether we go out and fight for the freedom of every single individual to believe in whatever they wish to believe in – and that’s what makes a liberal.

They would be saying they believed in the liberal argument for individual freedom, which they would defend even if they disagreed profoundly with the choices free individuals made. As is Farron.