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What Kind of Liberal Society Do We Want? : Theos Annual Lecture 2017 full text

What Kind of Liberal Society Do We Want? : Theos Annual Lecture 2017 full text

The Theos Annual Lecture 2017 was given by former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron MP on the 28th November 2017 at The Law Society, London. The lecture was chaired by Theos’ Director Elizabeth Oldfield.

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There was an indie band in the 80s and 90s called Pop Will Eat Itself.  The name of the band is a fascinating hypothesis and one for a different lecture for a different think tank…and indeed one that I would absolutely love to give.  But my hypothesis today is that in this country and across the world, Liberalism will eat itself.  Is eating itself.  May already have eaten itself.

Why? Because if you say you favour diversity and pluralism, then you must oppose all attempts at assimilation and forced conformity.  You may like the idea that people will think the same as you, but you must not aim to build a society where you engineer that via legal or social pressure.  And it is especially on this this latter point that liberalism is at risk.

John Stuart Mill is the father of modern liberalism.  He spoke of many threats to liberty.  Amongst the greatest that he identified, is the tyranny of opinion.  In ‘on Liberty’, he says the following.

“In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service.  Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.  Eccentricity has always abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage which it contained.  That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.’  

Written in 1859.  Spine–tinglingly relevant to 2017.

Mill says that the quality of our ideas and of our society is enhanced by free expression of competing world views.  Society is stale without that.  He is clear that our liberty is at risk when we all feel a pressure to start thinking the same things.  Even more at risk when it is the express intention of those who hold those views to encourage this universal assimilation. 

Social media feeds this.  Maybe ten years ago we thought social media would lead to a greater democracy, greater individual empowerment, the flowering of thousands of unmediated, unfiltered, unspun viewpoints and opinions.  How naïve does that sound now?  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.

Christians have more reason than most to be alarmed.  Christians also have a history which gives us a clue as to where this may be going. 

When I was a young Christian at University, there was a challenge we used to hear at Christian Union meetings.  It went like this.  If it was against the law to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  

It’s a good challenge.  We are told not to be ashamed of Christ, not to do a Peter and disown him, or do a Judas and discard him.  We are told not to hide our light, to live and speak in ways that will draw people to ask us about our faith – and then we are told that we should always be ready with an answer for anyone who asks us for the reason for the hope that we have.  

In other words, live openly as a Christian, and seek to share the gospel when you can because the Bible makes it crystal clear that this is a matter of eternal life and death.

It’s a good challenge, but of course in reality it’s not against the law to be a Christian.  On Sunday I go to church with my family, I do so freely.  My pastor preaches faithfully from the Bible without compromising or watering it down, and he does so freely. 

 I am open about being a Christian and I serve in the British Parliament as such with no threat to my liberty.

If anyone tries to threaten my life or liberty for seeking to live as a Christian, I can count on the state to protect me.

If you want to live freely as a Christian, you would struggle to find a country as committed to your liberty as this one.  Christians who complain about a loss of liberty need to start by acknowledging that reality.  And being grateful for it.  So let me make it clear now that I do acknowledge this and I am grateful.

But genuine Christianity has always has been countercultural.  It will always go against the norms of the day.  

In Revelation 17, we read about the future final fall of Babylon.  Babylon: materialistic, complacent, ambivalent towards the poor and vulnerable, self–satisfied and proud.  

Revelation was written by John in about 90 AD.  The Babylonian empire had been dead for hundreds of years by then, so why mention it?  

Because Babylon stands for every empire, every society where human beings choose to live for themselves and not for God.  So, Babylon in 90 AD was Rome, and today its…well, its us. Its this.  Its our society.  

And as Christians, we are to live as aliens in such a land.

Why, well because the first commandment is this ‘ I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me’.  So, 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..’

To be a Christian is to deny yourself and follow Christ, so Christianity rubs against every earthly culture.  It is meant to.  You should be a decent, good mannered citizen in Babylon, but you should never feel at home.  You are to be a resident alien.

Five minutes on social media will give you a window into a society which condemns and judges, that leaps to take offence and pounces to cause it – liberals condemning those who don’t conform as nasty and hateful, the right condemning liberals as fragile snowflakes; but Christianity rebukes both sides: don’t judge, show kindness, show gentleness, show patience – especially to those who don’t deserve it.  

Five minutes in the high street, now in the run up to Christmas, will show you a society hooked on materialism, five minutes eavesdropping in the cafes or glancing at peoples facebook updates will show you a society hooked on individual achievement, on the achievement of your children, a society hooked on self–worth and pride.  

Christianity tells you that everything and everyone you have in your life is a temporary gift from God and that we should worship the giver, not the things that have been given.  

Five minutes surfing TV channels will show you a society hooked on self–esteem, self–worth, living to be true to ourselves… Christianity says that you are worth a vast amount to the God of the universe, but that you must humble yourself before him and live for him and others, not for yourself.

Christianity is deeply counter cultural.  It offends us because it tells us that we are not our own, that we belong to God.  It tells us that we are not good, that our biggest need is not food, water, money, relationships, success or acceptance by society… our greatest need is forgiveness from the God who made us.  Christianity is a two–fingered salute to your ego.  

So, what earthly help can this countercultural belief system call upon as it battles against inevitable disdain?  The answer is simple.  The answer is Liberalism.

British Liberalism is founded in the battle for religious liberty.  The non–conformist, evangelical Christian groups that were persecuted by a society which favoured adherence only to the established church, built a liberal movement that championed much wider liberty, for women, for other religious minorities, non–religious minorities, for cultural and regional minorities, for the poor and vulnerable. 

I think Liberalism is better than Conservativism because it doesn’t accept the status quo, the absence of freedom for the sake of tradition and the convenience of the powerful, instead Liberalism asks tough questions and doesn’t accept glib answers.  I think Liberalism is better than socialism because Liberalism dictates that we must all be free, but that we must not all be the same.

Liberalism has apparently won.  Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties call themselves liberals today.  Let’s be honest, you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Even most of the journalists who write for the right wing press are in truth liberals.  

Despite my best efforts, the Liberal Democrats have not won.  But irrespective of my efforts, Liberalism has.

In the 4th century, in Rome, Christianity won, in that it became the establishment world view.   Up to that point there had been three hundred years of persecution and exclusion for the followers of Jesus Christ.

Christianity was an emancipationist doctrine at that time, it then became adopted as the official religion of the empire and within a few years it goes from being emancipationist to – at the centre of the empire at least – being oppressive in its worst forms.

But the church morphed from persecuted to dominant in a short time, and in doing so it lost sight of its own internal truth of reliance on Christ alone and self–sacrificing love.  The state with which that church merged began to oppress different minorities, to show the same intolerance and violence towards other groups that Christians had endured for so many years.

Liberalism faces the same fate today.

Although I am giving this year’s Theos lecture, I don’t want to make it all about me.  But the truth is that I am an uncomfortable case study.  I suspect that this is why you asked me!

I am a liberal to my finger tips.  I’m not pretending to be a liberal. I didn’t become a liberal as a cunning career move, or to impress a girl or to boost my social standing.  I joined the liberals when I was sixteen because I am a liberal, funnily enough.  I believe in the equal worth and value of every person, I believe that every person should be free to live as they see fit, to hold their beliefs, their conscience, their world view and to express them as they wish.   I reject forced conformity whether that comes from the law or from social pressure.

As Liberal Democrat leader I spent much of the time I should have been using to set out the party’s case, batting away questions to do with my faith.  ‘Yes, we see how you’ve voted Mr Farron, and we hear what you say…but what do you think…?’  

Well, as a Christian, I hold to the Bible’s teaching.  

I also hold to my liberalism, to the need to treat every person as equally valuable and equally deserving of freedom.  That’s John Stewart Mills liberalism, that is Gladstone’s liberalism, that is Hobhouse’s liberalism, that is Grimond’s liberalism. 

Look through history.  Where the gospel is preached, other freedoms follow.  The abolition of slavery led by evangelical Christians most notably Wilberforce, the laws to prevent industrial exploitation led by committed Christian Lord Shaftesbury, the ending of the cruel practice of Sati in India after campaigning by Christian missionaries especially William Carey.

This is not a coincidence.  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 not leave you unmoved.  That belief will define your values and it will define your actions.  Christianity, then, is the essential underpinning of liberalism and, indeed, of democracy.  

If our values are relativistic, if they are shifting, if they depend upon the temporary norms of this age, then the freedoms you bank upon today, cannot be guaranteed tomorrow.  Our liberties are in the hands of unstable forces, we cannot have confidence that our rights will still be our rights from one generation to the next because we cannot call upon any authority in support of those rights.  

Christianity provides the values that permit liberalism to flourish.

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.

My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in 4th and 5th centuries.  It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process.  It isn’t very liberal any more.  

So many who declare themselves to be liberals, really aren’t.  

John Stuart Mill may be spinning in his grave.

Some criticised Mill – especially at the time – saying that because he wasn’t especially religious that his thinking didn’t account for those who have convictions that drive them to believe that there is ultimate truth and that they therefore have a duty to impose those truths on society.

That is a view that some conservative philosophers have used to dismiss Mill’s liberalism.  And it’s actually an assumption that is at the core of the questions I received during the election from people who would be appalled to be bracketed with right wing Victorian philosophers.

I believe in God.  I believe that Jesus is His long promised Christ or Messiah.  When Jesus says that all who believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life; and that he is the only way to the Father, I believe him.  

I share God’s wish that everyone would come to believe this.  It breaks my heart that people don’t.  But God hasn’t created us robots, we have real choices, you and I matter and every human being is accountable, the decisions we make are real decisions, He allows us to reject Him and who am I to disagree with that? Edmund Burke said that all the laws against the Godless have not saved one single soul.  To put it another way, what is the point in legislating to make people who are not Christians behave as though they were?

It isn’t liberal, it is counterproductive and it does not follow the Bible’s teaching.

One of the most famous stories about Jesus’ life is recorded in Luke 19.  Zacchaeus is a tax collector – in that society, that would have made him a collaborator and an extortionist. More unpopular than politicians and journalists combined!  Zacchaeus worshipped the god of materialism.  But Zacchaeus is interested in Jesus. He’s not a tall man so he climbs a tree to get a glimpse as Jesus goes by, and Jesus spies him out and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house.  Zacchaeus is delighted.  You see, Jesus doesn’t push him away because of his wrong doing, he accepts him as he is, but he doesn’t expect him to stay as he is.  Zacchaeus’ response is to seek to put right what he has done wrong – to offer to repay four–fold anyone he has cheated and to give away half his possessions to the poor.  

You see, that’s the Biblical pattern.  You come to Jesus in your wretched state, you don’t contribute to your forgiveness or salvation one jot, you receive that forgiveness… and then you must go and turn away from your previous life, deny yourself and seek to follow Christ and his teaching.  You don’t have to clean yourself up first, you don’t have to be good for a bit and then try applying to become a Christian to see if you’ve made the grade.  The point is that none of us has made the grade, but that’s OK, because Jesus has made the grade, and he chose to die in your place.

That passage also reminds us of two really important Biblical truths.  One, we are all equal under God and we must not judge others or else we bring judgement on ourselves.  Two, God will judge. He is not indifferent to our choices.  It is not unloving or judgemental for Christians then to point that out.

But making people live as Christians when they aren’t, is unwise, ungodly, counterproductive and illiberal.  As a Liberal I say it is wrong, and as a Christian I say it is wrong and it doesn’t even work!

To believe in the Bible’s teaching and to also believe in people’s right to reject it and to live as they choose, is about as close to a pure application of liberalism as you could get.  

And yet so many people who count themselves as liberals can’t or won’t grasp this.  In part this is down to the growth of religious illiteracy in many parts of our society, but that’s not a good enough excuse.

The questions to me came thick and fast during those seven weeks of the campaign, mostly they went along the lines of…’ but how can you believe what the Bible says and lead a liberal party?’  Answer: easy, you just need to be a liberal.  That people asked that question, makes me seriously doubt that they understand liberalism even though they may preach it.   Liberalism has eaten itself.

When Jacob Rees Mogg declares his views on the application of faith, he gets mocked, but no one is surprised or confused – he is a traditional conservative, of course he believes those things. Or so the thinking goes.

When a liberal turns out to be an evangelical Christian, people are surprised or confused.  If you are one of those who are surprised and confused… then you are a victim.  A victim of liberalism’s comprehensive triumph… where the main loser, is liberalism.  

Now let me be very clear, I handled loads of the questions that I got, badly, I sometimes demonstrated a lack of wisdom, please don’t think that I see myself as some sort of noble victim.  

I took on the leadership of the Liberal Democrats at the lowest point in our history.  It was like becoming the manager of a newly relegated football club.  The board, the players and the fans were shell–shocked and devastated.  I had no transfer kitty.  You might, if you were being generous, say that I avoided further relegation, prevented us plunging down through the divisions, stabilised things, stopped the rot, gave us self–belief, purpose and increased the attendances… and what with Witney, Richmond park and local election results we had a really impressive and morale boosting FA cup run… but it would also be fair to say that immediate promotion back to the premier league was an achievement I didn’t deliver.  

What is certain is that following our annihilation in 2015 after the coalition, I was the first liberal leader in history to lead a party that wasn’t even the third party in British politics.  That meant that every second of media exposure I got was precious, and every second spent batting away theological questions was a second wasted.  I could have given bigger, better answers but that would have eaten up even more time.  And anyway, I was running for Prime Minister not Pope!  But I realised that my lot would be either to compromise my faith and say easy things to fit with current secular thinking; or else to continue to be the party’s main spokesperson but incapable of getting the message across because of all these questions.  

So I knew that stepping down was the only thing to do.  I was right to do it.  I don’t regret it.  

It now gives me the chance to challenge the tyranny of opinion, to seek to redeem liberalism.  

John Stuart Mill talks of the value of eccentricity, using the word in the sense it would have been understood in the mid–19th century, eccentricity meaning to be off centre, not the norm.  But let’s use it in its current sense, eccentricity meaning something whacky, peculiar, probably ridiculous but essentially harmless.  

My observation is that for many years now our culture has considered that the absence of faith is the neutral position, and that the holding of a religious faith is eccentric.  In other words, an absence of faith is the standard assumption around which we build our social structures, and if you have a faith we will consider you to be eccentric in the whacky and harmless sense… so we will tolerate you, as long as you remain on the edges.  

What appears now to be happening is that while the absence of faith is still thought to be the neutral position, holding a faith is only considered to be tolerably eccentric if it is merely cultural.  But if your faith actually affects your world view in any way that puts it at odds with the mainstream, then your faith is considered to be malign and intolerable.  

I want to first say that this viewpoint is not only clearly prevalent, but staggeringly arrogant – and obviously wrong.  There is absolutely no such thing as neutrality.  The godless world view is no more nor less valid than one that trusts for example in the God of the Bible.  Every human being has a world view.  You will acquire that world view in different ways and from different sources, maybe you get it fully or in part from a book that you consider to be holy, or from your parents, from your peer group, your teachers, the media or the culture in which you are immersed.

You can’t on the one hand think that Trump or Brexit were aided by fake news and troll factories and then on the other hand believe that you have total control and critical independence over every notion or view point that you hold.  Not without being conceited in the extreme.  

So there is no neutrality.  Absence of faith is a valid world view, but it has no right to supremacy.  If you believe it does have that right, then I respect your view, but you are not a liberal.   I have often been encouraged – by well–meaning people – to make sure that my faith doesn’t influence my decisions or actions as a politician.  The more I think about it, the more daft that sounds.  Do you leave your world view at the door before you enter a room?  Do you enter every situation empty–headed and value–free?  Nope?  Well neither do I.  And neither will I.

I believe in pluralism, I am not a secularist but I believe in a secular society where there is no ‘state faith’.  That in Britain we have a church trapped as part of the furniture of the state is a waste of a church.  A boat in the water is good.  Water in the boat, is bad.  A church in the state is good, the state in the church is bad.  Really bad.  It pollutes the message of that church.  It compromises it.  Weakens its witness.  

And let’s be clear.  It is just as illiberal, and just as silly, to make atheism the state religion.  

But the threat to liberalism is far greater than faith being relegated in social standing below the absence of faith.  If you actively hold a faith that is more than an expression of cultural identity, a faith that forms the centre of your world view, you are deemed to be far worse than eccentric.  You are dangerous.  You are offensive.

And here we have the great issue.  We live in a time of identities.  People don’t choose to do things, they are things.  So, to challenge an identity is to commit a personal assault.  The rise of nationalism in this country and others, is a case in point.  We have in an extremely short time, found ourselves in a situation where it is considered that causing offence is to commit violence.

What is at the heart of a liberal society?  It is to uphold that we have a right to offend and a duty to tolerate offence.  George Orwell said ‘if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

But as Christians, we also have a duty and a desire to be kind and gentle.  Now where have we heard that before?  

So be bold in saying things that may cause offence, but do not be offensive.  

Jesus is your example.  How calmly he speaks and with such grace.  With such respect for the people he speaks to.  What patience he shows to people who reject him.  How meekly he subjects himself to their violence… and how clearly he speaks in ways that wither.  That exposes hypocrisy, that exposes lies, that exposes truth.  He launches ferocious verbal assaults on the Pharisees, he calls them hypocrites, a brood of vipers, ‘white washed tombs’ in other words, clean and attractive on the outside but full of rotting corpses on the inside.  And he spends his time with outcasts, loves the unlovable, heals the hopeless, opens up the Kingdom of God to those who don’t deserve it, but who nevertheless seek it.

Jesus was full of grace and truth.  Crucified truth oppresses nobody, but it weighs heavily upon us when we consider it – and amongst other things it is the raw fuel for liberalism.  Because if Jesus died for me, then he also died for you.  Which means that you must matter.  It means you must really really matter.

So, if we relegate Christianity then we hollow out liberalism.

Liberalism has eaten itself because it has eaten the very world view that gave birth to it, that made it possible, that makes it possible.  It’s a bit like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future, erasing himself by accidentally preventing his parents getting together.

Lets bring liberalism back to life.

Lets start by saying something gently, but which may cause offence, just to see where that gets us!

Its this.  We don’t really have shared values.  There is no unifying set of British values.  It’s a myth.  

We are fooling ourselves.  

As a Christian of course I think there are common values to all human kind, we see them in the commandments, and in one sense we don’t need to be told them because we know instinctively what is wrong and what is right – it’s one of the key proofs that God exists.  

But are there common secular values that we collectively hold here in Britain?  No, I don’t think so.  

Our values are diverse, atomised and not fully shared at all, not even within our own towns or our own families.  And don’t be surprised about this.  Secularism is a totalising creed that reduces everyone down to either consumer or regulatory units.  It speaks the language of equality and diversity but it doesn’t do it.  We’ve been atomised.  

Let me quote from the book of Judges  ‘in those days Israel had no King; everyone did as they saw fit’.  Everyone did has they saw fit.  If we have no king, no unifying code, then we will make it up as we go along.  Values are a relativistic mist that come and go.  What is true for you may be true for me, or it may not.  And it might all change tomorrow.  There is such a thing as society but it is like 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.  Meanwhile the boat heads in any old direction.

I am a liberal, in economic terms I am a moderate social democrat, I believe climate change is real and I want to stop it, I am a patriotic Englishman but I am also a passionate European and internationalist, I am a Bible believing Christian who seeks to live obediently to God and who actively supports the freedom of everyone to either accept or reject that.   That sums up my values.  Are we seriously saying that they are shared by the majority of British people?

People talk about shared values today – I’ve done it myself.  But when they do, what they mean is ‘these are my values – and I am going to act as though they are also yours, and will demonstrate contempt for you if you depart from them’.  

It’s time to be honest with each other.  We do NOT have shared values and the assumption that we do is dangerous.  

The phrase ‘the liberal elite’ is usually bandied about by people who aren’t liberal but who are the elite.  

Whereas I am a liberal but am not the elite.  

But the cultural leaders of our day have made the arrogant and fatal assumption that we have these shared liberal values, and have sought to enforce them via Mill’s hated tyranny of opinion and the consequences are… well,  Trump and Brexit to name two!  

Because every tyrant feeds and inspires the resistance that threatens to overthrow them, as a result of their own arrogance.  The handwringing elite in our politics, media, education and business are as guilty of creating the reactionary politics of populism as much as Murdoch and Dacre.  Why?  Because they / we assumed everyone thought the same, and dismissed with ridicule and contempt any sign of eccentricity.  

I am sometimes asked, what should a Christian be doing in politics?  Should a Christian even be involved in politics at all?  The 5th century monk Simeon Styletes, was so determined to keep away from being corrupted by the world that he lived his life for 37 years on the top of a pole in Aleppo!  I was told about this at primary school and our teacher Mrs Deakin was keen to explain that this was an example of a hermit seeking to separate himself from society…whereas we were just keen to know exactly how he managed to go to the toilet.

And I still don’t know the answer to that question… But either way, Styletes was wrong.  As Christians we are told not to be of the world, but to be in it.  So I shall not be following his example.

My aim now is to be the best constituency MP anyone has ever known, to live out my faith by loving my enemies, displaying grace and gentleness, serving those who I represent and being a voice in parliament for those who are the least powerful.  

And sometimes it will involve taking the opportunity to give a reason for the hope that I have…

You see, I am a liberal, reasonably intelligent bloke, brought up in a secular society, in a family that mostly didn’t embrace an active religious faith.  I knew people who were Christians but I prided myself on being far too strong minded to fall for all that religious nonsense.  

So how does a reasonably intelligent, modern, liberal bloke end up believing in Jesus Christ?

Well look, atheism is not the absence of belief, it is a belief in absence and therefore the absence of common values.  It’s a belief in there being no unifying truth.  But if there is no unifying truth then, by its own standard, the belief that there is no unifying truth must also be bogus.  If you declare that there is no unifying truth then it stands to reason that this declaration isn’t true either.  Ergo, atheism doesn’t exist.  And I refuse to believe in something that doesn’t exist.

In short, it occurred to me that Christianity is true.  The claims that Christ makes are so direct and so clear that we can’t pretend that Christianity is just a nice philosophy – its either horribly wrong or life–changingly right.  Its claims to ultimate truth are insistent and deliberate.  Those New Testament documents are written so soon after the events, by so many eye witnesses, and with astonishingly early copies of those original eye witness accounts that testify to their validity and reliability, that drawing the conclusion that it’s all a myth seemed to me to fly in the face of all the evidence.  So I concluded that it’s certainly not a myth, it might be a hoax but it’s probably true.  And if its true, I had to make a choice.  Accept or reject.  By the grace of God, I accepted.

So, look, this isn’t an evangelistic talk, but I’d want to persuade you that it is rational and reasonable to take Christianity seriously.  I also want the freedom to be able to commend Christianity as the best foundation for a plural, liberal society.  A foundation that holds to objective truths about what a flourishing human life is, but one that holds those objective truths with generosity, grace, respect and love.

But I know that to allow people more gifted than me the opportunity to get the message of Christianity across, we need a society that permits this to happen.  That is open minded and prepared to accept the potential truth of all belief systems, to test them and see if they are true.  That’s the heart of what Mill is getting at.  No idea should be stifled, that includes being stifled by social conventions, by shaming its adherents by intolerance towards difference.

If people aren’t able to choose to deny themselves, to instead live as they see fit, then we aren’t a liberal society.  

If people who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is exactly who he said he is, are excluded, then we aren’t a liberal society.  

If people with differing world views cannot serve together with mutual respect, then we are not a liberal society.  

Any self–interested person can fight for their own liberty or for the advancement of their own world view.  That doesn’t make you a liberal one bit.  Fighting for the rights and liberties of others, and for the space for a world view that you do not accept, that is what makes you a liberal.  I continue to seek to be a consistent liberal.  

But finally, if I can’t appeal to your liberalism.  Can I at least appeal to a bit of empirical common sense?  Today we look back at the 1950s or the 1970s and we laugh and we sneer – such naivity, such backwardness.  But if those societies were able to look forward to us, they would be shocked and appalled by our take on what counts as right and wrong.  Can I also assure you, though, that the Britain of 2070 will look back at this generation and laugh at us, be contemptuous of us.  I don’t know on what basis, or which features will be especially seen as unacceptable or ridiculous… but we can be certain that we will be mocked and derided by our great grandchildren’s generation.  What’s my point here?  It’s just that we are fools if we slip into what CS Lewis calls the snobbery of chronology, of lacking self–awareness to the extent that we arrogantly assume that our era, our generation is comprehensively, morally and culturally superior to those that have gone before.  In other words, you must surely accept the possibility that your world view might, just might, be wrong!  

So hold it with humility and tolerate those whom you find intolerable.  Stand full square behind those whom you find offensive.  Accept with grace, the offence you may feel in the knowledge that you are earning the right to respectfully cause offence to those who look at the world quite differently to you.

If you are a Christian, crave pure, pluralistic liberalism.  If you are a liberal, don’t be one whose liberalism eats itself, leaving nothing more than a respectable tyranny.

Tim Farron

Tim Farron

Tim Farron has been the Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005. He was President of the Liberal Democrats from 2011 to 2015, and Leader of the party from 2015 to 2017.

Posted 28 November 2017

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