Liberalism: Believers Need Not Apply
Does liberalism have any room left for Christians and other believers? The question has been posed countless times, and each time liberals answer more decisively than the previous: No.
On Thursday Britain’s Liberal Democrats delivered that message to their leader, Tim Farron, forcing him to resign over his mildly conservative views on homosexuality and abortion. The Lib Dems supposedly carry the torch of 19th-century classical liberalism, though more recently it’s been difficult to distinguish them from any progressive party, anywhere.
Not least when it comes to gender-and-sexuality orthodoxy. The media and many in his own party have hounded Mr. Farron for years because he deviated—gently, almost imperceptibly—from that orthodoxy. A working-class evangelical Christian, Mr. Farron imagined that his liberal opinions on other big issues like climate change and the European Union would protect him. He was wrong.
Soon after he took the party reins in 2015, Mr. Farron was asked whether, as a Christian, he considers homosexuality a sin. The Lib Dem leader gave the quintessential Christian reply: “We’re all sinners.” But it wasn’t enough. The question would resurface amid the election campaign this spring.
During a TV interview on April 18, he was pressed four times, and four times he demurred. Quiescence wasn’t enough.
Pressure mounted, and the next day Mr. Farron relented. No, he clarified in remarks at the House of Commons, homosexuality isn’t a sin. That still wasn’t enough. The latter-day Gletkins and Ivanovs needed to be sure that Mr. Farron believed this in his heart of hearts, not merely as a matter of public confession. If he didn’t think homosexuality a sin, asked a BBC interviewer a few days later, why had it taken him so long to say so? Mr. Farron was reduced to spouting gibberish.
Then the Guardian newspaper unearthed a 2007 interview, in which he had suggested that “abortion is wrong” but also cautioned Christian activists that an immediate outright ban would be impracticable. Confronted with his own words on the campaign trail, Mr. Farron pleaded that he’d never advocated abortion restrictions. It wasn’t enough.
In his resignation statement, Mr. Farron wrote: “To be a political leader, especially of a progressive liberal party in 2017, and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible.” He added: “I seem to have been the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.”
The concept he was grasping for is conscience.
Mr. Farron’s politics recall the liberalism of Gladstone, Chesterton and Isaiah Berlin, which treated conscience as king. Today’s liberalism has triumphed so spectacularly over the claims of faith and tradition that it has nothing left to conquer but the individual conscience. This is why modern liberals are so unmagnanimous in victory.
It isn’t enough to emancipate transgender people—you, rabbi, must adhere to strict pronoun guidelines and feel in your soul that Chelsea Manning was always a “she.” It isn’t enough to legalize abortion—you, Tim Farron, must like it.
Liberals welcome believers insofar as religion can be deployed in service of liberal causes, to be sure. But any expression of theological or moral judgment is met with hostility.
Witness, across the Atlantic, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s tirade against Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. During a Senate confirmation hearing last week, the Vermont socialist grilled Mr. Vought about his contention, in a blog post published last year, that Muslims “do not know God, because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
Mr. Vought’s was a particularly stark summary of the basic Christian teaching that faith in the God-Man is essential to salvation. Plenty of Americans might disagree with the substance, phrasing or both. But Mr. Sanders went further, arguing that Mr. Vought’s views were “Islamophobic” and “hateful” and therefore disqualifying.
Set aside the senator’s riding roughshod over the Constitution, which prohibits religious tests for office. What was most depressing about his outburst was the bleak vision of civic life behind it.
To wit, Mr. Sanders implied that a devout Christian can’t hold fast to his faith’s most demanding claims and at the same time exercise public authority with decency and honor. If you disagree with someone’s theology, in other words, it must mean you hate him. Yet at its best the West has stood for the opposite principle: that people can build and share a democratic public square across and even through such differences.
That principle is decaying across much of the West, and authoritarian adversaries like Vladimir Putin are no doubt trying to accelerate its demise. But it wasn’t Mr. Putin who made Western politics so inhospitable to large segments of society—and to conscience.
Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial writer in London.
Appeared in the June 16, 2017, print edition as ‘Believers Need Not Apply.’