ConservativeHome sheds no tears for the martyrdom of St Tim of Westmorland, not least because it didn’t, in the final event, actually take place. Farron yesterday said that he doesn’t believe gay sex is a sin, after all – thereby offering his pinch of incense to the gods of aggressive secularism, and avoiding being chewed up by the media lions. It was the only way, as the first Christians didn’t quite put it, of “closing the story down”.
Some say that the Liberal Democrat leader is being hounded for this faith, but this claim misses some of the subtleties of the tale. As Graeme Archer argued on this site on Monday, Farron raised his Christian beliefs himself, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable, once he had done so, for him to be questioned about them. Furthermore, the significance of his political beliefs, rather than his religious ones, has been missed. To date, Conservative politicians who might believe homosexual relations to be sinful have not usually been quizzed about the matter. This is because many others believe, rightly or wrongly, that this is exactly what they can be expected to think. For a prominent Liberal Democrat to do so, let alone one who leads his party, is unusual, and thus invites the question he was asked.
Finally, voters seem to admire Christian politicians who have a deep faith, but tend to keep it private. No-one mocked Gordon Brown, a clergyman’s son, for his Christian convictions; but lorryloads of satire have been dumped on the halo-burnished head of Tony Blair. Theresa May deploys her faith from time to time, as she did in her Easter message, but otherwise keeps her head down – as she does on so much else. Farron is more of the Blair school, which helps to explain what happened.
None the less, all is not quite as simple as that. Many Christians feel that the space they have in modern Britain to live their faith is becoming increasingly cramped – perhaps especially (since the subject has been raised) when the traditional Christian take on sexuality meets our present norm of letting it all hang out. The clashes under the equalities laws charged with the most voltage are those in which faith and sexuality meet, one of the most recent being the courtroom farrago over a pro-gay marriage wedding cake. Not all Christians believe homosexual relations to be a sin: liberal Anglicans, for example, do not. And most clergy would not quite put it that way. None the less, that view is, when push comes to shove, what most Christians throughout the world believe.
But many would feel nervous of fessing up that this is so in the office or the pub, and not simply because it might be bad manners to do so. This reticence is not confined to matters concerning gay sex – which consume a disproportionate amount of conversation within the churches as well as outside them. It can also be felt when conversation turns to money, overseas aid (in most right-wing circles), abortion (in nearly all left-wing ones), the deliberate use of weapons against civilians, and much else.
A sense of proportion is required. Yes, equalities laws can be deployed against Christians. But the latter can make use of them too, and have done – winning in court, as Christian nursery workers and airline check-in clerks have done. Being harangued by a colleague is a good deal less trying than being crucified by ISIS. And most people believe that Britain is, and should be, a Christian country – even though they do not go to church, and more likely to believe, we also read, in aliens than Satan. The Prime Minister will have been well aware of this background when preparing her Easter message. The famous claim that more people go to church each Sunday than football matches remains unrebutted. None the less, there is a change in the atmosphere.
What is driving it? If one could put one’s finger on a single event – the equivalent of the butterfly that flapped its wings and caused a tornado – it might be the terrorist bolt from the blue that was 9/11. Al Qaeda’s murderous targetting of innocents left almost three thousand people dead. The chain of events that it helped to set off included the 7/7 atrocity, on the tube in the heart of London. One of the consequences has been a backlash against religion.
Yes, Islamist fanatics have undoubtedly put wind in the sails of the new atheists, however unwittingly. And set against the pre-modern worldview of a Bin Laden or an Al-Baghadi, the post-modern atheism of a Richard Dawkins has its attractions. But it would be against our norms, quite rightly, to discriminate against Muslims. And besides – to put it bluntly – there is a fear that if Islam is criticised, some of its adherents will strike back, sometimes literally, rather than turn the other cheek. Those “irreverant” comedians who poke fun at Christianity somehow turn reverent when it comes to Islam. Those smart-alec journalists – or smart-alicia journalists – who ask Christian politicians for their views on gay sex are somehow less keen to pose the same questions to Muslim ones.
The logic of our age is that all must be punished, just as all must have prizes in schools. For example (and talking of education), it is considered bad form to single out Muslim faith schools, so all faith schools must have their wings clipped – even though the “Trojan Horse” scandal in Birmingham, say, took place in what one might call bog standard academies. Thankfully, this Government is more clear-headed than its predecessor, and wants to remove some of the restrictions on those schools which are still in place.
Churchgoers, atheists and Muslims alike might wonder at those self-proclaimed Christians who do not believe that human beings have everlasting souls (only 36 per cent affirm otherwise, according to YouGov). But this is probably the profile of a big tranche of voters, whose sensibility was caught by Philip Larkin, in “Church Going”: “hatless, I take off my cycle clips in awkward reverance”. And they tend to recoil at aggressive secularism: if you doubt it, ask Nicola Blackwood, who faces a tough contest this time round in Oxford West and Abingdon, but was the beneficiary in 2010 of standing against that somewhat aggressive secularist, Evan Harris. They feel, incoherently but powerfully, that much of what is good about Britain today is shaped by its Christian past – and present.
This will be graphically demonstrated during the weeks ahead. What brings candidates together during election campaigns? Who offers the only forums at which voters can see them together, hear their views, put their own, ask questions, weigh those candidates up? In many cases, the answer is: local councils of churches. If they did not offer a platform – which most candidates feel it unwise to decline – the political parties could dodge scrutiny at a local level as they try to duck it at a national one.
It is said that the EU referendum punished the elites. ConservativeHome would not quite put it that way: Boris Johnson is no more or less the member of an elite than David Cameron. But it did overturn an ascendancy – pro-EU politicians who had ruled the roost for almost 50 years. This election gives Christian voters a chance to pitch out those who despise their values. Perhaps they should get organised – grade candidates, run websites, target those MPs they want out. After all, everyone else is doing so.