God and Politics- Reflections on Tim Farron’s Keswick Lecture

EA4FeGqWkAAaMdvThe Keswick Convention is a massive evangelical Christian conference that happens over 3 weeks every year in the Lake District, and I have been involved in the youth work there for a number of years. In each week of the conference, the attendees come together for the Keswick Lecture, where a keynote speaker addresses a major contemporary issue. And last week, MP and former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron gave the lecture, on God and Politics, under the title “A Mucky Business”. I was sadly unable to attend in person, but I watched it online afterwards, and I was stunned by Farron’s humility, candour and, most of all, his knowledge and faithful handling of the bible.

I write this article, largely to highly recommend giving Farron’s lecture a watch (available here), but also to give a couple of personal reflections.

Reflection 1: Neighbourly Love Through Politics

About halfway through the lecture, Farron told the story of a Q&A he did at a primary school:

…[a girl put her hand up and asked] “So Tim, do you help people with their passports?”. I thought- “Random?” So I scoured my memory banks and I remembered, yes, a couple of years ago… a couple locally- [their] son got a job in Brazil, went over there to work, met a lovely woman, married her, they had a baby, and then they couldn’t bring the baby back because they couldn’t get a passport. It was really sad, and we worked very hard, and we got that baby a passport, and it ended well. She put her hand straight back up again and said “that was me!”.

Farron told this story in the context of saying there are many reason to get involved in politics. And I think Jesus would have affirmed Farron’s call. In Matthew 22:36, Jesus is asked “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?”. In v37-40 Jesus replies:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Christians are commanded to love thy neighbour as oneself- deeply, comprehensively, effortfully, and sacrificially. And I believe politics is, without doubt, one of the most powerful tools we have to love our neighbours in hugely impactful ways. The vehicle of politics has immense potentially to literally feed the hungry, clothe the poor, heal the sick and care for the vulnerable. Of course, it is almost never straightforward, and politicians can spend life-times on issues that never see resolution. But on the other hand, it was through politics that slavery was abolished, the welfare state was invented, education became the norm, human rights became inalienable, peace reigned post-war Europe… the list could go on.

And so I believe we are called to love our neighbours, and use whatever tools at our disposable to do so as deeply and comprehensively as we can. And politics is one of the most powerful tools we have.

Reflection 2: Separation of Church and State

In the lecture, Farron told his testimony about how he became a Christian. He moved to Singapore as a teenager, and started reading some books that had been left by the previous tenants. He initially started reading a book called “I Once Loved a Girl”, which detailed the bible’s teaching on sex and relationships, and he recounted that he was appalled by the sexually restrictive teaching of the book. However, over the subsequent days, Farron became a Christian through the reading of various other books. He went on to say:

In the days that followed, I then picked up that book “I Once Loved a Girl”… [and] having become a Christian, I then understood that God had the right to talk to me about those sensitive things, that I didn’t think He had the right to before I became a Christian. Which, just as an aside, is quite a useful clue about how we might tackle those sorts of issues. Me being moralised at by that book, when I hadn’t understood that I needed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and to follow Him, was pointless, perhaps. Me reading it after I put my trust in Him was full of point.

Farron articulates a really important point. Christian moralising- taking the bible’s commands and smacking non-Christians over the head with them- is counterproductive at best, and cruel at worst. Of course, I believe that the commands in the bible are wonderful, beautiful and ought to be held in the highest esteem, for they are loving words of the omniscient and omnibenevolent God. But Jesus also condemned judgementalism. As Jesus said in Matthew 7:1-2:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

And so in light of all this, I think we need to think carefully and prayerfully about the separation of church and state.

The bible is clear that we are all sinful and deserving of God’s judgement. But Jesus died, taking the punishment for our sins, so that if we put our faith in Him we might be forgiven- saved from God’s judgement, and gain eternal life in paradise. Salvation cannot be earned by good works- it is given by God’s grace to those who have faith in Him. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.

Upon being saved, Christians strive to obey God’s commands in the bible, not in order to gain salvation, but because Christians, by definition, want to live God’s way rather than our own way, for we trust that God knows what is best for us. We obey God, not in order to be saved, but because we are saved.

And therefore, it make little logical sense for Christians to legally impose the bible’s commands on those who do not have faith in Jesus. To force people to obey the bible is contrary to the gospel message of faith. So, to imagine a trivial example, if there was parliamentary bill that proposed to make fornication illegal, I would not support it. I believe the bible is very clear that sex should be kept within the boundaries of marriage. However, I do not think it would be right to impose this biblical command on non-Christians.

That being said, there are some important exceptions to this.

Firstly, as I detailed in my first reflection, I believe Christians have a duty to use the vehicle of politics to love our neighbours. And so, this may legitimately take the form of legislating certain biblical commands. For example, outlawing murder and stealing are clearly important ways we can love those in society. And more subtly, laws such as safe driving speed limits are again great ways to use legislature to love our neighbours. Some biblical commands are rightly in our laws and we should fight to keep them there.

Secondly, there is also the bible mandate to maintain an ordered society. Pauls writes in Romans 13:1-7

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…  5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Paul commands the first century church to submit to the governing Romans authorities- to be civil citizens, maintaining structural societal order.

And so, there is a biblical mandate to maintain societal order, including via legislation. There is thus an important place for rehabilitative and retributive criminal sanctions, general taxation, corporation laws etc etc. These maintain order in society- something Christians should uphold and implement.

These issues around separation of church and state came to a head, for me, in March 2014, when parliament voted to legalise gay marriage in UK. In the weeks preceding the vote, evangelical churches generally came out opposed to (and petitioning against) the legalisation of gay marriage, for the bible teaches that marriage can only be heterosexual. I went along with this evangelical line at the time, and put my name against a petition. However, in hindsight and on reflection, I’m now not entirely sure I did the right thing.

As I detail in my blog Is God Anti-Gay?,  I believe the bible is very clear that marriage, by definition, is one man and one woman, in exclusive, life-long, sexual partnership. According to the bible, marriage can only be heterosexual. However, do we have a right as Christians to impose the bible’s teaching through legislature, on those who do not follow Jesus? I’m not entirely sure we do. I heard it argued that upholding the biblical model of marriage in law is loving to those in society, particularly to the children. And I can definitely see the reasoning behind this. But personally, I am not entirely convinced. Yes, I do believe the God’s model for relationships is the best for everyone, and I will take any opportunity I can to advocate for this. But on the issue of legislating for gay marriage, I slightly go against the evangelical grain by saying that church and state should possibly be separated on this issue.

Reflection 3: Society is Very Illiberal, and the Church Isn’t Helping Itself

In the 2017 general election, Farron, who was leader of the Liberal Democrats at the time, came under immense fire for his Christian faith, with most media appearances involving a grilling about his views on the sinfulness of gay sex, as well as other biblical issues such as abortion. And I remember the public turning on him in brutal and often vitriolic fashion. After the election, Farron stepped down as party leader. In his moving resignation speech, he said:

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith… Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit.  The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment. To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

In the Keswick Lecture, Farron reflected:

It’s wrong to tipex out faith from the public sphere- the idea that atheism is neutral and a belief in God is a tolerable eccentricity. It doesn’t offend me as a Christian because, well, God wins. But it offends me as a liberal- what empty-headed nonsense. There is no such thing as neutrality.

Farron’s experience in the 2017 election showed us our illiberal the “liberal” views of our country really are. In hammering him for his faith, journalists were not assessing his character to ascertain the decisions he’d make in parliament. If that was the aim, they could have easily looked at his voting records and found him consistently voting in favour of gay and women’s rights. He was hammered in the media because his evangelical Christian faith was seen as at odds with socially liberal ideology. But, surely to be socially liberal means to tolerate people of all beliefs and ideologies, including evangelical Christians. To put it bluntly: tolerance is not tolerance if you only tolerate people who agree with you!

I think Farron is the true social liberal. He personally holds evangelical Christian beliefs, but at the same time, champions and facilitates the rights of other people to hold different beliefs, even when they are opposed to his. I think that is true social liberalism.

In the Keswick lecture, Farron continued to reflect on the 2017 election:

“…in this country, we are not persecuted- marginalised and ridiculed to a degree, yes, but we are not persecuted. How are we to respond to that? We are to turn the other cheek and show a grace not shown by those who seek to marginalise us.”

I found Farron’s gracious response really inspiring. However, I was also filled with sadness at the situation that Farron found himself in. Although, what made me sad was not the way he was treated by the press- but by how inactive the evangelical church was in supporting him.

In my church, All Souls, most weeks, we pray for the government and world leaders. We often pray that, although most are not Christians, they will exhibit godly traits like love, justice, civility etc. And in Farron, we had a firm evangelical Christian who, it appears to me, was striving to live his entire life in submission to Christ, leading a political party, and the evangelical church seemed to be watching on in apathy as he was torn apart for his faith in the media. Personally I think we, as a church, could have done a lot better. I am not a Liberal Democrat. In fact, I was the first year-group to be hit by the university tuition fee hike, so I have a bit of an axe to grind with them. But, I believe the church should have been much more vocal in our support for him, arguing the case that Christianity is not at odds with social liberalism, and encouraging his constituents to vote for him.

God and Politics

Let me end with Farron’s closing remarks from the Keswick lecture:

When we think about the radical nature of the counter-culture that is Christianity- of service to the stricken King who died and rose for us, there is nothing conservative about that. That is mind-bendingly radical. So we should be people who live radically; visibly radically, disturbingly radically, graciously radically. And like Jesus, we should be deeply moved by the events in our politics, in our country, in our society. Like Jesus we should enter in and be prepared to get our hands dirty and our hearts broken. Because this is a mucky business. And that is why we should be involved. It is temporary, but He is sovereign so do not fear. But it matters to God, so it matters, so get involved.