Tim Farron: Mea Culpa

The first time I really had any contact with, or knowledge of, Tim Farron was when he was standing for the job of Lib Dem President. At the time, I was supporting the campaign of a friend of mine, who didn’t make it to the final ballot, and said something about this on Twitter, to which he replied in a friendly and witty manner.

I immediately liked him, but I had concerns about him, which I mentioned in an email list I was on for other Lib Dems — “isn’t he a bit of a homophobe?” I asked.

And I was immediately told, by a gay friend, “no. I know Tim well. That was all a misunderstanding based on one bad vote and him having a dodgy intern. He gets it now.”

And for the next seven years I’ve defended Tim. Tim became, if not a friend, at least a friendly online acquaintance — one of those people who’ll occasionally turn up in your DMs at random when you’re having a bad day, to check if you’re OK, and with whom you could have a bit of a joke. Someone who could take the teasing about his obvious ambition for the leadership in good humour. He’s someone to whom I felt a great deal of personal loyalty.

And when he was asked in 2015 if he thought gay sex was a sin, almost every LGBT+ person I know stood by him. Not *every* one, but the vast majority — they agreed that he was right not to answer questions about his religious beliefs, and that he was not a *phobe of any variety. The biggest supporters of his leadership bid I know were trans people, lesbians, and bi people, all of whom told me, and said publicly, that he was better on their specific issues than many politicians with far better reputations. I was told over and over that he was someone who was well intentioned, who paid attention, and who actually changed his views based on what he was told by LGBT+ people. And all his public statements seemed to confirm that. In the 2017 election he was asked again if he thought gay sex was a sin, and at first he prevaricated, sticking to his line that he didn’t make theological pronouncements, before seeing that the issue wasn’t going away and saying that no, he did not think that gay sex was a sin.

And if that had been the end of it, I’d have been happy with my steadfast support of the man while he was leader. He did an immense amount of good for the party when he was leader, right up until the election campaign got derailed by this question, and his stance on Brexit and general attempts to reposition the party on the left, where we should be, are undoubtedly what saved us from the complete wipeout that seemed likely three years ago. I still think that, given the choice between him and Norman Lamb (who turns out to be both an anti-autistic bigot and a supporter of Brexit) the party made the better choice, though I *really* wish we’d had enough MPs that we’d had a non-problematic candidate standing. (Just as I wish that in 2017 we’d had a contest at all, rather than a coronation of a leader who has at least as many problems as either of them. Luckily, a party is not its leadership.)

But it turns out that when he said gay sex was not a sin, he was lying, and he now says he was wrong to do so. Presumably this means he also was lying when he said all those things to LGBT+ organisations that made so many of my LGBT+ friends so enthusiastic about his leadership.

Now, at the time, I had what I considered extremely good reasons to support Tim, and to say he wasn’t a homophobe. But every one of those reasons has unravelled, one by one, since his extraordinarily petty resignation speech. He has been remarkably bitter and ungracious, and has repeatedly stated that it is currently impossible to be both a Christian and a Liberal politician. This is, to my mind, a slander against many, many, decent Christians who manage not to be massive homophobes. Indeed, in the same interview where he said that he was wrong to say that gay sex isn’t a sin, he also said that there was only one other Christian in Lib Dem head office. This seems to suggest to me, unless Lib Dem head office is *far* less representative of the party than I thought, that he’s using Christian in that particular way that fundamentalists use it, in which Catholics, mainstream Anglicans, and anyone else who doesn’t share their peculiar interpretation of the Bible doesn’t count as a Christian (unless and until they’re trying to make a claim that Christianity is the majority religion in the country, of course).

This seems to me almost as offensive a claim as his claim that “gay sex” is a sin. He’s not claiming that his fellow Christians are misguided, or misinterpreting the Bible, or wrong on doctrine, but that they’re not Christians at all. As his version of fundamentalism is still, I believe, an Anglican one, that means that he’s considering tens of millions of people worldwide with whom he’s in communion to be falsely claiming to be Christian.

Anyway, I’m drifting from my point, which is this:

Based on all the evidence I had, and in particular based on what I still think is the sound principle of taking my lead from the people most affected (as a cishet married man I am exempt from Tim’s criticisms, though for all I know since I was married in a Lutheran church he may think my marriage, and therefor sex life, is also sinful), I defended a man who was being accused of being a massive homophobe. It now turns out that he was a massive homophobe all along, and is not only unrepentant about it but thinks that the worst thing he did was pretend not to be.

So I am saying publicly: I was wrong, I fucked up, the people who told me differently were right, and there’s no wiggle room in this. Bear that in mind when judging anything else I say.


This blog post is supported by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Patreon’s well-publicised missteps last month led to the level of support dropping dramatically, so I appreciate even more than usual the people who continue to back me, and now would be a better time than ever to join them.

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13 Responses to Tim Farron: Mea Culpa

  1. James Brough says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m in exactly the same position. I trusted Tim and was wrong.

  2. TAD says:

    What’s the old saying? A gaffe is when a politician accidentally says what he’s really thinking. I guess the 2015 quote was another one of those instances. It wasn’t a gaffe, he was just saying what he was really thinking.

  3. glyncoch says:

    I did not hear Tim’s recent assertion that homosexuality is a sin, so enter this minefield with at least one hand tied behind my back, and probably about to land my foot in something nasty.

    However, I think that speaking strictly biblically, homosexuality is defined as a sin. St Paul said so in a letter, though, of course we do not know what horrors were described in the letter that he was answering, and he was no doubt referring to several old testament rulings. However Jesus commanded us to forgive the sinner, and to love the sinner, not the sin.

    And as many sins defined in Leviticus, for example were sins because if you committed them, and ate the wrong food, you would pick up some horrible naturally occurring disease and die an agonising death. (And you have to remember that the Levites were the only one of the 12 tribes of Israel not to be granted land , but were told instead to make a living by being guardians of the law. Its not surprising, therefore that they became sort of ancient Health and Safety Officers giving clear guidance on how to stay out of trouble in every condition of their time).

    Much of the sinfulness of homosexuality came from the transmission of fatal diseases, that are now curable, and probably therefore less sinful.But even in the Gospels we get the strange reference to “the disciple that Jesus loved”. Just the one statement, and the gender of the loved one is never defined (though all other people described as disciples are male), and perhaps we should not even think too much about a phrase that may have been mistranslated, or inserted for poetic effect. But nevertheless the Christian doctrine on sins is that they should be forgiven, and that we should love and show respect to the sinners. Jesus was prepared to put his own life on the line to defend the “woman taken in adultery” who was about to suffer a Scripturally defined execution..

    Those who talk too much about “sins” may have to decide whether they really are Christians, or Levites or Paulians. After all, if we are admirers of Joshua (he of the battle of Jericho), who as a general knew exactly how to defeat any enemy , with minimum loss of life, we must remember that in later life as a community leader, he was responsible far large scale ethnic cleansing, which did not seem to be considered a sin at that time.

    I suppose that it might be OK to debate whether homosexuals should continue to risk biological retribution, but everyone, these days, is encouraged to indulge in safe sex anyway. The important thing is that we show respect to each other, and perhaps leave what happens behind closed doors, and affects no-one else, where it is.

    Perhaps Tim’s feeling about the difficulty of being a Christian Party leader has more to do with having to produce long winded explanations every time he is interviewed, and having no time to talk about policy or the political issues of the day. And as I said at the beginning of this comment, you can find references to homosexuality as a sin in the Bible – though not in the gospels, which contain the teachings of Christ.

    And certainly, while my argument given above might convince a modern Bible study group, it would probably be a red rag to someone who had just decided that they were an atheist,based on a few sessions at Sunday School and a Divinity course lead by a teacher who was desperate to get the class through the National Curriculum..

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Of course, much of the point of Christianity was that it got rid of the Levitical holiness code, which is why Christians can eat pork and cheeseburgers and wear mixed-fabric clothes and so forth. And I believe (though I could be wrong — it’s not my area *at all*) that the single reference in Paul is a) in a letter widely regarded as a forgery (though of course that shouldn’t make a difference to anyone who regards the Bible canon as wholly correct) and b) using a word which is not found in any other text before that, which he can be presumed to have coined (arsenokoites) and which is used by later Christian authors to refer to things other than male-male sex.
      Certainly I’ve seen those arguments put forward by many liberal Christians in favour of the idea that male-male sex is not a sin.
      As for Tim not wanting to have to explain this stuff — I used to think that was the case, which is why I was willing to overlook his early flounderings. It was unfair of interviewers to bring up his private faith given that his votes on the subject were, if not perfect, certainly better than the vast majority of MPs (and better than a lot of people who somehow get a free pass, like Shirley Williams for example). But he’s now chosen to do things like this, in an interview he’s chosen to give about his faith, and he said he wants to write more about the subject. It’s this — the fact that he’s now going out of his way to talk publicly about same-gender sex being a sin — that is the problem.

    • PEDANT WARNING: The disciple who Jesus loved cannot be a girl because Jesus pointed him out to Mary and said “Behold your son”.

      • glyncoch says:

        Andrew, you have a better memory than me. But perhaps that makes the point that the people who were closest to Jesus did not get excited enough about this relationship to write much about it. It certainly does not seem to have been scandalous. It was how people treated those around them that was important, not what they did in private and in a loving and caring atmosphere.

        • I don’t think any serious scholar thinks that the “beloved” disciple was Jesus’ lover. The word used for love is definitely “agape”, the same word used in expressions like “love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself.” (As everyone knows, the Greeks had different words for sexual love, family love, brotherly love and religious love.) John’s Gospel makes some play with the different words — Jesus says “Peter, do you love me” (religious love) and Peter replies “Lord, you know that I love you” (brotherly love) and then turns to “the disciple who Jesus loved” (religious love) and says “What about him?”

          The text very strongly implies that the beloved disciple is John, or at any rate that the author of “John’s” gospel is the beloved disciple. This seems to have been taken for granted in the Very Early Church. If that is so then John’s Gospel is the only one which might have been written by an eye-witness.

          • glyncoch says:

            I bow to your expert knowledge! It just shows how dangerous fundamentalism could be, either by Christians, or those who are hostile to Christianity. Unless, of course the fundamentalist has studied the intricacies of the history of translation of the Bible. For practical purposes most people should be relaxed about the detail, and strong on the general principles of love and forgiveness, and inclusivity. Whatever Tim Farron’s personal beliefs are it is easy to understand why he opted out, once the press had branded him as some kind of religious zealot.

  4. Chris says:

    The most depressing thing is that many Lib Dems are still defending Farron, and many are still pretending his parliamentary record on equality is good.

    In fact his voting record on these issues is bad (his opposition to banning discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation alone makes it unacceptable). The only mitigation of that is his past assurances that he would vote differently on these issues. Given his recent admission, what is that worth?

    If Farron had voted in favour of racial discrimination being lawful in 2007, he would quite rightly have been viewed as a pariah in liberal circles. Why should sexual orientation be any different?

    • glyncoch says:

      You ask why sexual orientation is different from racial discrimination. In the terms that you ask there is no difference, and there probably never was

      However, as you ask, racial discrimination is usually about physical features and the discriminator’s stereotype of their victim. Sexual orientation itself is similar to race, but the practices that sometimes arise from sexual orientation carry a potential biological risk, which gave rise to the idea that they were sinful.

      But what worries me more is that while race is genetically governed in a simple way, the genetics of sexual orientation are much more complex, and the evidence seems to be that certain genes are triggered, by factors such as stress or overcrowding, to produce symptoms of changed sexual orientation. Anecdotally (by which I mean that this is not a scientific statement) most of the people that I know who are gay, have suffered very traumatic events, particularly in childhood. It is also apparent that the increased awareness of (or the reality of an increase in) homosexuality has coincided with a massive switch from largely rural to a largely urban population, where overcrowding and other stresses are likely to be more intense. None of this is scientific, but if it is true that it is stress that triggers the function of genes, then a lot of people are suffering, and instead of talking about improving peoples lives, we are worrying about whether homosexuality is sinful, or whether politicians are closet homophobes.

      • cgp100 says:

        Obviously, what I was asking was why discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation should be any less unacceptable to liberals than racial discrimination.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        This discussion is getting uncomfortably close to discussion of eugenics, and I’d ask that it not continue down that path…

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