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The media’s obsession with Tim Farron’s faith is revealing. I am not as worried as some that this is really a matter of Christians being driven out of political life – after all the Liberal Democrats just elected him. His faith is no secret, in fact he has been talking about it openly for years, yet was still elected as leader of his party (admittedly after most of the big hitters lost their seats in the debacle that was the Lib Dem election performance, but still, you can only beat what you’re up against).
What is revealing is rather that the media just doesn’t get Farron’s position, he is breaking the mould of what British Christian politicians today are meant to look like. The difference between Farron, David Cameron and the possible future Labour leader Andy Burnham is instructive in this.
Like Tim Farron, Burnham has come under fire during a contest for party leadership over the compatibility of his (in Burnham’s case Catholic) faith and his stance on moral issues but particularly LGBT rights. Burnham, like Farron, has in the past been very open about his faith. He declared in the past that ‘the three most important things in my life are Everton FC, the Labour Party and the Church – in that order.’ He’s a former altar boy and a proud member of Liverpool’s large Catholic community.
However, when the New Statesman ran a piece calling into question his left wing credentials and his Catholic faith (and particularly his failure to support IVF for lesbian couples) Burnham’s response was to go to Pink News and effectively distance himself from the Church. Suddenly he was no longer Catholic champion in parliament but someone who rarely attends Mass and described himself as having “been repeatedly at odds with the Catholic church for all of my time as an MP. I have always been going against what they were saying, and that is challenging.”
That may have come as news to Catholics, but it was a perfectly acceptable media answer because it conforms to a mould. Religion as a sort of soft tribal identity marker, so long as it isn’t remotely dogmatic or likely to actually influence someone’s decisions, is absolutely fine. Burnham adheres in a rather more working class Irish sort of way to the same sort of position David Cameron has marked for himself in his famous comment about his faith being like Magic FM reception in the Chilterns. Faith is something from people’s upbringing that creates a sort of unspecified moral underpinning.
Tim Farron though presents a totally different position. Anglicans and Catholics, even Methodists can be categorized as tribal identities, without the politician being expected to actually agree with any of it. Both Cameron and Burnham can comfortably and without much fear of criticism claim to be religious and yet also be able to shrug off any aspects that they personally find either morally or politically problematic. Farron, on the other hand, is that scariest of creatures; the born again Christian.
He converted to Christianity as an adult, so it cannot simply be treated as a matter of upbringing. Unlike Cameron and Burnham he regularly attends church. And most problematically of all he is an evangelical – the tribal aspect isn’t really there in the same way. The British evangelical movement has been broadly ignored by the media and as a result the only available point of comparison and understanding available to them when belatedly encountering a British politician with that faith comes from America, and particularly to the stereotypical vision of the religious right, creationism and culture wars.
Herein I suspect is what is behind the media’s recent inquisition. It is not really that the media has an interest in sidelining Christians or denying that Christians should be allowed to lead political parties due to suspect views. It is that they simply do not know what Tim Farron and evangelicals actually think. It doesn’t fit the narrative of what our religious politicians are meant to do and say. Is it not noticeable that for all the reporting of widespread concern among Liberal Democrats, they still picked him as leader and very few prominent figures have spoken up on the issue? This is far more a media concern than one for the voters.
Ben Ryan is a Researcher at Theos
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Theos has previously conducted research on whether a "religious right" is emerging in Britain, on Creationism and on the voting habits of different religious groups.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.