Looking at yesterday’s reaction on social media to Tim Farron’s victory in the Liberal Democrat leadership election, there were plenty of Christians who were more than a little happy. And so they should be. We may have had a good number of political party leaders over the last few years who have openly mentioned their Christian faith, but it is still rare to have one who proclaims it as passionately as Farron.
This contest has disproved the widely held belief that you need to tone down talk of personal faith in order to work your way up to positions of leadership in politics.
Party leaders who are evangelical Christians are historically few and far between. William Gladstone leader of the Liberals, and 19th century Prime Minister, is one notable example (and you could even argue that Margaret Thatcher was). But there is little doubt that Farron has an evangelical faith, despite his dislike of using labels. In the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum’s book Liberal Democrats do God he discusses his conversion aged 18:
‘I became a Christian because the evidence for Christianity is staggeringly compelling. Of course, becoming a Christian is staggeringly inconvenient too, which I suspect is why I buried my head in the sand for so long. If I was to become a Christian, I would have to accept that I was not the master of my own destiny; that I needed to bow down to God who created me and who will judge me. I would also have to accept that I was a ‘sinner’ and ask for forgiveness and turn to Him as my master.’
Anyone who thinks that the Liberal Democrats will now develop a much more ‘Christian’ outlook is likely to be disappointed
The constant questioning of how this faith influences Farron’s politics demonstrates that, along with a sense of curiosity, there is still a level of suspicion towards it, particularly within his own party. His strongly held views on abortion and assisted suicide, which he stated plainly during the campaign, were in stark contrast to Norman Lamb’s and continue to present a challenge to pro-choice and humanist members of his party who make up a significant and often vocal contingent. Anyone who thinks that the Liberal Democrats will now develop a much more ‘Christian’ outlook is likely to be disappointed.
The struggle to win the party leadership is only the beginning of Farron’s battles. The scrutinising of his motivations will become more intense as he seeks to guide and influence his party. The attacks on his faith that we have seen so far will only intensify and it will be used as a weapon against him by those who disapprove of it every time he mentions it or he is seen to make a bad decision. The easy option is to tone it down and turn his Christianity into as a private matter, but Farron has demonstrated a strength of conviction so far that suggests he will not be bullied into keeping quiet.
Let us be in no doubt that this will be a challenge. Politics is a messy business that can get painfully dirty at times. It involves difficult choices and frequent compromise. Even more so for a leader who is looking to both serve his party and submit to God. Tim Farron is carrying the hopes of many Christians on his shoulders. In return he will need our support and prayers over the months and years ahead.