In the June 2017 election, the United Kingdom has seen three kinds of Christians.
Northern Ireland is usually an irrelevant sideshow to UK politics. But now, it provides us with a Christian strangely familiar in British politics: hardline Protestant, radically conservative. As overheard in an Islington pub: “almost American”.
So enter, stage right, our first Christian: Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP).
Arlene Foster, member of the Church of Ireland, is a quiet Christian. She thus satisfies a cardinal rule of UK Politics: Leave Your Faith Out of It. On the other hand, her party holds many stereotypically Christian political ideals. While Foster herself is hardly an extremist, members of the DUP have been associated with homophobia, climate scepticism, and creationism.
To the majority of the British public, this would still be irrelevant, were it not that she holds the balance of power – 10 precious seats – that the ruling Conservatives now desperately need for confidence and supply in the 2017 parliament.
Enter descending from a dais, stage centre right, then right, then centre, then tripping and falling all over the place, the Prime Minster, Theresa May.
Like Mrs. Foster, Mrs. May generally obeys the Leave Your Faith Out of It rule. Which is a bit odd, because nearly everyone knows that she is a vicar’s daughter. Indeed, this nonessential fact is repeated in the media like an overused establishing shot in a period drama.
May, winning an election by the skin of her teeth which she had hoped to win by a landslide, is helped back onto her feet by Foster. She didn’t have much of a choice – when you take a massive and unexpected tumble, it’s better not to think too hard about who is helping you up. But I don’t think May is as embarrassed as she should be – about the tumble, or the helping hand.
It is readily pointed out that May is hardly the first to reach out to the DUP for supply and confidence, and she will probably not be the last. But there is something eerie, I find, about the particular association of May and Foster. The wisdom of the Islington pub reaches into my American soul, and draws out the visage of the Republican Party’s absorption of the Christian Right in the years following 9/11.
Britain, meanwhile, despite being dubbed “America’s closest ally in the war on terror” had an almost opposite response to the threat. Instead of bringing more religion into politics, it added barbed wire to the wall between them. The apex barb was the response of the atheist Richard Dawkins, who told us that religion makes you run planes into buildings. And so religion, be it Islam or Christianity or Verl’s Magic Crystal Sunrise Worship, is broadly suspected and feared.
Somehow estranged from both these movements in the dance of religion and culture, enter stage centre-left, a third Christian: Tim Farron, erstwhile leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Tim Farron is a Christian politician whom other Christians and politicians can’t quite categorise. He doesn’t fit the narrative at all.
Farron has tried to obey the Leave Your Faith Out of It rule, but has never really succeeded. Mr. Farron is an evangelical Christian, and he’s proud of it. An adult conversion experience coincided with his increased political activism. It may make everyone uncomfortable – even him – but his faith and his politics are intrinsically intertwined. I imagine that, for Farron, his public service is not a duty but a vocation. You can see it in the way he goes about his politics – principled but untroubled, and innocent to a fault.
Unfortunately for Farrron the UK only knows two kinds of Christians. We know the “American”, evangelical, conservative, rather scary type, preaching death to the Mohammedan and repentance for queers. We also know the Anglican, homely, and generally harmless type, for whom going to church is less of a religious experience and more of a civic responsibility, much like turning up at the ballot box.
We’ve seen Mrs. May locking hands with Mr. Trump. The sweat between their palms might smell a bit like Arlene Foster – a political compromise, uncomfortable but necessary. But the British won’t countenance a Foster as the leader of a UK-wide party.
And so, to make sure he’s not “American”, Tim Farron has repeatedly been asked whether he thinks homosexuality, and more pertinently, gay sex, is a sin.
I sympathise with Farron’s initial response, that he did not understand the concern. It is naive, but from his perspective, reasonable. As he noted in his resignation speech, a perfect liberal society might not ask the question. For Farron, it is as ridiculous as haranguing a Muslim or Jew on their views on pork intake.
But Farron, strangely ignorant of the stereotypes in the age of Trump and Foster, was caught in a dilemma. For the press – and, I suspect, many of the British public – there were only two possible positions for Farron to take. Is he is a cosy, harmless Christian who is confident to say that gay sex isn’t a sin, this is ridiculous, and what is this “sin” thing anyway? Because if not, he must be a scary, American Christian who thinks the sodomites will meet their comeuppance in some kind of biblical massacre.
The good Christian supports neither position. Sin is common and pervasive. One cannot, in most cases, say that a given act or behaviour is a sin, or that it is not a sin. Hence Farron’s second answer, “we’re all sinners”.
This is a better answer, but for some, it sounds like a dodge. We’re all sinners, sure. But what makes us sinners? Is homosexuality part of that bundle of shame and doubt that we associate with sin? If so, what’s to say that homophobia is wrong? If not, why can’t we say that it’s not a sin and be done with it?
One can only wish “sin” were that simple. Hence Farron’s third, best, but ultimately unsatisfying answer: that the question of “sin” had nothing to do with his politics, so it isn’t a fair question.
At the end of it all, I am still not entirely sure what Farron’s views are on homosexuality or sex, and as far as political enterprise goes, it’s not relevant.
But I am not gay. I’ve not had to deal with relentless prejudice. Nor with acceptance qualified by a religious doublespeak that covers all bases while meaning nothing. We won’t all be wise to examine Farron’s record, the social positions of the Lib Dems, or the nuances of “sin”. If I was gay, then I would assume the worst, because the worst is what I would expect.
Farron could have been more sensitive to this. I don’t think he grasped, in his Christian liberal bubble, what a threat Christianity has been to LGBT+ individuals. Those who are dedicated to finding solutions don’t always see how they might be a part of the problem.
Farron’s resignation shows that the healing process between Christianity and LGBT+ will go on for years to come. Christianity has not yet exorcised the demon of homophobia, and many in the LGBT+ community still fear it. But it also lays in plain sight the cracks in liberalism in the UK – and not just within the Lib Dems.
The middle way is long and narrow. I lament that Mr. Farron grew weary of searching for it, and did so at times clumsily and without conviction. But if there is such a thing as a Christian Liberal – or a Muslim Liberal, or any religious Liberal – then if someone says there are two kinds of Christian, there is always a third. And if someone says there is a right and a left, there is always a centre.