Ah, Channel 4 news. Their claims to impartiality are always tested when any time Tim Farron’s name is mentioned they insist on asking about his religious views on homosexuality, even when homosexuality has absolutely nothing to do with the news. Apparently the snap General Election Theresa May is hoping to hold (if parliament give the nod and override the fixed-term parliament rule) means that Tim Farron’s religious belief on whether gay sex is a sin is of vital importance. Cathy Newman, just minutes after the interview aired, tweeted this:
— Cathy Newman (@cathynewman) 18 April 2017
The first three times referring to this exchange some two years ago:
As I mentioned here, I am not a Liberal Democrat. I have no particular need or desire to defend them as a party. Like most parties, I think some of their policies are good, others bad and many bland to the point of being valueless. I have no particular love for their leader. He seems broadly fine, as a bloke, to me. His constituents certainly seem to like him and, from what I have gleaned, most of them vote for him personally rather than the Liberal Democrats as a party. And yet it is abundantly clear to me when a witchunt is underway.
It is no secret that Farron is an Evangelical Christian. It is also no great secret that most Evangelical Christians – per the striaghtforward and plain teaching of the Bible – believe any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage to be sinful. Tim Farron’s evasion of direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is almost certainly the product of (at the very least) balancing the views of the many Christians who no doubt support him with the views of the media and wider public. It is probably, but by no means certainly, an attempt to steer away from being pushed to make a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer when, believe it or not, the answer is usually a little more complicated than that and the nuances of it are not easily turned into pithy soundbites that will be electorally satisfying or politically helpful.
Let me just deal simply with the standard Evangelical answer and then address why, irrespective of what you may think of it, it is irrelevant as far as political interviews go.
The question ‘is homosexuality sinful?’ is fraught with difficulties. Does the term ‘homosexuality’ refer to inherent same-sex attraction, gay people as people themselves or specific acts of sexual activity between people of the same sex? Are we addressing whether we think the existence of such people is sinful, their desires (wanted or unwanted; sought or shunned) are sinful or that their sexual activity is sinful? You may think this is splitting hairs, but it really isn’t.
Nobody believes existing as a person is sinful of itself (gay or otherwise). If that were the case, Jesus Christ himself would have been sinful; a point deemed heretical in orthodox Christian thought. Most do not believe same-sex attraction is, of itself, sinful. Just as most of us do not choose to be generally attracted to the opposite sex, we just simply are, so people generally attracted to those of the same-sex did not necessarily choose it to be so. The question is not whom you are or are not attracted to nor whether you identify yourself as gay. The issue is to do with how one responds to such urges – it is the identical issue for heterosexual people. Heterosexuals are not inherently good because they are attracted to the opposite sex, and nor are homosexual people inherently bad simply because they are attracted to the same sex. Both are equally sinful when they act upon, or dwell upon, sexual activitity outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage (the only form of marriage the Bible recognises as marriage at all).
The Christian rejects the idea that one cannot be fulfilled apart from sexual activity. Again, if such were true, Jesus Christ – the most fulfilled man that ever lived – never understood fulfilment. Fulfilment is to be found in Jesus Christ alone, not in mere sexual activity. The Evangelical view is no different from the widely lauded comment – even in the Guardian, no less – by the Archbishop of Canterbury here. The Guardian reported:
Welby also condemned homophobia in England. “To treat every human being with equal importance and dignity is a fundamental part of being a Christian,” he said. Although he continued to uphold what he called the historic position of the church, of “sex only within marriage and marriage only between a man and a woman”, he agreed with the presenter, James O’Brien, that it was “completely unacceptable” for the church to condemn homosexual people more than adulterous heterosexual people.
Evangelicals are against bullying in all forms and rightly condemn homosexual bullying. Evangelicals uphold the inherent human dignity of all people as created in the image of God. Homosexuality is not an issue the Church have wished to make much of, it is a question they are continually asked. If it appears they major on it, it is simply because they are continually asked. It is true that Evangelicals believe in the doctrines of Original Sin and Total Depravity which, in their simplest terms, teach that all people are sinners affected by the consequences of sin. The Bible is utterly clear on this point: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23). It bears saying there is no special category set aside for homosexuals. See, for example, the list of sin Paul gives in Galatians 5, of which sexual sin is just one (it should be noted this is not even an exhaustive list):
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Now, you may or may not find that position utterly unacceptable. You may find it more nuanced than you were led to believe. Either way, let me explain why the issue of whether Tim Farron believes homosexuality is sinful makes absolutely no political difference.
As I outlined here, the Bible does not mandate the bringing of Christian morality into civil law. In the simplest sense, there is a distinct difference between sin and legislation. Sin determines our standing before God; legislation determines our standing before the state. As I also outline here, to attempt to legislate against sin means we are all at danger of facing the force of the law. If all of us are sinners, all of us would be legally penalised under a system that sought to impose biblical morality. It is also important to recognise that the very notion of human rights derives from the concept of the imago dei. Christians believe all people have inherent rights by virtue of being made in the image of God. It also follows that those rights are not removed because of sin specifically because we are all sinners who would forfeit those rights.
If sin is not a grounds for legislation of itself, it follows that a politician that believes certain things to be sinful would not necessarily seek to legislate against such things in law. Let me give a (hopefully) not terribly controversial example. I believe that it is sinful to not recognise Jesus Christ as the Son of God, Lord and saviour. It is sinful not to recognise and respond to God as God. This, in effect, means I believe anybody who is not a Christian is in sin. It means I think my dear Muslim friends (and they are my friends) are in sin for refusing to acknowledge such things about Jesus Christ. And the feeling is mutual because they think I am a sinner for refusing to acknowledge Mohammad as a prophet from Allah and for daring to suggest that God has a son at all. It is fair to say, despite these views, I do not believe that Muslims should not be afforded the same rights as me nor do I believe all should be forced, on pain of legal sanction, to become a Christian. It is fair to say me and my Muslim neighbours are still very good friends despite both knowing this and having regular and frank conversations about it. That is liberalism at its best, is it not?
If such is true among different religions – which an out and out rejection of Jesus Christ would amount to a far more heinous sin than any other – why would anybody think it to be the case in respect to homosexuality? Tim Farron may or may not think homosexuality is sinful (and, it bears repeating, he has not said so one way or the other), it has absolutely no bearing on whether he would support their rights. He has been unequivocal that he supports the inherent rights of gay people and believes, as a Liberal Democract (who is actually liberal) and a Christian, that whatever his own views, he would defend the rights of homosexual people.
As a Christian, I don’t need people to affirm my beliefs to vote for them. I wouldn’t refuse to vote for somebody who believed Christians to be wrong about their belief in Christ (that would make it hard to vote for the vast majority of people). I care about those who will defend my rights as a Christian, whether they subscribe to my beliefs or not. I imagine most sensible homosexual people will feel exactly the same way. What difference does it make if somebody thinks their behaviour is sinful or not so long as that same politician will defend the inherents rights they deserve by virtue of being people.
That, dear friends, is why Channel 4’s witchunt is pointless and the answer ultimately doesn’t matter at all.