“When a firmly left-of-centre liberal turns out to be an evangelical Christian, that is surprising. And it shouldn’t be.”
Tim Farron has emerged from a bruising election campaign. The former Lib Dem leader is munching on some crisps in the corner of an opulent oak-panelled lecture hall on London’s Chancery Lane, where he will later address an audience with a punchy speech about how being a practising Christian is now seen as “dangerous”.
In a smart suit and navy knitted tie, he is energetic and talkative – thrilled to be stating views about religion that had “come back to bite him” when he had been party president and leader. He seems more relaxed as a backbencher, claiming that he doesn’t “want to be leader again or anything like that, so [I] feel a bit more liberated to say these things, I think they need to be said”. Hence this intervention, hosted by the Theos religious think tank.
Leading his party through the snap election earlier this year, Farron was less at ease with himself. He was stung when his voting record and faith plunged what was supposed to be a pro-European campaign into constant requests to clarify his stance on whether gay sex is a sin.
Eventually, he stated that he does not see it as sinful (and said he had held back from responding because his job was “not to pontificate on theological matters”), but that wasn’t before avoiding the question numerous times. In particular, his response to Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News that “we are all sinners” in 2015 haunted him in multiple television interviews during this year’s campaign.
He is still considering how he handled the question now. “Could I, earlier on in my leadership, in a sort of less rabbit-in-the-headlights sort of way, have addressed these issues in better detail? I’d be surprised. That would’ve caused more trouble than anything else,” he reflects. “That doesn’t mean I handled it well – at times I think I did, at times I think I didn’t. If I was a rabbit-in-the-headlights, I’m now roadkill, so I don’t care!”
Farron was asked such questions because of his voting record. He abstained on the equal marriage bill’s third reading in 2013 (something he now regrets), having also been in the minority opposing the bill’s timetable, and voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations – the legislation obliging wedding cake makers and B&B hosts not to discriminate against gay people – in 2007. He’s since changed his mind on that too.
After becoming Lib Dem leader in 2015, Farron anticipated scrutiny of his past stance. He spoke up for LGBT rights, and also revised some of his former voting decisions, expressing his regrets in an exclusive interview to PinkNews in May 2015. He has also voted a number of times in favour of gay marriage.
But this wasn’t enough for voters. For those put off by Labour’s equivocal Brexit stance and the Conservatives’ hardline approach to Europe, the Lib Dems were no longer the obvious choice – their leader was tainted by accusations of homophobia from the very start of the campaign.
As I reported at the time, this frustrated senior figures in the party, who felt they could have had a better run in the election if it weren’t for this distraction.
After the election result, which resulted in a distinct lack of anti-Brexit bounce for the Lib Dems, Farron stood down from his post, stating:
“To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”
Farron’s decision to resign in such a manner split his supporters, with some citing it as an example of the decay of liberalism, while others claimed he was wrong to suggest it was his faith that was incompatible with leadership.
More than five months on, though, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale blames modern-day liberalism for both his experience as “an uncomfortable case study” and in general for what he sees as “intolerance” of dissenting ideas and values. His theory is that liberalism is “eating itself” by not allowing others with a different view to voice their opinions.
“If we can’t accept competing world views, then we aren’t liberals,” he says, emphasising that “liberalism is underpinned by Christianity”.
He finds it frustrating that as a society we “lazily” associate atheism with neutrality, and even puts Christianity above other faiths when it comes to a liberal outlook. “There is something about Christianity which is specifically valuing everybody as being of equal dignity,” he says. “You can say it’s an accident, but you look around the world and those societies with a Christian heritage, imperfect as they’ve been, the longest and the most stable democracies are the liberal democracies – there’s a very strong correlation.”
Of course, no discussion of liberalism today comes without the phrase “liberal elite”. Farron insists that while he’s liberal, he’s not in the elite. But how can he say that, as someone who has been an MP for over a decade, and a party leader at that?
“First of all, I don’t move in any elite circles, I just happen to go to Parliament,” he says. “I am a working-class lad from Lancashire who now lives in Cumbria, I don’t feel part of the elite.
“But if you wanted to observe that I’m a whining Remoaner who is a member of Parliament, that would certainly put you in a Venn diagram where there would be members of the elite, I get it!”
It wasn’t just the election that made Farron lament the state of liberalism. As a student, shortly after he became a Christian at 18 (he wasn’t from a particularly religious family), he noticed the “intolerance of people who are on the liberal left” when doing student politics.
He finds people like Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and Richard Dawkins being “no-platformed” at universities today “really worrying”, and accuses social media of “corrall[ing] a groupthink, a pack mentality, and it fuels deliberate misunderstanding”.
Farron jokes that now he’s no longer leader he can have fun taking on “the trolls”. Yet it’s clear that his experience trying to marry his faith with electoral politics has cut him quite deeply. “To be called hateful was hurtful,” he tells me. “People have got into the habit of leaping to condemn, never seeking to understand. My grandmother used to say, ‘Tim, you’ve got two ears and one gob – use them in those proportions.’”