Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Ten fault lines at the heart of the Farron affair

by Chris on 23rd July 2015

Farron affair

Much has been written and spoken about Tim Farron’s views on homosexuality. Initially I hadn’t intended intended to add my voice to the mix. But the more I’ve explored the coverage, the more I’ve been struck by a series of tensions and contradictions in the commentary. This piece is in part about Farron but also about the debate that’s ensued.

Gay or Christian?

Some of the commentary has perpetuated the myth that being gay and Christian (or indeed religious) are mutually exclusive. This in part stems from Farron’s response during a Channel 4 interview where he implied that the interviewer didn’t understand Christianity.

Yet Farron’s is a particular, evangelical, interpretation of Christianity, not one shared by many other Christians including some in his own party. And it’s not one shared by many lesbians and gay men who are also Christians, like the Chief Executive of Stonewall, Ruth Hunt who is a lesbian and a practising Roman Catholic.

Most Christians don’t support gay rights do they?

We live in a rapidly changing society. Data from the British Social Attitudes survey shows that religion was a key differentiator of attitudes to homosexuality in 1983 and in 2013 it remained so. And it is amongst those with no religious beliefs that attitudes have consistently been most tolerant and liberalised fastest.

However, over that period attitudes amongst Christians became markedly more liberal too. The outliers are in fact those with religious beliefs other than Christianity, where a majority still believe that same sex relations are wrong, a figure that in 2013 was in fact higher than it was in 1983.

Choosing to be gay?

The coverage has also implied that being gay is a choice. Nick Cohen writing in the Spectator for example argues that modern culture insists that we ‘passionately’ endorse the ‘life choices’ of others. The underlying logic here seems to be that sexuality is a life choice alongside for example one’s career; it’s not something you are, but rather something you choose to be.

There are some who argue quite the reverse, that being gay is something you are, as essential and unavoidable as your physical features. Actually I think the truth for many lesbians and gay men is rather more complicated. Being sexually and emotionally attracted to someone of the same sex is something you are. It’s not really something any of us chooses.

Acting on that attraction is a choice however. And sadly it’s one that many people avoid making for fear of prejudice at a cost to themselves and those around them. When you do act on that choice being gay becomes something you are. The issue therefore is not about the endorsement of choices, but rather the endorsement of rights, the right of someone who finds themselves attracted to people of the same sex to choose to be who they are.

Tolerance or acceptance?

Then there’s the distinction between tolerance and acceptance. For Cohen, Farron’s example of tolerance goes far enough. And for sure tolerance is a damn sight better than the cold shoulder of intolerance. But ask a young person coming out to his or her parents what they want and they are more likely to say the warm embrace of acceptance then the luke warm hand of tolerance. Tolerance is no substitute for the positive endorsement they need.

The occasion of sin?

Even more damaging has been the suggestion that to view being gay as sinful is okay and will do no harm. This rang a particular bell for me. When my father discovered I was gay 35 years ago he wrote me a long letter. It ended thus. ‘Go for a long run, take a cold shower and avoid the occasion of sin.’

My father’s advice, based on that of an old Catholic school master (probably about masturbation), was offered out of fear for what might become of me. Luckily by the time it was offered I was independent and resilient enough to take it on the chin. Sadly for many others still, the notion that what they feel is sinful and wrong can create misery and despair which can have tragic consequences.

A matter of conscience?

During the recent debate, we’ve once again been presented with the notion that equal rights for lesbian and gay people are a matter of conscience and that it’s okay for voting to reflect that. But this can only work on the basis that it’s okay to deem same sex relationships as immoral. And that doesn’t strike me as a sound basis for tolerance, let alone acceptance.

My own view is that surely all votes are a matter of conscience and I’d hope anyone would use their conscience to support equality and oppose prejudice. Plenty of Christians and people from other faiths manage it. Anyone really struggling might take their lead from Brigid and Paddy, the 50 years married Roman Catholic heroes of the Irish referendum.

Public or private?

Another old chestnut is the tension between public and private matters. And of course politicians have private lives, opinions and beliefs. But are Farron’s beliefs only a private matter. Stephen Daisley has argued that it’s fair enough to question Farron about his policy intentions but that because he isn’t planning to repeal equal marriage, his views on homosexuality are a private not a public matter.

Yet as, Mark Gettleson argued, Farron made his religious views a public matter when he used the passage of the legislation to argue for the rights of some Christians who are also registrars to refuse to deliver a public service equally. So he shouldn’t be surprised, and nor should anyone else, when his record is scutinised.

Faith or politics?

The debate has brought the relationship between faith and politics centre stage. Writing in The Scotsman, David Maddox argued that the feeling of resentment already felt by those who think that homosexuality is immoral will only be made worse if it becomes currency that it’s incompatible to have a deep faith and be a leading mainstream politician.

Maddox suggests that such people already feel criminalised. But we need a sense of proportion here. Before the recent raft of legislative changes in the UK, to be gay really was criminal. Lives were destroyed by that fact. To have private beliefs about the morality of someone else’s sexuality now is not criminal. Behaving in a discriminatory manner might be. But honestly if you’re not gay is it too much to ask that you avoid being discriminatory?

And if you’re a politician is it too much to ask that in the interests of equality, particularly if you profess to believe in it, you put those views to one side? Democratic settlements have to involve compromise. Arguably it’s religious belief and not sexuality which is chosen.

If it is too much, of course you can still be a mainstream politician, but don’t be surprised if your progressive credentials are challenged by journalists and others.

Liberal or illiberal?

Perhaps most wounding to Farron has been the accusation that his views on homosexuality render him illiberal. Both Cohen and Daisley have argued that this is unreasonable.

There’s a problem here though. Farron’s views on many other things may be very liberal, but his views on homosexuality are clearly not. To call him a social liberal therefore seems to be stretching a point.

You might well applaud his liberal stance on other matters, but if you’re gay it’s going to be pretty tricky to be enthusiastic about it if you know that liberalism doesn’t extend to you. Even harder to be convinced that the thing that matters is that he will fight for your rights, as he said in the Channel 4 interview.

I’m sure Tim Farron can be a force for good in some respects. If you’re poor perhaps. But if you’re poor and gay you might have to choose.

One thing’s for sure though. If he’s offering to fight for my right to sin, I’m not sure I’d appoint him as my gay rights campaign manager any time soon. And I’m a gay Christian.

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