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Tim Farron, identity politics and Christianity

Tim Farron, identity politics and Christianity

Theos’ Nick Spencer reflects on the Theos Annual Lecture 2017, given by Tim Farron MP: What kind of liberal society do we want?

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The first Theos Annual lecture, delivered by Mark Thompson in 2008, made it to the front page of the Daily Star. The tenth, delivered on Tuesday 28th November by Tim Farron, was covered by, among others, Breitbart News

The Daily Star headline was a pretty naked piece of hate–mongering, founded, in the very loosest sense of the word, on something Mr Thomson said in the Q&A after the lecture about the way the BBC treated Islam and Christianity differently. 

The Breitbart piece, while nothing like as egregious, opened with the claim that “Tim Farron has warned that Great Britain is descending into ‘groupthink, pack mentality and depressing conformity’ that makes it next to impossible for Christians to succeed in politics.”

What Mr Farron actually said was “Today social media fuels groupthink, pack mentality and depressing conformity – not to mention a disgraceful lack of civility and decency.  The tyrants of opinion have their secret police behind millions of keyboards”. Exhibit A: Breitbart News article on Mr Farron. 

Over the last ten years there has been much comment on how the tone of our public debate has coarsened and corroded. News, once spun, is now faked. Lines in the sand have sunk to the depth of trenches. And identity politics has transmuted the base metal of opinion into the gold of micro–aggression. As Farron said in his lecture, “to challenge an identity [now] is to commit a personal assault.”

Much of blame for this particular problem is placed on faith. You can’t tell the religious that their cherished beliefs are wrong – no matter how transparently bizarre and Bronze Age they might be – because their beliefs are badges, identity markers as immune to negotiation as they are to reason.

There is enough in this argument, and examples aplenty round the world, to give the claim credence. Yet, in the UK at least, there is also a fair amount of ‘transference’ going on here. Earthly identities – grounded in gender, or sexuality, or ethnicity, or culture, or nationality, or politics, or whatever other ‘secular’ commitment has rushed in to fill the spiritual vacuum that human nature abhors – must be respected. In much the same way as our forebears believed that to blaspheme was to disjoint the body politic and detune the cosmos, to disrespect my identity, however it may be formed, is not simply to demean me but to threaten the liberal culture that ensures all our freedoms.

Tim Farron, in a speech of theological directness rarely heard from a British politician, made short work of this. The first commandment, he reminded the audience, tells us that “your God shall not be your money, your career, your opinion of yourself, your sex life, your image, your identity, your comfort, your holidays, your friends or family, your possessions, your life.” All those things quite legitimately make up your identity and what you value but they are not, alone or in consort, the totality of who you are. They are gifts, running through your personhood like veins through your body, but not to be mistaken for the body itself. As Rowan Williams said, in a somewhat different register in a lecture in March 2011, the justification

“for the public presence of the Church in British life or the life of any society is in its God–given capacity to… remind people that humanity is never exhausted by any particular political definition or social order, that there is always more to discover about human beings made in the image of God.”

It is not, to paraphrase St Paul, that there is no such thing as a Jew or a Gentile, a slave or free citizen, a man or a woman. It is that such things, important as may be, are relativized by Christ, in the process creating a space in which these valued but qualified identities may meet, confer and grow.

To claim that Christianity is the key to solving the kind of identity politics that is (among other things) corroding our public life and discourse would be a bold one, not least as the question “Church or Chapel?” is barely out of living memory. 

But Christianity, at its best and most demanding, does just that, acknowledging the depth of our earthly identities but undermining the brittle, zero–sum game into which they so often slip.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 30 November 2017

Britain, British Values, Ethics, Future of Religion, Liberalism


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