Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Politicians and Jesus

A few decades ago “being a Christian” might have been viewed as essential for anyone hoping to be selected as a Parliamentary candidate in the UK.

The fact that it is now “an issue” says something about how much we have changed – and something about modern politics.

“It is a peculiar thing to say, that someone who happens to be a member of a religious group, who is a Christian, can’t be a liberal. Exactly the opposite.

“To be a member of a minority group of any kind is to understand in a very clear way why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter.”BBC News Website 18 July 2015 : Tim Farron’s religious convictions leave some Lib Dems fretting

Tim Farron’s election as the Leader of the Liberals – despite (?) his Christianity – has again raised questions. (And conceded that being a Christian is to be in a minority?)

The immediate question for many liberals is his approach to equality – particularly in respect of the issue of gender orientation.

Speaking to Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News, Mr Farron was asked whether he believed, as a Christian, that the act of homosexual sex was a sin.

He replied that to “understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners”.
Channel 4 News Website 17 July 2015 : Tim Farron asked three times if gay sex is a sin

Leaving aside his dodging of the (in)equality question, his answer possibly illustrates the current suspicion of those whose Christianity might be of the more evangelical “heart on sleeve” type than the quieter “Church at Christmas and Easter” type.

I do not doubt his sincerity and I have good friends who have similar views – and I have been grateful for their friendship at times of trouble.

I expect, however, that the majority of us do not have the sort of understanding of Christianity that labels us all as sinners. We feel uncomfortable when a preacher tells us that “we are all sinners” – such claims only resonate if you are a believer; and the problem may well be that most of us are no longer “believers”.

There is possibly also a reversal of the old adage that “you cannot serve God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13); nowadays we would seem to prefer our politicians to worship Mammon along with the rest of us. In fact we are distrustful of people who seem to serve God before Mammon – and who put biblical quotes in their writing!

When particularly overt Christians cite the Bible as “authority” (rather than citing as a mere acknowledgement) a lot of us get uneasy because we recognise the circular argument. You cannot cite the Bible as an authority to persuade someone “to believe” because they will only recognise the authority if they are already believers!

When belief was widespread – as little as four or five decades ago – the authority of the Bible was recognised and we expected people to live their lives according to “biblical teaching”.

But over those decades the question of “interpretation” has undermined strict biblical teaching and there is no longer uniform obedience. Partly as a consequence we have grown to believe that people can be “good” independent of any religion and obligation to follow its teachings.

Do the majority of us now believe that people whose moral compass is internally driven are in some ways better than those who rely on an external supernatural entity for their moral compass?

We are extremely suspicious of presidents who claim to have prayed before a major decision and then claimed God-given approval for their decision – despite the fact that opposition politicians might also have prayed for guidance and then made the contrary decision!

Alistair Campbell was probably on the right spin when he said “we don’t do God” – for Blair to have tried to wrap himself in religion (as well as the flag) when committing the UK to the Iraq invasion would have been divisive and probably have caused a backlash. Was Blair’s decision made on the basis of evidence or as a result of a prayer session with George W Bush?

Our secularism is not so much anti-religious as pro-rational. We would prefer to be convinced by logic and evidence than by a moral call backed by a God in which many of us do not believe.

So if Tim Farron was ever to be in the same position as his predecessor (!) and have to make judgements as a minister, what would be the balance between “logic and evidence” and “religious faith”? We might hope that “logic and evidence” would take you to a decision that may be seen as “right” (and acceptable) by a wider range of people. A decision made on the basis of “religious faith” (and inevitably a specific religious faith) may well be rejected by those who do not share that faith and by those who want our government to act in accordance with “reason”.

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