It was inevitable that as soon as Tim Farron got elected Lib Dem leader, he would be asked the Praying Question. The one that Tony Blair was asked, and the one that it now seems must be asked of anyone with a religious belief that is a little stronger than the ‘Magic FM in the Chilterns’ sort of belief that most Brits seem comfortable with.
That question cropped up on the Today programme. I’ve transcribed the full exchanges at the bottom of this post, but in summary, John Humphrys was very keen to find out whether the new party leader prayed to God for guidance when making political decisions.
This is Farron’s final answer:
‘Well, you said earlier on that this was a genuine question and wasn’t meant to be facetious in any way, so my response is still the same which is that it is hardly surprising that someone of faith says prayers, and that is what we do. But I’m also of the view that everybody comes to every situation with a set of value judgements, and mine are liberal…’
Many, particularly those who, like Farron, are religious, might ask why on earth it is relevant that he has a personal faith and prays. Actually, someone’s religious beliefs do matter a great deal, and are worth scrutinising. But so are all worldviews that all politicians hold.
You might not ascribe to an organised religion, but you will still hold a collection of beliefs about human nature and morality, some of which are difficult to justify to those who don’t share them. They will also not be identical to the worldviews of all the other non-religious parliamentarians, even those within your own party.
Similarly, the idea that Tim Farron’s evangelical Christianity means he should automatically oppose same-sex marriage is a fallacy: there is a diversity of opinion even within the evangelical movement which ranges from same sex marriage being something the church should itself endorse, through those who think the church and the state shouldn’t have anything to do with one another, to those who believe all homosexual relationships are ‘sinful’ and the church should stop even those who don’t believe in its teachings from entering into such relationships. We saw that in Parliament when MPs voted on the same-sex marriage bill. Even an ‘evangelical Christian worldview’ is difficult to define.
You’ll notice in the Radio 4 interview that Farron is trying to claim that his Christian worldview is better than the one that Tony Blair had on the basis that Blair was basically, according to Farron, worshipping something other than God. A lot of the suspicion of certain religious types comes from people who believe that their worldview is definitely, incontrovertibly, better. In this week’s magazine, I interview Stephen Crabb, the Christian Welsh Secretary, who says his religious beliefs ‘shouldn’t’ affect whether he gets a more senior political post in future, and who worries that ‘there has been a secularisation of society in Britain which has had a chilling effect on Christians’. He seems to be aware of a suspicion of a Christian worldview from others who have decided that they are definitely right, not just about the existence of the Christian God, but about all aspects of public policy.
But even someone who claims they are a ‘relativist’, who says that all worldviews are of equal value - or perhaps that all worldviews, especially religious ones, are equally false - has a worldview of their own, one that they exempt from their relativism to make their own pronouncements about no one belief being universally true. That’s aside from the awkward point that relativists don’t tend to include all worldviews in those pronouncements: they tend, for instance, to stop at religious sects that practise child sacrifice, or the worldview espoused by the Islamic State that involves its militant members chucking homosexual people off buildings and cutting children in half.
The problem, perhaps, is that if you are someone who believes it is utterly stark raving bonkers to think that a God exists, then you might think that someone who talks to a non-existent God isn’t harmless but quite madly dangerous, even if they don’t think the non-existent God is necessarily telling them to do certain things. But then again someone who believes that God exists and that God teaches us our morality and sets it out in a holy document might claim you have no guiding moral principles if you have no guiding God. These are both what many might think ‘extreme’ verdicts on someone’s worldview, but both make similar rather arrogant assumptions about the mental capacity of the person in question, and about the flawlessness of your own collection of beliefs.
Not every belief has a religious influence: secularists may believe in homeopathy, even if they cannot justify it beyond a ‘belief’ that it has helped someone close to them with an ailment. Someone may preach individualism, even if it has no more basis than their own upbringing, and even if they have not stopped to consider whether they made it from a disadvantaged background because of a state-provided education, for instance. Others may say they were ‘born into the Labour party’, recalling proudly the times they accompanied their mother on the campaign trail as a toddler, without wondering whether they really ever considered another political party as their own natural home. All of our moral and political beliefs risk being founded upon anecdote, hunches and superstitions, rather than empirical evidence about what works - if such evidence can exist, given there are very few controlled experiments in politics.
A sensible approach might be to assume, even if it seems unkind, that every worldview is worthy of suspicion and scrutiny, and that it’s not just some chap in the Lib Dems talking to someone who may or may not exist in the sky who should be grilled about his fundamental assumptions, but everyone who expresses an interest in making big decisions on voters’ behalf. Yes, we should be suspicious of Tim Farron's Christian worldview - but only in so far as we suspect everyone's funny jumble of beliefs and assumptions.
Tim Farron and John Humphrys on God - transcript
John Humphrys: So let us talk about your leadership now and your convictions and your beliefs, particularly your religious beliefs. You said that you sought advice from God before you decided whether to put your name forward for the leadership. Would you seek advice from God when it came to making important policy decisions, such as whether to invade Iraq, or whatever it may be?
Tim Farron: Well, this is the shocking revelation that a Christian says his prayers sometimes -
Humphrys: No, no, I’m not, I’m in no way dismissing or denigrating, or whatever, it’s a very very serious question. And let me ask you if I may to put it into a little bit of context, I remember asking Tony Blair about the invasion of Iraq -
Farron: Yeah, and I remember you doing it -
Humphrys: - and he said, I only know what I believe. Now, many people find that a rather chilling thought and what I’m trying to get from you is whether when you have a big decision, you find yourself in a position, you might find yourself in a coalition government sometime, or whatever, when you find yourself in a position, do you say to yourself, do you pray to God to give you the right, the wisdom that you need, and do you take your guidance from your religious conviction? That is a very important point.
Farron: I mean, for what it’s worth, a very, really important thing to seek is just that, it is wisdom. To make the right choice on the basis -
Humphrys: And you turn to God for that?
Farron: - and the Tony Blair equivalent, analogy is an interesting one, because that is where I think he chose to follow to follow some form of belief, whatever it might be, where the evidence pointed in the other direction. And I think what we saw with Tony Blair was not religious conviction, but a kind of, er, being suckered into the awe of being in the orbit of the United States president, and believing some of the faulty evidence that was put before him.
Humphrys: Yes, that was a factor but I’m trying to get to what you believe and how you would exercise that belief as a leader.
Farron: Yep, well I think, as a leader, and in any position, you have to make judgements based on the evidence in front of you -
Humphrys: So you wouldn’t ask God for that?
Farron: Yes, but I don’t ask for him to present the answer to me, because that doesn’t happen.
Humphrys: Well, you asked him about whether you should run for the leadership!
Farron: Well you seek wisdom, and wisdom is the ability to make the best choices on the basis of the evidence in front of you, and for the Iraq War -
Humphrys: It seems a bit of a cop-out, though -
Farron: Well, no it isn’t, because in the end these things are not black and white, people can believe similar things and come to completely different conclusions.
Humphrys: So why did you ask God for guidance on whether you should run for the leadership of your party, then?
Farron: Well, you said earlier on that this was a genuine question and wasn’t meant to be facetious in any way, so my response is still the same which is that it is hardly surprising that someone of faith says prayers, and that is what we do. But I’m also of the view that everybody comes to every situation with a set of value judgements, and mine are liberal, mine are the view that when you go into these sorts of circumstances…