This week, a British politician was forced to say: “I don’t think gay sex is a sin”. Tim Farron is the leader of the British Liberal Democrats. He is also an evangelical Christian, who converted when he was aged 18. The faith is central to him, as it usually is with converts. He has said of Christianity that “it is either not true, or it is so compellingly utterly true, that almost nothing else matters … if it is [true], it’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.”
Mr Farron was first asked about the sinfulness or otherwise of homosexual sex two years ago, when he won the leadership of his party. He prevaricated, and dodged the issue. In the past week the question has been put to him several times, and each time he avoided answering the specific point: does he think gay sex is sinful?
When a poor formulation was put to him in the House of Commons, asking him if he thought that ‘being gay’ was a sin, he was quick to announce that he did not. But the question merely demonstrated the religious illiteracy of the questioner.
According to traditional Christianity – a sexual disposition, wherever directed, is not sinful; but certain sexual acts are sinful. This would include pre-marital heterosexual sex as much as is does homosexual sex. Just as acts of gluttony or pride are sinful. Tim Farron presumably believes that adultery is sinful too, yet no-one would believe that he wanted to legislate accordingly.
However, after a week in which he has tried and failed to concentrate his airtime on the issues of the forthcoming General Election (June 8th), only for his non-position on gay sex to be returned to constantly, Mr Farron has felt obliged to pretend he holds opinions he evidently doesn’t.
There are many disturbing things about this series of events.
The first is that Mr Farron was continually hounded about a private moral conviction which he had never sought to publicise. He had never made any comment about his views of what sexual activities were sinful and what were not. He had made it repeatedly plain that this was not a topic he wished to discuss; and that as he was a politician, the only issue of relevance were his professed views on gay rights and the limits and obligations of the law. His private moral convictions matter to nobody but himself, and can harm nobody but himself. It is his opinions on public policy that ought to be scrutinised, and nothing more.
Yet Mr Farron felt obliged to commit publicly to an opinion he presumably did not believe. He was forced to do this on an issue he never wanted to discuss. Those who extracted this confession from him knew it to be insincere. And yet we are all supposed to pretend that honour has been satisfied because Mr Farron is now a signed-up adherent of current sexual orthodoxy. The accusation of an ideological state is a bit premature; but when public figures are treated in this way then the groundwork is being laid for an ideological state; in which everyone is forced to vocalise their assent to certain opinions and do not even retain the right to silence.
The second is the double-standard. Tim Farron’s private views on sexual morality will be commonly shared by most traditionalists – and even non-traditionalists – of the Abrahamic faiths. If you wanted to focus the question specifically to the sinfulness or otherwise of sodomy, rather than adultery, and put every MP before this inquisition, then we might get many controversial answers. The current Prime Minister is the daughter of a vicar, and a church-goer. She has been spared this particular inquisition. This is to say nothing of the much more orthodox Muslim community; what would Sadiq Khan, our current Mayor of London have to say if the question was put to him?
Mr Farron is a self-professed liberal. He believes in a secular state; both literally – he wants to disestablish the Anglican Church; and spiritually – he doesn’t believe he should be allowed to impose his own moral convictions on society.
If liberalism means anything at all, it must mean that we collectively subordinate our own private values to a shared agreement to recognise one another’s right to live our lives as we see fit.
If liberalism fails to bind itself within its own limits, then it is becomes an ideological attempt to impose its orthodoxy on everyone; and permit no dissent – private or public. But if it does restrain itself within its own limits, it risks becoming the politics of indifference; in which our only standard is the absence of any collective standards. They are the two horns of the liberal bull. By his combination – first of prevarication; then of cowardice – Tim Farron has managed to impale himself on both.