Unsolicited advice: What @timfarron should have said to Cathy Newman

Since I haven’t blogged about Tim at all yet, I should probably begin (just to be clear where I’m coming from) by saying that I voted for Tim, and I was thrilled that he won the leadership contest. I think Tim will be a fantastic asset to the party during his tenure as leader.

Anyhoo, last night he gave an interview to Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman (reported here under the bizarrely self-referential headline “Tim Farron asked three times if gay sex is a sin”) which has caused some uproar amongst some within the party, not least those with doubts about Tim’s ability to separate his faith from his role as an MP legislating for people of all faiths and none.

Norman Lamb’s leadership campaign (ultimately unsuccessful, but nevertheless quite effective, having narrowed the expected margin between the two contenders substantially) played quite heavily on these doubts, and certainly made misgivings about Tim’s faith more of a live issue within the party. In my own case, feeling like I know reasonably well who Tim is, and, as a bisexual man, feeling like I am quite capable of evaluating his record on LGBT rights for myself, the Lamb campaign’s dog whistling proved counter-productive, making me if anything more inclined to support Tim. Given the reactions last night of a number of friends, acquaintances, and fellow LGBT+ folk who I’ve not yet met, I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

As ever, the news media like to tug at anything they perceive as a loose thread, to see what might unravel. I don’t think it’s entirely fair, though, to blame Norman’s campaign for this line of questioning. As many people who had doubts about Tim argued, it’s not just that he’s a Christian, it’s that his voting record in some areas is sufficiently out of line with the majority of the party, and in ways which, superficially, fit into a standard “traditional Christian” frame. As such, the question of whether his faith determines his actions as a politician is a legitimate one, and one of which we probably haven’t heard the last. It’s for that reason that I’m writing about this, rather than just ignoring it and hoping we all move onto something more interesting, much as I’d like to.

The general objection to last night’s interview was that Tim sounded shifty and evasive, and I’ve seen a number of comments about last night’s interview along the lines of “Tim needs to have a better, sharper answer to questions like this”, but not many suggestions as to what that answer should be. After all, the consensus seems to be that a straight “yes” or “no” answer wouldn’t help either, leading inevitably to more questions; to return to the “loose thread” metaphor, once they start pulling on it, where does it stop? So I thought I’d have a go at figuring out what the problem with Tim’s answers actually is, and what the right answer might look like. Firstly, here’s what actually was said in the interview:

CN: You’ve abstained during votes on Same Sex Marriage in the past. You’ve said recently that, politically, you regret that. Personally, though, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: Well I think that, first of all, I mean, somebody who is a Christian does not then go enforcing their views on other people. And it’s not our issues, our views on personal morality that matter, what matters is do we go out there and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they wish to be –

CN: OK, I take your point –

TF: That’s what makes a liberal.

CN: OK, but I’m asking for your personal view, do you personally, as a Christian, believe that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: To understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners, and perhaps the Bible phrase that I use most with my kids, but actually on myself, is that you don’t pick out the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, when there is a plank in your own. The reality is, to understand the Bible, and if perhaps another time you want a long theological discussion, the – my understanding is – well, my firm belief is that we are all sinners.

CN: OK, but when the Bible says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination” you don’t have any problem with that?

TF: Well look, I mean, so – fundamentally, my faith is based upon my belief that Jesus Christ is who he said he is. But, again, Cathy, you know, this is a very interesting discussion, it’s important to me, but I’ve not just been –

CN: But it’s important to your party as well, because these are values that I appreciate are your personal values, but they’re not very liberal values, are they?

TF: I mean, come off it, we’ve just been led, or at least we were for seven years during, you know, the early part of this last decade, by a Roman Catholic for seven years; Charles Kennedy who led us so passionately against the appalling Blair/Bush Iraq war, and who built us up to our strongest point in our recent history. We were led, admittedly a century and a bit ago, by Gladstone, arguably our most successful leader ever. This is the party that is based upon religious tolerance, and indeed the tolerance of people who are not religious at all, and defending the rights of every individual, whether they be a member of a minority or not. It’s a peculiar thing to say that somebody who happens to belong to a religious group, who’s a Christian, can’t be a liberal. It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter. My rights are your rights, whatever you believe, whatever I believe.

What strikes me immediately about those answers is that, much as Tim has felt it unfair that he is asked such faith-based questions, his instinct is always to answer them “as a Christian” first, and “as a Liberal” second. Each time Newman asks him whether he thinks “homosexual sex is a sin”, the first substantive things he says are, respectively:

“somebody who is a Christian does not…”

“To understand Christianity…”

“fundamentally, my faith is based upon…”

The first and last time, he does manage to work his way around to how that fits into the picture of his liberalism:

“…That’s what makes a liberal.”

“… It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter.”

It is precisely because Tim offers answers to such questions which do explore his views on faith that he will keep getting asked them. I assume that this is not accidental, that Tim has consciously decided that it is important to him not to hide his faith, and indeed to take opportunities to affirm publicly his “belief that Jesus Christ is who he said he is”, etc. It’s not a view I share (I’m an atheist), but I can empathise with it, given the basic parameters of a Christian faith. I’d love to figure out a response to Newman’s questions which is compatible with that urge and doesn’t open a can of worms, but I have to admit I’m a bit stumped.

Nonetheless, the honesty which is at the heart of Tim’s apparent shiftiness here (he refuses to say something which he doesn’t really feel, even if it might be a more expedient answer) is an asset, not a liability. The willingness to actually engage with a question which Tim shows here is laudable, it’s just that he needs to remember what his priorities are when being interviewed as leader of the Liberal Democrats, not as “Tim Farron, Christian”. Whilst being mindful of the need to “let Bartlet be Bartlet“, then, my conclusion is that the best way for Tim to conduct himself as leader of the party is to train himself to make sure that the first words out of his mouth in response to such questions are always “Liberal-first”. What might that look like? I’d love to hear other suggestions, but here’s my stab at it:

CN: You’ve abstained during votes on Same Sex Marriage in the past. You’ve said recently that, politically, you regret that. Personally, though, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: First of all, Cathy, I voted in favour of Same Sex Marriage at Second Reading, the kind of “broad principle” stage of the legislative process. I abstained at Third Reading, the “nitty-gritty details” stage of the process, because I did feel there were areas of the bill which were insufficiently liberal. One of those areas was on conscience protections for registrars, which is about freedom of religion, a key liberal principle. Another area was on the spousal veto, an area of the bill which was (and still is) of great concern to many trans people. What I regret is that people have read that abstention as me being opposed to Same Sex Marriage, which I am not. What matters here is not my own personal faith, what matters is how I do my job as a liberal.

CN: OK, I take your point, but I’m asking for your personal view, do you personally, as a Christian, believe that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: Look, I’m not going to answer that directly, Cathy, and let me explain why. As a Liberal, I believe in the separation of Church and State, and my role, the reason I’m on your programme tonight, is that I lead a political party – I am very much on the “State” side of that separation. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful in a secular democracy for our politicians to start pontificating about their own personal views on faith, so I’m not going to do it now, no matter how many times you ask me. The question is not what I might think is a sin or not, the question is where the law should stand, and what rights and protections people should have. As a Liberal, my instinct on that question is to protect individuals rights and freedoms, whether that is the freedom to love who you love, or the freedom to believe what you believe.

CN: OK, but when the Bible says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination” you don’t have any problem with that?

TF: Well look, I am not here to lead a theological discussion about individual verses in the Bible. As important as that is to me, it isn’t my job as leader of the Liberal Democrats. If you want a range of considered views on that question I suggest you take it up with the clergy.

CN: But it’s important to your party as well, because these are values that I appreciate are your personal values, but they’re not very liberal values, are they?

TF: I think that’s a fundamental misreading of what liberalism is. This is the party that is based upon religious tolerance, and indeed the tolerance of people who are not religious at all, and defending the rights of every individual, whether they be a member of a minority or not. “Liberal values” are not about what positions people may or may not hold as a matter of personal faith, “liberal values” are about tolerating others who you don’t agree with, and protecting each others’ rights to live our lives as we choose to, so long as we aren’t harming anyone else. It’s a peculiar thing to say that somebody who happens to belong to a religious group, who’s a Christian, can’t be a liberal. It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter. My rights are your rights, whatever you believe, whatever I believe.

Anyone got a better idea?

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12 Responses to “Unsolicited advice: What @timfarron should have said to Cathy Newman”

  1. Oli Says:

    Reading your answer I think it is better than mine. I had considered the succint and hopefully credible;

    “If you’re asking me do I think homosexuality is wrong and we should do something to stop it, the answer is “no” … If you’re asking me about the contents of the Bible, my answer would be the same as yours.”

    This is unlikely to affect Lib Dems in leafy Con-Lib marginals, and in the Labour held ones we’re waiting for them to screw up bigger than us anyway. The problem will be internal more than in relation to potential voters – most people who are evangelical on LGBT+ rights think the LibDems committed a cardinal sin by going into coalition anyway.

    • Andy Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Oli. I must admit, I don’t quite see the connection to your final point: “most people who are evangelical on LGBT+ rights think the LibDems committed a cardinal sin by going into coalition anyway”.

      • Oli Says:

        Ah sorry. I mean to say that whereas most people support LGBT+ rights, the bulk of the electorate who value it most highly – above foreign policy or immigration, for instance – have largely rejected the LibDems for working with the Conservatives during the last parliament. Tim needs a better answer, but I doubt many votes which haven’t already been lost will have been shaken by the interview.

        • Andy Says:

          I’d be interested to know what makes you say that. After all, our record in coalition wasn’t bad on LGBT issues (same sex marriage, Trans action plan, memorandum of understanding on conversion therapies…)

          • Oli Says:

            It’s all a bit preaching to the congregation. You and I may like those policies, but plenty of people don’t know they have happened. If the sole reason you voted was for the most pro-LGBT record, sure the LibDems have done great. As with most things, someone who ranks LGBT rights as a top issue may also have nationalisation of industry as a key issue, which the coalition was poor on, of course. I guess I am just building an anecdotal profile of voters, which admittedly isn’t evidence based or by extension particularly liberal!

  2. Marjorie Bark Says:

    I don’t normally comment on anything on the internet, but I have found your blog a natural home to share my thoughts. That interview has bothered me. Really bothered me.
    I see your point but disagree that the whole interview was flawed. Tim saw it for what it was but responded in a clumsy way and he wasn’t quick enough to call Cathy out on her intentions. The line of questioning was nothing to do with Tim’s commitment to upholding LBGT+ rights or his personal views of homosexuality. It was an aggressive attempt to ridicule and attack Tim’s Christian values. From what I had heard in the media on Friday, Tim had spent the day in many interviews where the main issue of his successful election of him as leader was “can a practising Christian be a Liberal and lead a party like the Liberal Democrats?” Tim, characteristically, responded in all cases with considerable patience to that line of questioning. I was not as patient listening to it. What about rebuilding the party, healing wounds of the election result, responding to assumptions that the party was a political irrelevance, etc? There was no message about about the way forward for the new Libdem leader in the new political climate. That wasn’t the story the media wanted.

    Cathy Newman’s questions however, were a different league. Barely appropriate for a family early evening news bulletin, the coarse approach more suited to the newsnight slot that she obviously aspires to have in due course. Tim’s responses were deflective and appropriate but in my opinion, not quite adequately rehearsed. But i was taken aback too. If Cathy wanted to know Tim’s view of gay sex, she could have asked “is gay sex wrong?” or something similar. In which case, Tim the Liberal could respond “Of course not. What two (or more) consenting adults do in their own privacy is no business of the state”. But she didn’t. She asked him if he thought that it was a sin. I am not a believer but I my basic understanding is that that sin is a loaded concept to many Christians. As Tim said, everyone is a sinner. That’s why Christians believe they will be saved through their faith in God, isn’t it? It disturbs me that religious concepts are so easily thrown around secular commentary without any consideration for the meaning of these concepts to the faithful. See also fatwa, jihad, the Caliphate. I wince when I hear these terms used in the secular public domain, as if non-believers have the natural understanding to interpret them in the way that practising muslims do. Arrogance in it’s potential to offend. No wonder that we are in the state we are in. Cathy used the word sin with unforgivable malice. Shame on her.
    Tim responded to the questions based on his religious interpretation of sin. He could not do anything else.

    To me an atheist (for sake of arguments – I am fascinated by biblical teaching but it does not touch any more than my nostalgia for childhood stories. The universe is bigger than I can comprehend, I do not need it to be any bigger), the most outrageous point of the interview was Cathy’s recitation of the Old Testament passages to belittle Tim. I am furious that a professional journalist thought that it was appropriate to turn scripture against a religious man. How dare she!! It’s not even close to disrespectful. It was offensive, offensive, offensive. I felt more uncomfortable hearing her read those lines than any of Tim’s deflections and evasive responses. He didn’t need to reassure anyone about his level of comfort about gay sex, or even to defend his voting record – she was fishing for more anti-gay comments to use against him.
    Of course Tim’s voting record is controversial, and I do find it interesting that Tim hasn’t just waived through the populist liberal stance rather than taking a hardline on protection of religious freedoms. I think I understand why he has voted in the way he has. It starts by taking liberalism back to first principles, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of expression and freedom of speech. It is not easy to satisfy conscience issues without avoiding difficulties of the logical conclusion that it’s OK to discriminate sexuality, race, gender, political views etc, as long as its in the name of your God – and there lies the problem for a pure liberal position. But we can’t sanction the use of the Thought Police on the liberation of sexual, social and civil freedoms, either. We must use our fundamental principles to reserve special protection for those who cannot change their minority status, but the rights of the faithful are often inadequately addressed and we take the risk of failing to do so.
    It’s also worth noting that there remains nothing more important in our liberal society than a free and independent press. Liberalism is fighting for the likes of Cathy Newman, too.
    “My rights are your rights”. Right on, Tim.

  3. weavingsandunpickings Says:

    Good to see that Tim’s performance on Andrew Marr this morning was much more in line with your advice here. Maybe he dropped by and took some notes?

  4. Farron’s first Sunday media marathon Says:

    […] five years doing that when he’s the leader of a Liberal Party. It’s like he took my and Andy Hinton’s entirely unsolicited […]

  5. Sarah Ludford Says:

    Re ‘one of those areas was on conscience protections for registrars, which is about freedom of religion, a key liberal principle’, the case of Lilian Ladele, a Christian who regarded homosexual relationships as contrary to God’s law, settled this issue. The European Court of Human Rights in Jan 2013 backed the insistence of – then LibDem-run – Islington Council that there was no violation of Article 14/Art 9 ECHR in obliging a registrar to carry out her job without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and thus to officiate at civil partnerships (this was pre-equal marriage).

    • Andy Says:

      Indeed Sarah, I don’t disagree with that judgment. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we have to so oblige a registrar.

      Personally, I tend to support your view, but I don’t think it helps to pretend that there is not a perfectly justifiable, liberal position, relating to freedom of religion, to support a system of registrars being allowed to opt out of performing same sex marriages if they so wished, “without prejudice to the duty of a registration authority to ensure that there is a sufficient number of registrars and superintendent registrars in that area to carry out the required functions.” Let me emphasize, it is not my position, but it looks like it was Tim’s. I think we do Tim, and the party, a disservice to pretend that it is a position which cannot be arrived at through liberal arguments alone, and therefore can only be explained by assuming that Tim is a swivel-eyed religious fanatic.

      • Sarah Ludford Says:

        Where would the ‘liberal’ argument for people not serving/employing those they disapprove of stop?

        • Andy Says:

          It’s not about allowing people to not serve/employ *people* they disapprove of (something I think we should have no truck with), it’s about allowing people to not take part in specific *acts* they disapprove of. Like I said, I tend to fall on the “you don’t wanna be involved in same sex marriages, don’t be a registrar” side of that one, but I do think it’s a different situation from “it’s my shop, I’ll turn away gay people if I want to”.


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