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Tim Farron Q&A: Why I resigned, why it matters and what I should have said about gay sex

Tim Farron spoke to Rosie Wright and John Pantry on Premier Christian Radio's 'Inspirational Breakfast' programme about why he resigned, whether Christians can be involved in politics and what he regrets from his time as Liberal Democrat leader

Rosie: It would have been better to have you in here as leader of the Liberal Democrats – what went wrong?

Tim: In many ways things went right. I inherited a party – I talk in football analogies far too often but it is basically like taking over the management of a relegated team – and my job was to stop us going out of business. And we did that. We doubled the size of the membership, gave us some purpose and increased the number of MPs for the first time in many, many years.

But why am I not still leader? I made a judgement and I think it was the right one: I found myself in a situation partly because of events beyond my control and partly because of things that were my fault where I either had to be compromising my faith, frankly, saying things I thought were not true or be true to my faith and be in a situation where I sucked all the attention that ought to be going to me being the mouthpiece of the party away from our main message.

There are things I could have handled more wisely

I am a committed Christian but my job as leader of the Liberal Democrats is to get our message across. If you are the chief executive of a bus company and you spend all your time talking about the gospel and not looking after train timetables and your staff you would probably get sacked and it felt to me that as the main message carrier for the party it was a little bit like having your main advertising hoarding permanently damaged, permanently vandalised so your me. Either I let the party down or I compromised my faith. I thought well I’m not doing either of those things so I did the only thing I thought I could and stepped back, which I think was the right thing to do.

Rosie: Your election campaign was dominated by questioning about gay sex, which started off two years ago when Cathy Newman challenged you on Channel 4. You did come up with differing statements – do you have any regrets?

Tim: It’s tricky really. I think first of all yes I think there are things I could have handled more wisely. In the end, the difficulty is, if you are a Christian you have a very clear idea about what sin is and it is us falling short of the glory of God and that is something we equally, all of us, share. So in one sense, to be asked that question, is in one sense to persecute one group of human beings because sin is something that we all, Jesus excepted, guilty of.

The idea that anybody asking me those questions was interested in the theology is naïve in the extreme

But if you are not a Christian, what does sin mean? It is to be accused of something, to be condemnatory. So we are talking different languages. So maybe you could have explained that. Maybe I could have explained the biblical teaching on sex and sexuality. Maybe I could have done that but let’s be really brutality honest – with the exception of programmes like this you don’t get more than 20 seconds to get your message across and the idea that anybody asking me those questions was interested in the theology is naïve in the extreme.

John: What do you think was behind those questions? Who was setting the agenda?

Tim: There will be some people that think that there was some wicked agenda to get at me and to get at Christians, but I think it’s more the fact that it was interesting to journalists and it was just a thread to keep pulling at. There are others who just can’t comprehend how somebody can have strong convictions and be a Bible-believing Christian on the one hand and at the same time really passionately believe in people’s rights to make their own choices, as essentially that is what liberalism is. The danger we’ve now stepped into across society is that we are in a place we are tolerant of everything apart from the things that we don’t like – that is not liberal.

Christianity should always be counter-cultural

Rosie: Looking back at that campaign you were consistently almost slightly evasive in being very vocal about what you thought and then you came out and said no, I don’t think gay sex is a sin. Why did you change that? Did you feel under pressure?

Tim: Yes. I’m going to write about this more in the coming weeks but the bottom line is yes of course I did. There are things that I said, including that, that I regret and there was a sense in which I felt: look I’ve got to get this off my table. The issue is here’s a general election – a great opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. The Labour party at that point were nose-diving, the Tory party looked very much like it was arrogantly assuming it was going to get 100 seat majority– what an opportunity for us and they wanted to do was talk about my Christian beliefs and what it meant. I foolishly and wrongly attempted to push it away by giving an answer that was not right.

John: Did you feel supported by other Christians in Parliament? There are plenty of them.

Tim: During a general election the last thing you see is your parliamentary colleagues. Firstly, we are not parliamentary colleagues at that time as we are not MPs. I knew later that others were praying for me but there was a sense that I was isolated. I had a wonderful team around me at HQ but with one exception – there were no Christians. It’s not their fault but they didn’t understand the issue. I think we’ve got to back to what’s the heart of all this and what’s the problem. In the United States you have to invent a faith to be taken seriously. In this country you have to pretend you haven’t got one. Both of those standpoints are bogus and ridiculous and so there is a sense in which what I’ve got now is a freedom that I could never have had as a party leader - to accept the role that I’ve got now - a Christian with a profile. It’s not that I want to compensate for having made mistakes in the past, it’s that, by the grace of God, I’ve got a profile – so let’s use it. I don’t know what the figures are in the United Kingdom, but 80 per cent of those who call themselves evangelical Christians in the States vote for one party – the Republican party. If you ask most people who’ve got any kind of clue outside of Christian circles in this country where politically you would put evangelical Christianity it is on the right. I am someone who is a Bible-believing Christian, call me an evangelical if you want, who is a liberal and of the left, and that is surprising to both camps. And that’s great as you can get a hearing in both camps and the main thing is that the gospel gets heard.

Rosie: I wonder why you think it is that politicians who have other faiths don’t seem to come under the same amount of scrutiny as you did as a Christian?

Tim: First of all none of this is about me being a victim and Christians need to be a little bit careful, particularly in this country with all the freedoms we do have, that we don’t sound like victims too much. I don’t want to be too flippant about this, but Christianity is or should always be counter-cultural so if you aren’t being persecuted a bit there’s something wrong. The other thing is, the key issue here is what your faith means to you. We’re in the situation now where the absence of faith is considered to be neutral. Holding a faith is considered to be eccentric and tolerable, even a little bit charming so long as it doesn’t actually affect your worldview. The minute it begins to affect your worldview and it is not merely cultural, that’s problematic. So Christianity is not the only worldview in that category – but it’s at the top of the list.

John: In a word is there a glass ceiling for Christians in politics?

Tim: I don’t know. There was for me, but that doesn’t mean somebody more talented and wiser wouldn’t get significantly further. I was very struck and motivated by an article in The Times the day after I was elected leader that said the party that started with Gladstone will end with Farron. It didn’t – an achievement ticked off. The point of all that is that it reminded me that the party was founded, its most successful leader, was an evangelical Christian.

Possibly the best thing I did was resign

Liberalism is founded on non-conformist, evangelical Christianity in this country and indeed internationally. Is there a glass ceiling? In one sense as a Christian we need to make sure that personal ambition doesn’t become an idol so there may be a self-imposed glass ceiling. But, having said that, we’ve seen biblical examples, people like Joseph, Daniel who ended up in very senior positions in relatively ungodly societies so there’s nothing wrong with holding office in Babylon – just remember it’s Babylon.

Rosie: This year’s British social attitudes survey put the proportion of Britains purporting to have no religion at a record high – about 53 per cent. Is religion relevant in politics?

Tim: It is to me! In the end what is Christianity? It is an acceptance of Jesus Christ as your redeemer and ruler, and you live for him. Other religions will have to answer for themselves, but that is a legitimate worldview. As I said earlier on, the problem we have now is that there is an assumption that lacking a faith is the neutral position. In one sense it’s a clearing of the decks – int that many people don’t believe in God; it gives us an opportunity to speak the gospel to people who haven’t had their thoughts polluted by pre-conceptions so let’s take it as a positive.

John: Christians seem to be more persecuted for their faith than other religions. Why do you think that is?

Tim: I think there is always of course the danger that if you are challenging too much of non-Christian faiths, particularly faiths that are held mostly by members of ethnic minorities, that you might conflate criticisms of their faith with criticism of them as individuals and therefore be seen as racist, so people are nervous of that. I also think there is a sense in which people believe that they are still attacking the establishment when they are attacking Christians and yet, as I said earlier on, Christians and Christianity are always radically counter-cultural. If they are not, they are doing it wrong.

Rosie: We always ask on this programme: “What would Jesus do?” Would Jesus be a politician?

Tim: I suspect, in the current context, no. Simply because it would involve being a member of a political party. Jesus was not in any way afraid to cause offense if need be, but would he be deliberately exclusive in a way that would make people that belong to other parties think less of him and listen less to him? My suspicion is, in the current political map, no.

John: Would you like to see more coalition politics in this country? As liberals you are never going to rule are you?

Tim: In the one sense it is barmy, please excuse me for sounding black and white, that you’ve got a Marxist on one side and a nationalist isolationist on the other. 85-90 per cent of the political territory is not taken and the Liberal Democrats should fill it – clearly we don’t at the moment but we should. The idea of coalition, by the way, and for all that I was an internal friendly critic of it for five years, I would argue that in the last couple of generations the coalition government was the best in terms of stability and certainly when you compare it to the current shambles you’ve got to say they were good years. Irrespective of the parties, coalition is good. Grown-ups should compromise and shouldn’t always stamp their feet when they don’t get their own way.

Rosie: When you were at university, people in Christian Union tried to dissuade you from a career in politics, saying it is a dirty business. Were they right?

Tim: No, or, if they were right, so is everything else – so is presenting, so is journalism, so is driving a bus.

Rosie: Why?

Tim: Because you are in the world. Christianity is utterly radical and counter-cultural. It’s about living for Jesus Christian, attempting to be humble, forgiving people who don’t deserve to be forgiven, accepting that you don’t deserve forgiving but you’ve been forgiven – it is utterly radical. Grace is utterly, utterly radical and in response to that grace that sense that you are going to obediently follow Jesus is completely radical. In any situation you are in, as a parent, as a teacher, as a journalist, as a bus driver, whatever it is that you do, you will grate against the system. We are taught in the Bible to do it appropriately, to not be deliberately caustic, of course that’s right, but nevertheless the world is murky. We should be in, we are in it.

John: Have you had any positive or negative responses from your constituents now you are freer to talk about your faith?

Tim: Very positive. The most regular phrase I get is “We’re glad you’re back” as if I went away. I said earlier on that I thought the coalition is a good government. The thing I found most difficult about it is there are times when you vote ways you really rather wouldn’t. I hate the thought of having to say things I don’t mean - now I don’t have to and I think my constituents are much happier about it. Certainly it’s an opportunity for me to talk about the gospel now because I can.

Rosie: You were very direct and evangelistic in your resignation speech. Was there any reticence from anyone to say Tim don’t say that?

Tim: I wrote it myself and didn’t clear it with anyone so it was brilliant! I don’t want to sound too negative but if I was being neutral about this, possibly the best thing I did was resign - from a Christian point of view because I was able to say look ambition is great but it isn’t everything. If you give up what you cannot keep to gain what you cannot lose, as someone wiser than me once said, you are no fool.

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