Providence and Vocation for Liberals in Public Life


So far as I can tell, most Christians believe that right at the centre of the public square there grows a tall tree called Christians Ethics. And Christians think that they sit up in its gentle branches presiding over the moral dilemmas of this world greatly blessed by what the good Lord has given unto them.

Christians tend to think that they hold a privileged position when it comes to moral decision making.

And Christians are wrong.

And this isn’t just limited to Christians either. It applies to other faith groups and even to non-believers, who sometimes seem to presume that the Tree of Atheist Goodness is nudging just a little higher than everyone else’s tree and that this means that the privileges of Being In Charge of morality should naturally cross over to them.

They are wrong too. And mostly for the same reasons.

Ten years ago I was a candidate in a General Election for the Liberal Democrats at a time when being a Lib Dem was both more popular and more respectable than it is today. (I’m no longer a member of the party as it happens, and didn’t vote Lib Dem at the last election).

When you are a candidate in an election, you have to be prepared for people asking you questions before they cast their vote. For a relatively small number of people will chose how to vote directly on the basis of their interaction with candidates over questions which they care about. You have to be ready with an answer about taxation, abortion, nuclear weapons and so on. Political parties tend to help out with answering these questions – when you sign up for a party ticket you sign up to represent a particular manifesto of positions after all. However, manifestos don’t cover everything and in any case, some people want to interact with a candidate directly.

The most difficult question that I had when I was a candidate came from a couple who were obviously thinking very deeply about how they would cast their vote. Their question was along these lines: “We are disposed to vote for a liberal candidate but we hesitate to vote for you because we know from your profession that you are a Christian. To be honest we are worried about the values that you hold and we presume that your values are not our values. We don’t think Christian values are particularly nice values. Can you reassure us that if elected you will conduct yourself as a Liberal rather than according to a Christian agenda?”

It was a great question and made me think a lot. I did engage with the couple and in the end they told me that they did indeed intend to vote for me.

I was lucky in being able to talk to them about the issues they were concerned about and put my own position over which in the end was not that different from their own. There was no alternative but to go through things issue by issue. As it happened, being able to talk at first hand about being a gay member of the clergy did give them some reassurance.

But the point is, they had come to the view that Christians have a considerably more unpleasant ethical position than decent people in society.

And I fear that this is increasingly the case and that most Christians neither believe that others hold this view nor care about it either. After all, they are still up in their tree.

Today there is a new interview with Tim Farron that has been published and it bears some reflection. Tim is likely to be elected as the Leader of the Liberal Democrats over the next couple of weeks. It is a car crash of an interview and heralds the fact that the decimation of the liberal cause in British political life is not yet complete. Its likely new leader seems intent on finishing off a liberal tradition that is already gasping for breath.

First we’ve the headline: “Maybe God’s plan is for me to lose a bunch of elections and be humbled”

Then we’ve the content which shows that the headline is lifted out of a quote of jaw-dropping stupidity both politically and theologically.

Farron believes that everyone will go to either heaven or hell. “I think the Bible is clear. Everybody has something coming after.” As a non-believer, will I go to hell? “Well, it’s not for me to make that judgement. It’s a real cop-out, this one, but Abraham says: ‘Will not the judge of all things do right?’ And at the end, no one will disagree with the justice of what God has done.”

I ask if he consulted God when considering whether to stand for the party leadership. “Of course you do, of course you do. Obviously you ask for His guidance.” Does he think God has a plan for him? “I think He has a plan for everybody.” I’m not sure what that means. “Well, God is sovereign. Dreadful things happen in this world, but that reminds us that we need a saviour. I don’t go round fixating that God has some major plan for me. Maybe his plan is for me to lose a bunch of elections and be humbled. God’s plan could be that some pretty brutal things happen to you. But the one thing I fall back on is that God’s overall plan is good.”

One wonders where to begin. It seems to me that what we’ve got from Tim Farron here is bad politics and even worse theology.

Let us presume for a moment that God is in the business of direct meddling in human politics. (I don’t think that God is in that business, but let us presume that it is true). Might we not think that God in her wisdom might have more on her mind than whether Tim Farron or someone else leads a political party which is likely to be locked out of power for years? We might also draw breath at the idea that if God wants Farron to lose a bunch of elections and be humbled then “God’s plan” might be for the Tories to be in power. Is someone really as capable of giving such a crass quote to the newspapers really going to lead a political party in the UK?

Incidentally, the “Will not the judge of all things do right?” quote comes from Genesis Chapter 18 and Tim Farron seems to have been reading the Living Bible paraphrase. What you need to know is this – it comes straight out of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. It is interesting that given the controversy surrounding Tim Farron’s voting record on gay rights that he lifts a quote from scripture right out of that particular ancient saga. It is also interesting that he chooses a portion of scripture where many liberals reading it might well say that the human being (Abraham) in the story had a more secure grasp of justice, righteousness, compassion and fairness than the God depicted there, who is indeed said to rain down arbitrary terror upon people.

A lot of the trouble here comes from the idea that God has an overall plan. Tim Farron believes it but I don’t – or at least not in that way. If God has a plan then it is not unreasonable to ask why God is hanging about and not implementing it more quickly than God does. Providence gives us a God to blame for the way things are rather than giving us a prompt to take responsibility as autonomous subjects both for being honest about our past and in driving the future forward towards justice.

I tend to believe much more in vocation than in providence. I’d be happy to hear from any political leader about how their religious views (Christian, Muslim Buddhist, Atheist or whatever) give them a drive to bring about a better world. I believe in people being in touch with an inner calling to put the world to rights.

However, I’m very suspicious of people believing God to be on their side and believing that they are in the business of implementing God’s plan for the world.

Tim Farron seems to me to be unfit to lead the Liberal Democrat party and I say that as one of the very few who predicted the near wipe-out of Liberal Democrat seats that took place at the General Election.

I’ve been troubled by the attitude of Lib Dem friends to his voting record on LGBT issues. Farron famously voted in favour of giving registrars the “right” to opt out of dealing with gay couples. This has been dismissed as a side issue by Tim’s supporters. The trouble is, these are not side issues, these are my rights.

The election of Tim Farron will show that the party has learned nothing at all from the Tuition Fees debacle. At the time of that disaster, the party chose pragmatism over party policy. Choosing cheeky-chappy Tim Farron as leader because he has a good record in winning elections despite the fact that he has an illiberal voting record on key touchstone issues seems to me to be remarkably similar.

The trouble is, choosing good policy over pragmatism is exactly what liberalism actually is.


  1. David Evans says

    I was one of the Lib Dems who did foresee the calamity in 2015 and actively campaigned to get the party to change leader – after 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 it wasn’t difficult for anyone to see, but it was difficult for many nice Lib Dems to own up to the fact that they had allowed it to happen. I failed, but I don’t think it was part of anyone’s plan that I did (except possibly Ryan Coetzee and a few other true believers).

    There’s a lot in your points I can agree with, particularly regarding the naivety of referring to God’s plan, when many Christian’s have a view that his/hers/its plan is to let us get on with it and find our own way to salvation. However, the most interesting question is when you say “The trouble is, these are not side issues, these are my rights.” Do you really mean that you have the right to force someone else to marry you who doesn’t want to and believes it is wrong, even though you have the right to and can get someone else to do the same job for you? Do individuals have the right to insist on being married by the registrar of their choice, or just the right to get married? Are you not perhaps just a bit assuming that your tree is that bit taller than the other guy’s?

    • I think that people should be able to expect individual people who represent the state not to discriminate against them in any of the protected categories. I think that the equal rights tree is bigger than my tree and the registrar’s tree.

      I don’t claim that individuals should be able to force registrars of their choice to marry them, not least because I don’t think it is a very real question – few people want to be married by someone who doesn’t want them to be married. I do think that local authorities have not simply the right but the duty to remove public officials who can’t serve every member of the public due to their personal prejudices.

      • David Evans says

        I think you are rather changing your ground here from your original piece. You started with “The trouble is, these are not side issues, these are my rights.”

        You have now moved onto “I think that people should be able to expect individual people who represent the state not to discriminate against them in any of the protected categories.” So we now have a right to expect, but only against a person who works in the public sector, and even if it is against that person’s conscience and only if you are in a specially protected category.

        It gets even more tenuous then as you accept when you then say “I don’t claim that individuals should be able to force registrars of their choice to marry them.” So the right is not to a person wanting to be married at all.

        Finally we get “I do think that local authorities have not simply the right but the duty to remove public officials who can’t serve every member of the public due to their personal prejudices.” So the right is not to an individual at all, so definitely not “your rights” but to a public sector organisation. Hardly a human right, more of an employer’s right by your own statements.

        I rather think that your equal rights tree, however high you think it is, has decidedly peculiar roots.

        • Graham Evans says

          David, I thought most liberals accepted the view that in the provision of services to the general public, whether provided by the public sector or private sector, a policy of non-discrimination was an essential ingredient of a progressive society. I accept that there is a notable exception to this rule in terms of the provision of abortion, but this arises from the broad range of medical procedures undertaken by one type of doctor or another. Surgeons are specialised medical practitioners, as are nurses who assist them, so it is most unlikely then anyone who opposed abortion on conscience grounds would actually be faced with having to refuse to conduct an abortion. The provision of most services to the general public is also a specialist activity, and no-one forces people to engage in any particular activity. The idea that a registrar should be able to opt out of undertaking a civil gay marriage represents the thin edge of a dangerous wedge. If such people wish to opt out of doing so, then they should act as part of a religious community, such as a deacon in Anglican Church, which has the legal power to conduct religious marriages, are still recognised by the State.

          • David Evans says

            Quite simply Graham I disagree with your view that this is a level of discrimination in the provision of a public service of anything like the scale you imply makes it essential that every individual has to comply with it. The “go with it or get out” philosophy demanded of the state by so many in pursuit of their personal view of their rights is to my mind a greater threat to liberty than the fact that Fred or Freda don’t agree with something and don’t want to do it but George, Georgina, Harry, Harriette etc etc etc etc can do it instead. Ultimately you aren’t stopping someone from exercising their right; you are preventing someone from imposing their requirement on someone else.

            However, I note Kelvin hasn’t responded to my substantive point and I await that with interest.

  2. Iain Brodie Browne says

    Firstly thank you for your posting.
    I have been expressing my concern elsewhere that the main voices we have heard in the debate about Tim’s faith have been firstly from those who think that it wholly a private matter and because his opinions are sincerely held and are derived from his faith the rest of us should back off and secondly those who seem to imply that having a religious faith at all is a negative factor. Until your contribution I am not aware that anyone has directly addressed the issue from different Christian understanding.
    I cut my political teeth at the end of the 1960s opposing the all ‘white’ rugby and cricket tours from South Africa. The dominant voices from the churches were from Trevor Huddleston and David Sheppard. They effectively contested the assertions of those who told us (and they did) that apartheid was part of God’s plan.
    Earlier in that decade Michael Ramsey spoke up clearly in support of what was then called homosexual law reform. David Steel, who pushed through the 1967 Act did so at a time when he was regularly introducing Songs of Praise.
    I regret that equal marriage and the removal of other discriminations against gay people –including the issue you raise about Registrars- have not been as effectively championed by Christians as those earlier reforms. It is fair to say that in the minds of those who you describe as ‘decent people in society’ Christians are seen as opposing these reforms. The priority for the churches appears to be to gain protection for those who oppose such reforms. Imagine if that had been the approach to apartheid.
    My own experience gives me hope that things are changing. Our local church got a new vicar who immediately began to pray for the defeat of the Equal Marriage legislation, got up petitions and lobbied. His views on women priests were no more in tune with ‘decent society’. In common with many churches these matters had not really been properly discussed. It was heartening how many members did openly contest his views and a significant portion of the congregation felt so strongly the eventually relocated to other churches. There is a good deal more support for liberal values amongst church goers than is popularly conceived.

    My view is much the same as expressed in the Independent’s editorial this morning which endorsed Tim but added the rider that : ‘It will be for Mr Farron to make clear to party members, the public at large, and this newspaper, that his faith can indeed be reconciled with a liberal view on matters of birth, marriage and death.’ If faith is the opposite of certainty then I have enough to believe that can be achieved but if would be of assistance not only to Tim but to others struggling to reconcile their faith with liberal views if more church leaders provide a Christian narrative as effectively as did Michael Ramsey and Trevor Huddleston did in their day.

  3. Personally, as a non-Christian, I find the attack on Tim Farron’s Christian faith distasteful, even disturbing. With the issue of gay marriage, something I wholly support, it is clear to me that Farron was trying to protect freedom of religious thought whilst also legislating for LGBT equality. There is nothing illiberal about that. Freedom of religion is one of the most fundamental human rights, and something liberals should defend. Any definition of liberalism which does not include freedom of conscience, is one I have no interest in supporting.

    • Thanks for commenting, Andy.

      I’m not aware of people attacking Tim Farron’s faith. I am aware of people questioning whether someone who apparently has anti-gay views is an appropriate person to represent the Lib Dems as leader.

      When it comes to the vote about the registrars, that can either be interpreted as defending religious thought or as defending discrimination. I come to the latter view because if I substitute a couple who are gay for a couple being say mixed race (something many people would once have objected to on religious grounds) then I see clear discrimination at work.

      It is a strange day when people are arguing (as some are) that the leader of the Liberal Democrats has the right to hold distasteful views about gay people in private so long as he defends their rights in public. He does have that right but not the right to be taken seriously as well.

      • David Evans says

        Sadly there have been many who have been attacking Tim’s faith, some directly and some more with disdain. Comments such as listening to his sky fairy are not uncommon. Also portraying his views as apparently anti-gay are without doubt over egging it massively as opposed to the simple fact that as a liberals we should all have views which take into account the “balance of fundamental values of liberty, equality and community” and that this inevitably leads to differences of judgement on lots of individual issues, but do not undermine the fundamental decency and liberalism of many people like Tim, who have proved it over a great many years.

  4. David Evans says


    It is a great disappointment to me that you have not come back to me with any further reasoning in response to my post on 30 June 02:19. Have you changed your views, reinforced them with new vigour or simply moved on?

    • Graham Evans says

      David, perhaps you could clarify what your substantive point is. Having reread the whole thread it’s certainly not clear to me.

Speak Your Mind