Both Theresa May and Tim Farron are influenced by religion in their personal lives, however only Tim Farron is hounded by the press because of his supposedly illiberal views. Surely we can afford politicians a personal faith as long as they do not attempt to make it law? Of the two, only Theresa May has let her personal faith impact her votes in parliament, which suggests her faith is worthy of public debate, and Tim Farron’s is not.
The debate of the extent to which politics and religion should be mixed, the ‘separation of church and state’, goes back hundreds of years. In the modern age, countries have very different approaches to one another. The USA has a supposed separation of church and state, however the reality is that personal faith is very much in the public eye. Your position on abortion policy, for instance, is certain to heavily influence many voters in your favour or against. In the UK, something of the reverse is true. We have no written constitution to separate church and state, and bishops from the Church of England still sit in the Lords inspecting our legislation.
However, in an increasingly atheistic society, professing faith is not felt to be prudent. Tony Blair held off making his catholic faith public while prime minister due to political considerations, and it is hard to forget the criticism of Ruth Kelly (former education secretary under Blair) for her membership of the lay sect Opus Dei.
So to what extent should we bear in mind a politician’s faith, or lack of it, when deciding who to vote for in the 2017 general election? Should the media look to make an issue of it at all?
As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, I have no problem with faith – I disagree with some religious teachings and approve of others – however a personal faith, to me, is not something a politician should be judged on. Setting a religious test for public officials is not healthy for our democracy. Jeremy Corbyn being an atheist (as many of his comments on the subject have lead us to believe he is) does not make him more or less liberal than Tim Farron. Liberalism allows different viewpoints and beliefs to proliferate in society within certain legal bounds. Broadly speaking, liberalism means you should be free to do what you like as long as this does not negatively impact other members of society. Liberalism then makes no judgement on personal faith, but it is against governments that seek to control society and its practices and beliefs.
Politicians are influenced by many things in their lives; faith, upbringing, children, friends, experience in employment etc. While faith is undoubtedly an influence on their politics, we do not have the right to poke our nose into every aspect of someone’s personal life. Simply because you are running for public office does not give us the right to investigate and print stories about the candidates’ family. This is their private life, and while it does influence them, providing they do not seek to politicise it this should be off-limits to journalists’ judgements. I believe the same should be true for religion; it is influential but ultimately private. This only changes if a politicians attempts to use their vote in parliament to enforce their religion, i.e. that they, illiberally, seek to legislate their religious beliefs.
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For Tim Farron and Theresa May this is where there is clear water, and why inspection of Theresa May’s religion is justified and inspection of Tim Farron’s is not. On a range of issues deeply influenced by faith, Theresa May attempted to legislate her belief, to create or oppose laws to impose her personal religious beliefs upon society. Tim Farron has categorically not done this. On the 2008 vote on reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, Theresa May voted for, Tim Farron abstained, and Jeremy Corbyn voted against. Theresa May voted no to the 2002 Adoption and Children Bill, which allowed gay couples to adopt, and in 2008 voted in favour of a backbench bid to force clinics to consider the need for a “father and mother” before allowing women to seek IVF treatment, threatening the rights of gay couples. In contrast, Tim Farron chose to abstain wherever he felt there was a conflict between his personal faith and the legislation that was in front of parliament. Contrary to what many suggest this is not to hide his opinions, but represents a firmly held belief that legislating on the basis of his faith is not liberal, and therefore that he should remove himself from these votes.
As a gay man, I am not angry if someone has a religious opinion on my sexuality; they have their view and I have mine. However, I am deeply against their religious opinion being turned into law, and it is on this that there should be a public debate. The mainstream media is wholly wrong to hound Tim Farron on his personal opinion on homosexuality, abortion and assisted dying. Why? Because he did not seek to enshrine his personal opinions in law. Theresa May did, and there is a distinct double standard being applied by the media, where questions are asked of Tim Farron but not Theresa May. I find this deeply disturbing, and it demonstrates an attempt by the media to use an aspect of Tim Farron’s personal life to hurt him at this election. No such attempt has been made on Theresa May.
It is Tim Farron’s party that pushed the coalition to legalise gay marriage. Lynne Featherstone — former Liberal Democrat minister in the coalition — not Theresa May, was in the vanguard of equalising marriage laws in this country. Many Conservative backbenchers fought against it. Gerald Howarth, Conservative MP of the time, said of the debate on gay marriage that, ‘there are plenty in the aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping stone’. One wonders as a stepping stone to what, but regardless, the evidence consistently suggests that it is the Conservatives who are most likely to legislate on the basis of personal religious views. The Liberal Democrats have a long history, along with Labour, of fighting for equality, and for religious beliefs, but not to be mixed closely with politics, and certainly not to have undue influence on our laws.
Theresa May voted against allowing gay couples to adopt in 2002. She was 46 years old, not a teenager forming her political views. Consequently, her views have apparently ‘evolved’, and funnily enough this happened following public opinion. But let’s focus on this point: Theresa May believed in legislating to prevent me from being able to adopt a child. I have my doubts on the extent to which she has really ‘evolved’ from that position. And what gives me the right to opine on her personal faith? Because she made it political by voting on it.