What’s wrong with Tim Farron’s liberalism?

Tim Farron, erstwhile leader of the Liberal Democrats and evangelical Christian, last week set out his vision of a liberal society and politics rooted in Christian political ideals. Delivering the 2017 annual Theos lecture entitled ‘What kind of liberal society do we want?’ he casts a vision of a society in which every person is ‘free to live as they see fit, to hold their beliefs, their conscience, their worldview and to express them as they wish,’ and in which ‘forced conformity whether … from the law or from social pressure’ is categorically rejected.

Although he is clear that he is not a ‘secularist’, he does believe in ‘pluralism’ and a ‘secular society’ with no ‘state faith’, be that Christian (he favours disestablishment, saying establishment is ‘illiberal’ and ‘silly’ and anyway pollutes and compromises the church, weakening its witness) or atheist. However, he also denounces the idea of neutrality, asserting that there is ‘absolutely no such thing’. Instead he argues that liberalism must be grounded on a Christian ‘worldview’ if it is to avoid ‘eating itself’ or hollowing itself out. This is because Christianity is ‘the essential underpinning of liberalism and, indeed, of democracy … the worldview that gave birth to it, that made it possible, that makes it possible. … Christianity provides the values that permit liberalism to flourish.’ Thus ‘in discarding Christianity, we kick away the foundations of liberalism and democracy and so we cannot then be surprised when what we call liberalism stops being liberal.’

These foundations of liberalism he locates in some basic Christian beliefs: ‘If you believe that you have been saved by grace, by a God who commands that you then show that same selfless love to others, if you believe that God created every person of equal value and dignity and in his own image, and if you believe that you are answerable to that God, then that belief … will define your values and it will define your actions.’

Nevertheless, he does not see the Christian foundation of liberal and democratic society to have any implications for the behaviour of citizens, for, he asks, ‘what is the point in legislating to make people who are not Christians behave as though they were?’ Indeed, ‘making people live as Christians when they aren’t is unwise, ungodly, counterproductive and illiberal … It is wrong and it doesn’t even work!’ Instead he characterises it as ‘a pure application of liberalism’ for a person ‘to believe in the Bible’s teaching and to also believe in people’s right to reject it and to live as they choose.’

Even so, the discarding or relegating of Christianity from its place as the bedrock of our society he equates with a shift from a firm foundation for liberal rights to a shifting and unstable relativism, since ‘if our values … depend upon the temporary norms of this age … we cannot call upon any authority in support of those rights.’

Although he regards liberalism in our society as having ‘apparently won’, he also speaks of it as having ‘eaten itself’ by ‘discarding Christianity’ and thus become illiberal through the ‘tyranny of opinion’ that it exerts over society of the kind that John Stuart Mill warned against.

With the loss of the Christian worldview as foundation, Farron is very sceptical of the existence of a ‘unifying set of British values’, describing the idea that we have ‘shared values’ as a ‘myth’ about which we are ‘fooling ourselves’. This is not because he doesn’t believe in ‘common values to all humankind’, which he identifies with ‘the commandments’ and our instinctive sense of ‘what is wrong and what is right’ (which is, he says, ‘one of the key proofs that God exists’). But he thinks the ‘totalising creed’ of ‘secularism’ has ‘atomised’ everyone down to ‘consumer or regulatory units’ and so left society as a ‘ship with neither an anchor nor a rudder – just a load of people running around on deck following a few loud voices that sound temporarily convincing.’ He regards the assumption that we have shared liberal values as ‘dangerous … arrogant and fatal,’ leading cultural leaders to seek to enforce them via the ‘tyranny of opinion’ and thereby inadvertently (but inevitably) creating ‘the reactionary politics of populism’.

His alternative vision is of a society that is ‘open minded and prepared to accept the potential truth of all belief systems, to test them and see if they are true.’ In such a society, ‘no idea should be stifled … by shaming its adherents by intolerance towards difference.’ A liberal, he says, is someone who fights ‘for the rights and liberties of others, and for the space for a worldview that you do not accept’, and who stands ‘full square behind those whom you find offensive’. By doing so ‘you are earning the right to respectfully cause offence to those who look at the world quite differently to you.’

He closes by exhorting Christians to ‘crave pure, pluralistic liberalism’, and imploring liberals to avoid the liberalism which ‘eats itself, leaving nothing more than a respectable tyranny.’

Much of this will I’m sure have had many nodding along in agreement, and there is much in what he says that is timely, commendable and absolutely right. In particular he is absolutely right to point to the Christian foundations of liberalism, both historically and philosophically, and he captures well the inconsistencies and pathologies of a liberalism that has become severed from this foundation – perhaps not surprising when he was himself a high profile victim of its witch-hunting streak.

As so often with political visions oriented towards freedom, however, Farron’s vision is very good at giving the impression it will permit everything (‘I believe that every person should be free to live as they see fit, to hold their beliefs, their conscience, their worldview and to express them as they wish’) and not so good at the more difficult and delicate task of explaining what the limits on that diversity and liberty will be and why. Yet the collision of rights claims is well-known to be endemic to liberalism, and broad assertions that everyone will be permitted to say and do everything they wish often create more problems than they solve.

For does Farron really want to stand ‘full square behind’ people with racist or supremacist worldviews, or which condone slavery or paedophilia? Let’s presume not. But then this means that there are unspoken limits to the scope of his support for beliefs and ideas with which he disagrees and which he finds offensive. He also bemoans the ‘disgraceful lack of civility and decency’ engendered by social media, but this again indicates a measure of expectation of ‘social conformity’ to at least a modicum of decorum, and indeed his use here of ‘disgraceful’ suggests an openness to at least some forms of (verbal) social pressure to behave decently. So, again, we glimpse unspoken limits to his liberal principles, and tacit values which he does appear to expect all to adhere to.

Indeed, looked at in one way, the whole lecture is an impassioned plea for all people to conform to the vision of liberalism that he sets out, and his use of emotive terms like ‘silly,’ ‘arrogant,’ ‘guilty’ and ‘tyranny’ for those who understand and express liberalism differently are plainly intended to exert a measure of social pressure for them to get in line with his way of thinking. Not that there is anything wrong with that – and one of Farron’s central points is that liberals should be prepared to be offended just as they exercise the right (respectfully) to offend – but it obviously does not sit easy with his renouncing of all social pressure to conform. He wants society to be liberal, he wants everyone to be liberal, and he isn’t afraid of calling them out in emotive and moral terms when they are not.

This tension comes out perhaps most clearly in his provocative discussion about shared values. As we have seen, although he believes that humanity has common values, he assuredly does not buy the idea that Britain has a set of ‘shared secular values’. Moreover, he thinks the attempt to assert that we do is an illiberal and dangerous overreach of power on the part of the cultural elite. Instead, he wants the elite to be liberal by permitting all worldviews and their expression in society, without legal or social pressure to conform. Yet for all that he regards it as essential for the preservation and practice of a liberal society that at its heart is the Christian worldview to underpin it and animate it. He thinks this because the Christian belief in human equality, dignity, responsibility and freedom is, he thinks, a belief that ‘will define your values and it will define your actions’. But if Christianity is so essential for liberalism because it defines a person’s values and actions, why does Farron expect that those who subscribe to other worldviews will be inclined to be liberal? And if they will not, how does he expect the liberal order to sustain itself?

Farron’s position therefore appears to advocate a political order that undermines itself because it requires that everybody is animated by a Christian worldview, yet ‘dictates that … we must not all be the same.’ Farron regards ‘secularism’ as responsible for undermining the Christian foundations of liberalism and leading it to ‘eat itself’, but is it not clear that Farron’s vision will undermine its own foundations all by itself, simply by being what it is: a vision which ‘dictates’ that the worldviews of society must be diverse and forbids all ‘social pressure’ to make them otherwise? How can a Christian foundation survive under such conditions?

In this respect it is instructive that Farron cites John Stuart Mill as the ‘father of modern liberalism.’ Mill was a religious sceptic who favoured the ‘religion of humanity’ and did more than perhaps any other figure to move liberalism away from its moorings in Christianity and the associated theory of natural law and natural rights (Mill favoured a foundation in Utilitarianism, and ultimately in subjective sentiment). The social conformity against which Mill so railed, and which Farron joins him in denouncing, was furthermore largely the product of Victorian evangelical activism which sought (with much success) to shore up precisely the Christian basis of society which Farron regards as liberalism’s essential underpinning. The theological foundation for liberalism to which Farron subscribes is found not in Mill but in figures such as John Locke, John Adams and William Gladstone, and (from a more Deist perspective) Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Mill’s godless creed is a blind alley for Farron’s project.

So what, in sum, is wrong with Tim Farron’s liberalism? Essentially that he does not see the tension between the need for an underpinning in a Christian worldview and an absolute commitment to the belief that ‘every person should be free to live as they see fit, to hold their beliefs, their conscience, their worldview and to express them as they wish.’ The latter will eat the former, not because of ‘secularism’ but because of its own inherent driving force.

To avoid this problem, we need to be more honest about the Christian (or at least natural theological) basis of liberalism, and the crucial role that culture and its assumptions and expectations play in sustaining that. Farron asks ‘what is the point in legislating to make people who are not Christians behave as though they were?’ But Farron himself wants a liberal society sustained by people committed to a liberalism which has as its ‘essential underpinning’ a Christian worldview which defines their values and actions. He also wants it to be characterised by ‘civility and decency’, and presumably also by people who treat one another with respect and refrain from violence, exploitation, corruption and deceit. But these things are integral parts of behaving as a Christian – they’re part of the moral law. So surely we are all on board with a large measure of social and legal pressure to move people to behave ‘as though they were’ Christians – not because Christians always behave well, but because what we are talking about here is the decency, civility and respect which basic morality and humanity requires of us. Indeed, liberalism (before Mill) saw itself to be grounded precisely in this moral law, established by the Creator, which conferred both the rights and duties from which its liberating political principles emerged.

So let us join with Tim Farron in calling for a return to a more liberal liberalism, one committed to protecting the rights of conscience and expression of all citizens. But let us also be clear about the centrality of Christianity to that project, and not be shy about taking the steps necessary to build the kind of culture and society that will sustain that foundation. We will do this, not by placing the Christian faith in the shadows like a hidden support beam, necessary but forgotten and decaying, but by placing it front and centre, and pointing citizens continually towards it even while always allowing them to walk away, if they so choose, in the opposite direction.

(Image source: Keith Edkins/Wikimedia Commons)



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