Tim Farron was right to quit, but how tolerant are we as a society?

Unlike Alastair Campbell, Tim Farron does do God. I cannot recall another political figure who, when renouncing the leadership of his party, referred to “advancing the gospel”.

So, as Mr Farron retreats from the frontline of politics, he leaves behind a philosophical, theological and pragmatic question: is it possible in this age to reconcile private religious beliefs with a public role?

‘A few more seats, and his religious views might not have been quite so problematic’

At this point, more cynical observers of politics than I might suggest that, had the Liberal Democrats performed better in an election in which a lot of their stars were aligned, Mr Farron might not have been quite so ready to step down saying that his Christian faith was incompatible with leading his party.

A few more seats, and his religious views might not have been quite so problematic. But let’s, for a moment, adopt a Christian attitude ourselves and take him at his word.

Was faith an issue?

In his resignation speech, he said he has been “the subject of suspicion” – a rather opaque expression given that what he really meant was that some people had questioned how the more conservative tenets of the Christian religion, on homosexuality and abortion, for instance, would fit with the leadership of an open, inclusive, forward-thinking political party.

This is not an unreasonable point, you might say. But at the same time it highlights the insidious scrutiny that can deter people of real quality from entering politics.

There was a tone to the media coverage of the election that was depressing and unhelpful. Interviewers seemed overly concerned with tripping up politicians, rather than getting them to explain and defend their policies – and it became a sort of journalistic arms race. Whose reputation could we shred on live TV or radio today?

‘I too wish we lived in a less voyeuristic, prurient country’

So when the nature of Mr Farron’s faith became known, he was asked if he thought homosexuality was a sin. As he now admits, his answer – that we’re all sinners – was sub-optimal. It would have been much better had he replied: “What the hell has it got to do with you? My private beliefs are just that – private.”

Policy vs principles

I don’t see why Mr Farron’s adherence to Christian teachings (in which homosexuality, I believe, plays a very minor part) would hinder his ability to lead a party that welcomes people of every shade of religious belief.

As far as I know, the Liberal Democrat manifesto didn’t include the outlawing of abortion and the criminalising of homosexuality – so you could say the leader kept his private views to himself.

In taking his leave from the public stage, Mr Farron said “we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society”. Up to a point, he’s right. I too wish we lived in a less voyeuristic, prurient country where no one was interested in what others did in their private lives.

All Mr Farron did was go to church regularly. He didn’t seek to inflict his religious views on others, nor change his party’s policies in line with Christian doctrine. In the end, however, he was right to stand down.

Most people in this country are tolerant and they will have judged him on his leadership quality, not his private beliefs. And that, sadly, was where he was found wanting.