Some will claim that Tim Farron’s resignation yesterday shows that Christians in the Britain can no longer hold high political office. It doesn’t. What it does show, however, is something potentially more worrying: the decay of liberalism.
Farron needn’t have resigned. The Liberal Democrats did passably well and the cause of softening Brexit, so dear to Farron’s heart, has suddenly looked much brighter. But the Lib Dem leader chose to go and he chose to go by emphasising the impossibility, as he saw it of being a political leader “especially of a progressive, liberal party” and living “as a committed Christian”.
The irony of this is painful and deep. As the intellectual historian Larry Siedentop, among others, has demonstrated at length, Western liberalism owes an incalculable amount to Christianity, much more so than most modern liberals know or care to admit. Similarly, as legal scholar Jeremy Waldron has argued, the concept of equality, so deeply entrenched in the liberal worldview, is not easily separated from its Christian origins.
In a different register, the Liberal Party in Britain was almost the creation of William Gladstone, probably the most devout Prime Minister in national history. The party was powered by noncomformists during its heyday. Its greatest victory, in 1906, was won on the back of the 181 nonconformist MPs who sat for the party in parliament.
For an idea and a party so closely tied with Christianity to become hostile to it is unfortunate, and possibly short-sighted. But it is also vaguely worrying.
Liberalism is many things – attempts to define it usually end up confusing the matter – but it does have one clearly identifiable fault line running through it. This was well-described by John Gray in his “two faces of liberalism”. On the one face, it is “theory of a universal rational consensus”, a substantive, even comprehensive idea of what it is to live well. On the other, it is a way of recognising and then managing deep difference, tolerating other people and their views, and securing as much space as possible for people to pursue their own visions of the good.
Tim Farron was the latter – modus vivendi – kind of liberal. This explains his emphasis, in his resignation speech, on being “passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me”. But it seems that the party, or at least certain influential parts thereof, is increasingly of the former – muscular – kind of liberalism.
This isn’t a problem with the Liberal Democrats specifically. A few years ago, the Green party in Brighton dismissed a Christian counsellor for speaking against gay marriage in a debate when the bill was going through parliament. It was apparently unacceptable for her to put forward her opinion in open debate.
It’s clearly a problem with liberalism in general, as it forgets its intellectual and political origins and turns away from its modus vivendi face, and towards its muscular, even dogmatic, one.
There will never be a satisfactory resolution between these different kinds of liberalism, both of which are legitimate in their own way. There is, after all, no liberal magisterium to define its doctrines – yet. Tim Farron’s experience and his resignation exposes how one “face” is dominant – and becoming increasingly intolerant. What profit liberalism, we might ask, if it gains a whole political culture and yet loses its own soul in the process?
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos and the editor of The Mighty and the Almighty: how political leaders do God (Biteback Publishing).