Taking God off the Ballot Paper

I seem to receive most of my political news via personal messages in caps lock these days. From the excitement of ‘SNAP ELECTION ALERT’ to the shock of ‘TIM FARRON IS GONE’.

I was heartbroken when I read Farron’s resignation statement, and in all honesty, I was angry too. The idea that the leader of the Liberal Democrats of all parties felt he had to step aside because of his faith, unsettled both my Christian and liberal instincts. Sat in my windowless cutting room nearing the end of a long day, I was close to tears.

I was also fascinated by the Twitter response. A good few people who were distancing themselves from Farron (to put it politely) when the C4 News interview came out, were now accusing him of hiding away. The notion that came up the most was that faith and politics are not ‘mutually exclusive’. It’s a notion I agree with wholeheartedly, but this is not a man who didn’t try. It’s easy enough to stand at the sidelines and criticise, but a man who holds a personal faith whilst believing that everyone should have the right to live and believe differently, led the party for two years. That’s two more years than any of us, and he’s come to the point where he ‘felt guilty that this focus [on certain elements of his faith] was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message’.

So, was it there a media fixation with his faith that caused him to step down, or is it simply the case that the fallout from that one interview has been longer and more impactful than expected? I fear it’s both. Farron certainly got asked the question again, in TV interviews and in parliament. When it became obvious the DUP were going to be needed to prop up Theresa May’s minority government, Twitter was awash with comments along the lines of ‘The DUP make Tim Farron look like Peter Thatchell [prominent gay rights campaigner]’. The damage was done, intentionally or not. When no-one wants to talk to you about policy any more, there’s only so much political good you can do.

Furthermore, if we spend our time questioning and judging the private theological views of one person, especially one with a good record of progressing LGBT rights in the law, we miss the bigger picture. One that sadly includes examples of LGBT people being treated abysmally in the name of Christianity. From placards of hate, to individuals being let down (or worse) by the church because of their sexuality – these are the problems we need to address. Rather than trying to make everyone think in the same way – we need to be rooting out the issues in the church that are actively making people’s lives a misery.

If we insist on throwing labels at people, all we do is shut them out of debate, and demean the seriousness of such issues. Homophobia is real, and it is destructive. But is Tim Farron really homophobic? Much like when anyone who raises a single concern about immigration is labelled a racist (by some, by no means all), all that does is shut down the debate, and isolate people – encouraging more division and more extreme views. All the while racism remains a daily encounter for too many people, and the Farages of this world get away with unveiling the likes of *that* Leave poster.

As Farron said in his speech, the media do and should have the right to ask what they want. It just seems more than a little skewed to me that the details of someone’s private theological views are more important than their voting record. Theresa May was eventually asked the same question, but with little examination into her less than perfect (again, being polite here) voting history on the matter. In the end, it seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of liberalism – whatever you believe, you fight for the rights of others.

I sincerely hope that the Christian, liberal voice is not lost on the political platform. It is a voice that develops and challenges the church and the nation in equal measure. I am devastated and heartbroken that Tim Farron no longer feels able to marry his faith and his politics. The words ‘I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society’ particularly hit home. I understand why Farron felt he had to step down. The accusations thrown at him were not helpful for a liberal party, and I’m sure he was putting that party, and his faith, before his personal ambition by making this decision.

Despite this, those of us with even the smallest of influences in the media – whether it be over the airwaves, in front of the camera, or in the backrooms – need to combat the idea that you should have to be ‘torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader’. Christianity is about love, acceptance, and radical hope. It has a lot to say about the way this country is currently run, well beyond sexuality.

In the way we live, we must stand strong in love and prove wrong the idea that Christianity, liberalism, politics and media somehow do not belong together. Despite today’s disheartening statement, I think Tim Farron has set a path that enables faith and politics to openly walk side by side – one that many others before him have shunned. It’s all of our jobs to keep that path open – and to continue to lay it.

Tim Farron’s full resignation speech can be found here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/liberal-democrat-leader-tim-farron-resigns

Naomi Smallwood is an assistant editor in TV drama and can be found Twitter-ing away as @Naomi_Smallwood