Europe

The UK's Highest-Ranking Evangelical Politician Steps Down

Convert who led Liberal Democrats couldn’t shake stigma of his faith.
The UK's Highest-Ranking Evangelical Politician Steps Down

Amid mounting scrutiny over his evangelical faith, the head of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom resigned from his position and spoke out about the tension he faced as the political party’s leader.

“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 for me,” Tim Farron told his country on Wednesday, a week after the general election.

Considered the first evangelical party leader in a century, Farron dodged questions during the recent campaign about whether he believed homosexuality was a sin despite his political stance in favor of same-sex marriage and equal rights. An evangelical amid Anglicans, he faced accusations of harboring conservative theology within the liberal party, even when he made his liberal views clear.

Still, the accusations bled into the general election—the party gained seats in Parliament but their vote share declined—and were enough to make a fellow party leader step down on Wednesday. Farron’s announcement came hours later.

“Farron’s resignation was not a total surprise—some people had been saying the [Liberal Democrats] should have done better in the election—but the manner of his resignation was,” said Nick Spencer, research director with London-based Christian think tank Theos. “He could have slipped out the back door quietly, but instead chose to return to the moments of the election that were most uncomfortable for him: the interrogations he faced about his faith and his attitude to issues of human sexuality.

“His conviction that his faith provoked a suspicion and intolerance among so-called ‘liberals’ is both an indictment and warning to our public life in Britain,” Spencer said.

When Farron took over leadership of the Liberal Democrats two years ago, Theos pointed out how the evangelical convert broke the mold for what British media expect from political leaders. Now that his tenure will come to an end next month, UK evangelicals worry that instead of paving the way for a different kind of Christian politician, Farron exposes the growing pressure against them.

The director of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, Sarah Latham, told the British site Christian Today (no relation to CT):

Sadly his resignation reflects the fact we live in a society that is still illiberal in many ways and is intolerant of political leaders having a faith. This urgently needs to change. It will only change if Christians step up and get involved in all areas of life and change the rhetoric, whether in politics, media, business, or the arts. We need to bring about a society that is truly liberal—where everyone of all faiths and none are valued and considered equal.

The head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, called Farron “honorable and decent.” Andrew Wilson, a British pastor and CT columnist, described Farron’s resignation as “extraordinary, brave, and principled.” (A fuller excerpt appears at the end of this article.)

“During the election, various Christian candidates were targeted for some pretty unsavoury media attention, political criticism, and activist protests. Their crime? They are Christians. Or more precisely traditional, mainstream, theologically orthodox, practicing Christians,” said Dave Landrum, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance in the UK.

“More than what Tim Farron espoused or how he had voted, he was pursued for what he believes, what he thinks.”

The pressure Farron felt rings familiar to American evangelicals, who are continually grappling with their place in public life and the future for their convictions. Earlier this month, a Trump administration appointee was challenged during his confirmation hearing over his belief in salvation through Christ alone.

Farron spoke against the sentiment that drove him away from leadership, saying, “I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case, we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”

Even within the Conservative party, the country’s majority, Theresa May and Angela Leadsom faced similar questioning for their beliefs, according to Krish Kandiah, a UK evangelist and former president of the London School of Theology.

Last year, Kandiah wrote that a sense of embarrassment was growing among the country’s faithful, who fear that their affiliations will hurt their job prospects, reputations, and friendships:

Christians are feeling more and more like a minority, and with this comes a shyness about being open about their faith. Some are sensing a secularist hostility towards Christianity and feel it is safer to keep their faith private. This has not been helped by the media reaction to political candidates who have expressed a faith commitment.

Farron, who joined the Liberal Democrats while still a teenager, concluded his remarks by saying, “I thoroughly love my party. Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honor.

“In the words of Isaac Watts, it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all.’”

The Liberal Democrats are the UK’s most popular party in Parliament outside of the Conservative and Unionist and Labour parties, and represent more than 100,000 members.

Here is a fuller excerpt from Farron’s resignation speech:

From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I've tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again—asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.

Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit. The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

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 for me. I'm a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me. There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it—it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.

That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I intend to serve until the parliamentary recess begins next month, at which point there will be a leadership election according to the party’s rules. This is a historic time in British politics. What happens in the next months and years will shape our country for generations. My successor will inherit a party that is needed now more than ever before. Our future as an open, tolerant, and united country is at stake.

The cause of British liberalism has never been needed more. People who will fight for a Britain that is confident, generous, and compassionate are needed more than ever before. That is the challenge our party and my successor faces and the opportunity I am certain that they will rise to.

I want to say one more thing: I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party. Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.

In the words of Isaac Watts, it would have to be something “so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all.”

October
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.

Read These Next