Graeme Archer is a medical statistician, a former winner of the Orwell Prize for blogging, and was recently a speechwriter for a Cabinet Minister.
The problem for Tim Farron isn’t that he thinks gay sex is sinful – though he does think that. It is that he refuses to admit that this is what he thinks, and it is for that refusal (and his reason for that refusal) that he is being – as it were – damned.
I predicted this mess a few years ago on this site when Farron was first elected Liberal Democrat leader; one of the very few times (the only time?) I’ve been right about anything. The point I tried to make (that I find his pretence more unpleasant than his views; I find his views ridiculous) is subtle, and lots of people defend Farron by saying “Never mind what he thinks! Look at his track record – what a liberal.” They accuse his detractors of trying to peer through a window into his soul, or to be engaged in an attempt to drive Christianity from public life (and hope that shouting about his track record will help us forget that he didn’t, actually, vote for David Cameron’s marriage reforms.)
But it is Farron who throws the window open, by using his fundamentalist beliefs as short-hand to describe his character (see this interview in the Guardian, for example.) He believes he has a personal relationship with Jesus, and, it’s not wrong to conclude, that the words of the Bible are to be taken literally. That means he thinks physical acts of love between men are a sin. So why can’t he bring himself to say so?
What he hates – why he won’t be honest – is that were he to do so, and make his opinion known, it would change public opinion about him, where “public” refers to the soft-Left voter whom he so wants to attract to his party. He doesn’t want the votes of people who hate gays (I presume.) He wants the votes of the people for whom homosexuality has been normalised. But he doesn’t think homosexuality is normal, and so the canary, down in the LibDem coal-mine, starts singing its querulous warning. It’s a canary he’s trying to strangle.
For this isn’t about driving Christianity from politics. What is off-putting about Farron isn’t that he’d be happier were Keith and I to live some desiccated sexless life of “companionship”. Look, but don’t touch.
The feature in his psychology which disconcerts – I wonder if you feel it too? – is the fundamentalism. Most people (and particularly most Christians) feel doubt about nearly every moral issue; every decision of any importance carries a risk. But the fundamentalists – of any religion, of no religion – lack this characteristic. Because they’ve been shown the “truth”, I suppose. That’s what makes their eyes so wide and their smiles so unsettling.
That air of fundamentalist certainty – that whiff of Biblical literality – is becoming pungent through a debate about sexuality, but it must inform his views on many other matters (and his approach to decision-making in general.) In an age when the right to existence of gay people is under explicit threat from the illiberal enemies of the good society, it’s not unreasonable for gay voters to wonder on whose side their leaders would be, should push come to electoral shove. (We) Don’t Ask (So He) Don’t Tell isn’t going to cut it.
As I say, for Farron that’s almost the minor issue. There aren’t many gay people on the electoral roll, not as a proportion of the total. But there are millions of voters, I suspect, who dislike fundamentalism, and whose initially agnostic views about Farron might, thanks to his refusal to answer a straightforward question, begin to coalesce into something more definite, and negative.
I almost have it in me to feel sorry for him; almost, but not quite. But then a lack of sympathy for the situation in which he finds himself is, as I’m sure Farron would agree (but won’t find himself able to express), the very least of my sins.