Friday 21 July 2017

Funky Garb

Tim Farron is an utter dingbat and I'm glad he's stepping down as Liberal Democrat leader.

Tim Farron. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maybe this conclusion seems harsh. It's not based on his faith. It's not even based on his years of obfuscation over whether he considers homosexuality a sin, or his support for homeopathy, although those don't help. It's based on a truly idiotic and self-pitying article he published this week.

First, a little background: Farron is an evangelical Christian, and there have long been doubts over his commitment to LGBT rights. For years, he refused to say whether he considers gay sex to be sinful; he eventually said he did not in April 2017, only weeks before he stepped down as leader. When he resigned, he said he had found it impossible to reconcile his faith with the demands of leading his party.

There are many Christian traditions which support and value gay relationships. The Scottish Episcopal Church, hardly a radical progressive organisation, is celebrating its first gay marriage later this summer. Many Christians have no difficulty making clear, unequivocal statements that there is nothing immoral about gay relationships.

Farron's faith appears to be much less positive about gay people. I'm sure he has his reasons, but that's just it; they are his own reasons, and he can be held accountable for them.

"God told me to do it" is not an explanation; neither is "this is a private matter." For an ordinary citizen, or even a backbench MP, that might pass muster; but as a party leader Farron was explicitly asking us to trust his judgment and principles. Could he have been trusted to stand up for LGBT rights, if push came to shove?

LGBT issues have not been very prominent over the two years of Farron's leadership, so the question was never fully put to the test; but it was fair to have doubts, and still is.

I might have left it there, if not for Farron's absurd article published a few days ago. In it he says:
So, if you wear funky garb, have nice colourful festivals, have interesting buildings and ceremonies, then we are absolutely fine about your faith – in fact your religious culture makes us more diverse and allows me to define myself as very liberal and tolerant by demonstrating how cool I am with your religion.
However the moment you show any signs of actually believing in this creed, of thinking that this stuff about Jesus might even be true or that this faith might in any way impact on your conscience or your life choices... well, we don’t like that one bit.
So are Christians especially marginalised? I’m not sure, but if we are then we are probably doing something right.
It's hard to know where to start with this. Funky garb? Really?

If you're marginalised, you're probably doing something right? That's one of the stupidest things I've ever read. Believers in alien abduction are marginalised. Being unpopular is irrelevant to whether you are right.

I'm not attacking faith in general. If someone wants to help the poor because he sincerely believes Jesus is a real person with superhuman powers, that's fine with me. It seems distinctly illogical, but hey, it takes all sorts. If the same person believes gay relationships are inferior to straight ones, then I do have an objection.

No funky garb here. Nothing to see, move along.

Behind Farron's ridiculous choice of language is something more serious. I'm not sure if he was intentionally referring to this larger issue, or if he was just being entirely clueless. I suspect the latter, but either way it's worth exploring.

Many religious groups are prejudiced against LGBT people, women, and others. Some of them are made up of people from ethnic minorities. That includes Christian groups from Africa and the Caribbean as well as Muslims, Hindus, and others. They probably have what Farron would consider "funky garb" and "colourful festivals."

It is absolutely right, important and necessary to condemn bigotry from whatever source. If someone is preaching sexism or homophobia, that is wrong no matter what he is wearing, what deity he prays to, or the colour of his skin. People who are mistreated in the name of religion, or simply wish to leave an intolerant religious group, deserve our compassion and support. Those who carry out the mistreatment deserve our righteous anger.

That said, we have to be careful. Condemning the religion of a racial minority can very, very easily become a cover for racism. All too often, repellent groups like the English Defence League say hateful things about Muslims; and when challenged, they say that Islam is a religion, not a race, so they aren't being racist.

If your criticism of religion descends into bullying and intimidation of people who just happen to be overwhelmingly black or Asian, you are being racist whether you admit it or not. What is more, you run the risk of encouraging racism by others.

The world isn't made up of absolutes. I have all kinds of philosophical disagreements with religion. The place to air them is not my cousin's wedding, or the curry kitchen run by Edinburgh Central Mosque. If I go full Richard Dawkins on every person of faith I meet, and relentlessly criticise their religion to the exclusion of all else, they will rightly find me obnoxious and do their best to avoid me. On the other hand, as I have said, there are times when we are morally obliged to speak up.

It's a difficult line to walk. We might refrain from criticising religion out of an awareness of racism, or simply out of politeness. We might get it wrong, and overlook bigoted religious doctrine when we shouldn't. In that case, the remedy is to stop turning a blind eye and speak out against bigotry.

This does not appear to trouble Farron. Instead, he is concerned that we are being too hard on religion, especially in the case of straight white male Christians named Tim Farron. He appears to believe we should try harder to ignore actual or suspected bigotry, as long as the person in question says "God makes me do it."

Never mind being too prejudiced to be Lib Dem leader; anyone who could publish that article with a straight face is too stupid to be Lib Dem leader. Farron tramples over difficult and sensitive issues of racism and prejudice, in order to throw a tantrum because he can't take criticism of his own moral choices.

For a leader of the Liberal Democrats, this is a catastrophic failure. If the Lib Dems serve any purpose at all, it is to stand up for individual rights, including those of LGBT people and ethnic minorities. If Farron wasn't already resigning, this bizarre article by itself would be grounds for him to be sacked. Thankfully he is going away, and good riddance.

It's unfortunate that so few Lib Dems are willing to replace him. I can't really blame them; recent experience has shown that leading the Lib Dems is a thankless job which puts the leader's own seat in peril.

In the last general election, former leader Nick Clegg lost his seat, and Farron saw his majority reduced from 8949 to 777. So it is that experienced and capable MPs such as Jo Swinson, Sir Ed Davey and Norman Lamb have ruled themselves out. The only candidate was Sir Vince Cable, who was proclaimed leader on Thursday.

I like Sir Vince. I think he's an interesting person who's been right on many key issues. His main drawback is that he's 74 years old; at best, he can only be a short-term leader until someone else discovers the fortitude to take on the job. I wish him the best of luck; in this political environment, he's going to need it.

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