20 Apr Is God on the Ballot Paper This Time?
‘SNAP ELECTION ALERT’ is how I first heard the rumours that Theresa May was about to call for a snap general election. ‘Twitter is going crazy’, I was informed.
With the news playing quietly in the background at work, I nearly missed the surprise speech altogether, what with the unscheduled announcement being scheduled for 11.15am then rescheduled for 11am without word or warning – foreshadowing, much?
Political parties scrambled to kick start their election campaigns, keyboard warriors threw sarky tweets and ironic gifs at each other, and spam bots went into overdrive. There was just one thing people from pretty much every side could agree on – this election will about one thing. Brexit.
For the Liberal Democrats, that’s certainly the case. Having already been fighting to establish themselves as the anti-Brexit party, they quickly sprung into action. They were already everywhere. Writing articles in newspapers with sympathetic viewpoints, giving interviews to anyone who would listen (and suddenly everyone was listening), doing their best to blind everyone by turning their social media feeds bright yellow. It’s lucky that liberal bird isn’t a literal one with a functioning digestive system otherwise we’d all be covered in…never-mind, I digress. So it was somewhat surprising when Tim Farron became a talking point for an entirely different reason.
Channel 4 news had, once again, become very interested in the details of Tim Farron’s faith. Namely, his views on homosexuality. Like the politically minded cat who got the cream of controversy, Cathy Newman, who had pressed Farron on the matter before, boldy went forth and tweeted:
‘For fourth time @timfarron struggled to give me a clear answer on if it’s true he believes homosexuality is sinful #C4News #GeneralElection’
Previously, faith has felt very much off the cards in elections. Tony Blair famously declared he ‘didn’t do God’ whilst running for office. He joined the Catholic church after standing down. The media too seemed happy with this arrangement.
Faith has also been addressed largely in general swathes – ‘church leaders condemn cuts’, ‘Muslims think this about terrorism’, and so on. So why now, the sudden interest in the inner workings of the Christian faith?
Perhaps it’s because Farron identifies as Evangelical, which is a novelty in politics and a denomination that doesn’t traditionally have the healthiest relationship with the media. Perhaps it’s precisely because faith has been a taboo in politics and mainstream media, that C4 news decided it has now reached taboo maturity and is ripe for the ‘taboo subject to bravely address’ picking. Maybe it just made a good story full stop. Whatever the reason, the details of our faith have suddenly landed very much on the cards. This wasn’t a question about policy, his voting record or even his own opinions – it was a question addressing the details his personal faith directly. This is a change of, let’s say unofficial media policy and as Christians in and out of politics, we need to be ready for it. Handled well, it could be as much of an opportunity as it is a pitfall.
Farron’s approach was to simply state that it wasn’t the time or place for a theological discussion. Politicians live in cut and dry world of slogans and sound-bites, so I personally think Farron was right to at least not tackle the question in depth. It’s such an emotive subject that he would invariably ended up being misquoted or spoken over before he had the chance to finish his explanation. Sadly, in tactical terms this turned into a bit of an early election hiccup for him. In the cut and dry world of politics, there was only really one ‘correct’ answer, and ‘I don’t want to get into theology’ wasn’t it.
Interestingly enough, when asked a similar (but not, it’s worth pointing out, theologically identical) question in the commons the next day, Farron quickly responded with a much more straightforward answer. No, he does not believe homosexuality is a sin. So it that that?
Even putting faith aside, a simple steam rollering of complex issues and attitudes and using said steamroller as a stick to beat people with has always been a bugbear of mine, and traditionally been seen as a tool of the largely extreme right-wing tabloid press. Watching it become a tool of the generally integral and intelligent Channel 4 news saddened me a little.
However, this is the age we live in, so with politics and religion being famously two of the most divisive subjects going, how as Christians do we manage the two? When we get into complexities about the relevance of books such as Leviticus, and can’t even agree on the very meaning of the word ‘sin’ – how do we send a clear message of love to an electorate or an audience whilst staying true to the nuances of our beliefs?
Many a Christian has struggled with this topic, and even as someone who has long since decided that an all-loving God wouldn’t condemn someone on the basis of who we love, and that whatever the Bible says on the matter, we most certainly shouldn’t, I’m not sure how I would have dealt with that question. Is it still technically a ‘sin’ given it did sit there with all the other insane rules about donkeys and such in Leviticus, did it used to be, and now isn’t since Jesus’s death and resurrection, or was it only ever an outdated rule and not a ‘sin’?
Let’s be honest – that was not the discussion Cathy Newman or Tim Farron was interested in having. Newman wanted a story and Farron wanted votes. The church clearly still has a long way to go in it’s theological discussions and it’s inclusiveness towards LGBTQ+ people – but that interview was neither the time or place for that. Being liberal surely means that whatever your personal opinion or faith, that you respect and defend the rights of others to believe and live differently.
We find ourselves in a novel position where two leaders of major political parties are going into a general election having openly and prominently discussed their Christian faith, with one more, perhaps even more unusually, who is often assumed to be an atheist. With many already accusing May of betraying her faith with anti-Christian policies, and many more pouncing on any opportunity to pit Farron’s faith and liberal values up against each other, I suspect Christianity has not seen the last of its election spotlight.
So, what do we do? As Christians in the media, we write articles, we host talk shows, we make documentaries, comedies and and dramas for TV and radio. In short, we tell stories. The next seven weeks are invariably going to involved passionate, heated debates, office arguments and Twitter stand-offs. That means more than ever, we need to be loving, rational and truthful in our work. I’m currently assistant editing on a murder drama told backwards so the finer points of Tim Farron’s personal faith will not be making the cut, even if I had any sort of creative control, but I’m working in a world of storytellers and learning how to tell stories myself, so how I talk about my faith, and how I connect it with my politics, matters.
As Christians we should be prepared to answer the tough questions, and we should be asking them of ourselves. In an ideal world, we’d be asked in a fair way for honest reasons but the land of politics, and, yes, the media is far from ideal, and we have to work out how to stay integral, insightful and most of all truthful in both our workplaces and our work.
It’s going to be an interesting seven weeks.
Naomi Smallwood is an assistant editor in TV drama and can be found Twitter-ing away as @Naomi_Smallwood