How to Live in an Illiberal Liberalism
I expect you’ve heard of it. It was a cake that a family of bakers were asked to bake and decorate with a message supporting gay marriage. They declined, on the grounds that they were unwilling to promote something contrary to their firmly held religious beliefs. The family were prosecuted under equality laws, and the case is currently on its way to the UK Supreme Court. The Belfast Telegraph explains that “Judges [have] held that the company cannot provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.”
In other words, they’re free to believe it, as long as they don’t let their belief filter through into their work. This is one of the underpinnings of liberalism – believe what you like, as long as your belief doesn’t affect your actions.
The trouble is, this doesn’t work in the real world. If a midwife believes abortion is morally wrong, how can he or she be expected to perform abortions in the course of his/her duties? The Human Rights Act seeks to patch this hole with a right to the freedom of conscience, but both the ‘gay cake’ row and the recent story of a Swedish nurse who has been denied work three times over her refusal to perform or assist with abortions, show that the patch is a leaky one. Where rights conflict, freedom to act according to your conscience is the first to fall.
What you believe will affect how you live. If it doesn’t, then you don’t really believe what you believe you believe.
And liberals know this.
This week, Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, has come under fire for refusing to state whether or not he believes homosexual sex (or perhaps homosexuality, the question has shifted since it was first asked two years ago), is a sin.1 The twitterati – who have interpreted his lack of comment as a yes – are outraged. Owen Jones, for example, called it ‘an absolute disgrace’. And judging by the 2.2k ‘likes’ on his tweet, many, many others agree.
But what is so disgraceful about a Lib Dem leader being a good liberal and keeping his views to himself? Farron is being condemned for the views that his opponents assume he holds, and which he was careful to state in the 2015 interview he was not looking to impose on others:
Int: Personally, as a Christian, do you think homosexual sex is a sin?
TF: I think someone who is a Christian does not go then enforcing their views on other people. It is not our issues, our views on personal morality that matter – what matters is do we go out there and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they wish to be?
In fact, the interviewer, Cathy Newman, had also asked on that occasion about abortion, on which Tim was perhaps even more clear:
I personally think that every abortion is a tragedy, but that does not mean that I have any right under law to intervene [in] the restrictions as things are, the law to me – and I’m always guided by the science and the medical evidence on this – the law to me looks about right and- [interviewer interrupts and moves on].
We’ve come a long way from, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The motto of a good liberal today seems to be “I disapprove of what I think you believe, and will publicly criticise you for not saying it.”
So what does this mean for Christians in politics, or in baking, or in any sphere that involves interaction with others?
I wrote this far yesterday, and then got stuck. If we’d been in a movie, there would have been a long shot of the screen with a cursor pulsing at the end of the last paragraph. What does this mean? How then shall we live in a world where even liberals, those great advocates of tolerance, are utterly intolerant of a person even holding beliefs contrary to their own?
I was stuck.
Then this morning I listened to my pastor’s sermon from Sunday (I had been home at my parents’ church when it was delivered, not just dozing off!). It was on how to live as a citizen of heaven fully engaged with the world, and was based on Philippians 1:27-30. Most of what follows is indebted to that sermon and earlier ones in the series (though any errors or misinterpretations are entirely my own).
What should be the marks of a Christian in the world? First, UNITY (see v27b).
It is easy to see Tim Farron or the McArthur family (who run Ashers Bakery), or the midwife Ellinor Grimmark or whoever is hitting the headlines at a given moment as an individual, a lone reed, but that is not how it should be. They are, I hope, part of a community of believers. If everything is working as it should be, the members of that community will be partners in the gospel (Phil 1:5) with the person who happens to be on the frontline that day. The apostle Paul found joy and strength in the midst of his sufferings at least in part because of the prayers and encouragement of the believers in Philippi. When Tim Farron is getting beaten up by the press, he should be absolutely assured of the prayers of his church family, and strengthened and comforted by their love and support – just like a biological family. Who in your church is facing persecution, opposition or a moral dilemma at the moment? How are you partnering with them in it?
The second mark should be COURAGE (v28).
There’s a fine line to be trodden here, because courage can all too easily morph into bullish arrogance. The goal, as Paul goes on to explain, is that our courage will be a sign to our opponents of our salvation. It is a kind of courage that simply can’t be generated by developing a thick skin, putting your head down and powering through. It’s a courage that is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. It’s the sort of courage that enables martyrs to go to the stake singing, that enabled Stephen to stand before the Sanhedrin and preach a message that he must have known would likely get him killed, and to offer forgiveness to his killers as he was being stoned. It’s a courage that is motivated by love.
If we have an agenda, if we’re seeking our own advancement, or rattling cages simply to make a point (and there are, and have historically been, Christian groups who have actively provoked opposition in a misguided attempt to ‘suffer for Jesus’, believing that faith without persecution is dead), then I don’t believe that is glorifying to God or likely to bear witness to his saving grace. Tim Farron is coming under fire because his opponents simply cannot comprehend that someone can call an action a sin but still love the sinner. They see his support for gay marriage as hypocrisy if he also believes homosexual sex is wrong. Yet for Tim, it is loving to give homosexuals equality under the law with heterosexuals, even if he believes their sexual activity is morally wrong.
(It is worth giving some thought to whether you believe the state can or should legislate for morality. If your immediate answer is ‘of course it should’, consider the issue of adultery. It is equally morally wrong, yet we have no legislation against it (nor have we ever had, to my knowledge), and no campaigns to criminalise it. How do we pick the moral issues we think should be backed by law? Something to ponder.)
The third mark of a Christian fully engaged with his or her world is SUFFERING. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should … suffer” (v29, emphasis mine).
In other words, while we don’t seek persecution, neither do we seek an easy life. The calling on Tim Farron is not to work out how he can avoid such questions again, or how he can answer in a way that pleases everyone. His calling is to love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love his neighbour as himself. The path God has led him on in his discipleship happens to be politics, but his life’s purpose is not to be a successful politician but to be a faithful follower of Christ. That will often lead to suffering, but the biblical view of suffering for the sake of the gospel is that it is a gift, a privilege, something that we get to share in (see Phil 3:10).
That may not be very encouraging. If you’re an MP whose beliefs put you in opposition to your party or your constituents; a medical professional facing the increasing likelihood of being expected to perform or facilitate abortions, euthanasia procedures or gender-reassignment surgery; a teacher who wishes to promote biblical morality and values over secular ones; a baker, printer or signwriter who doesn’t want to promote messages contrary to your beliefs; a banker who takes a stand against immoral banking practices; or any other person anywhere seeking to stand up for righteousness and share your faith with those who don’t want to hear it – I can’t promise you an easy life. All I can offer is the assurance of Jesus:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12, and in fact the rest of the Beatitudes.)
And the encouragement and advice of other writers who knew what they were talking about:
Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:13)
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
1. Tim was later asked, in a Parliamentary debate, whether he thought “being gay” was a sin. He answered, “I do not”. It is still, of course, possible that he believes homosexual sex is a sin, but he wasn’t asked that.