Under His eye or The Harrowing of Farron

On Facebook, I ran across a couple of Christian responses to the recent resignation of Tim “Nice-but-Evangelical” Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

A worrying sign

A post by John Stevens, Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, argues that Farron’s resignation is a worrying sign: Farron’s actions as a friend to LGBT people were not sufficient, people were worried about “what Tim thinks” and wouldn’t leave him alone about it.

As Nick Spencer writes, there are two sorts of liberalism. Farron was an example of liberalism as a way of living (or modus vivendi, as we say in the New Statesman) in a pluralist society, but fell victim to people who saw liberalism as a system which itself provides the right answers to moral questions. But taking liberalism as such as system, as Stevens says, opens its followers to the same sorts of criticism that Farron got: can a follower of a system fairly represent the interests of those who disagree with it?

(Unfortunately, Stevens does get dangerously close to using the phrase “virtue signalling”, which should worry him, for is it not written whosoever shall say to his brother, “thou art virtue signalling”, shall be in danger of being a huge arsehole, and that goes double for “snowflake”.?)

The burning of Latimer and Ridley at OxfordStevens has an interesting argument for liberalism as a way of living: if idolatry is the greatest sin, yet Christians do not want religion imposed by the government as this has historically not ended well (pic related), how much more so (or a fortiori, as we probably say in the New Statesman) ought Christians to allow freedom in law for people to commit lesser sins?

Public reason

With his mention of a “substantive, even comprehensive” liberalism, Nick Spencer in the New Stateman is gesturing at Rawl’s ideas of public reason. From what I read of this, a liberalism which is what Rawls calls a comprehensive doctrine can’t legitimately be the sole basis for arguments in favour of a fundamental right (such as gay marriage), any more than the religious comprehensive system can be the sole basis for an argument against. As Mariel Johns’s summary puts it,

It is important to remember that secular comprehensive doctrines are not allowed – the same way that philosophical and religious comprehensive doctrines are not allowed. These fall outside the domain of the political. This can be seen if we consider what each type of doctrine might ask with regard to making homosexual relations among citizens a criminal offense. A secular doctrine might ask, “Is it precluded by a worthy idea of the full human good?” A religious doctrine might ask, “Is it a sin?” A political conception would ask, “Will legislative statues forbidding those relations infringe on the civil rights of free and equal democratic citizens?”

I’m not an expert in political philosophy, but this seems to get something important right, namely that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. “What Tim thinks” can only be of political concern if we’re reasoning from a comprehensive doctrine which says our thoughts can be wrong in and of themselves (such as Christianity, or liberalism of the second sort), or if we can show that what he thinks is somehow relevant in reasoning which is not unique to any such doctrine. Only the latter is legitimate, if I’m reading Rawls right.

So, what should Farron have said? Perhaps “What I think is What The Bible Says1, but look at my voting record and see that I don’t seek to impose my views on others, because (insert Stevens’s a fortiori argument here)”. Note that Rawls doesn’t think people cannot bring forward religious reasons (in fact, he thinks they should, in a “cards on the table” sort of way), only that they should then be backed by public reasons (such as “enforcing religion infringes on the civil rights of citizens”, presumably).

This is easy to say in hindsight, of course.

Shearer

G J Shearer writes that “Arguing that Christians shouldn’t ‘impose’ their views on society is simply a tacit way of saying that someone else should.” But this ignores the distinction between liberalism of the first, Rawlsian, sort, and liberalism of the second, comprehensive, sort. Perhaps Shearer thinks that such a distinction can’t be maintained, and everything must collapse into a fight between competing comprehensive doctrines. But why think that? It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy: if nobody makes the effort to maintain it, it certainly won’t be maintained. Farron’s pursuers harmed our political life by making it harder to maintain it.

Shearer argues that secular liberalism is illogical:

What, in effect, is the logic of secular liberalism? We live in a world heading towards extinction, our consciousness created by blind physical laws and driven by a ruthless will to reproduce and survive, therefore… What? Love each other? Look after the poor, the lame, the vulnerable? A moment’s consideration shows that these conclusions do not flow from the premise.

Hume lives! But his guillotine is a multi-purpose tool (it slices! it dices! it cuts both ways!). Suppose the facts are these: we live in a world ruled by an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent creator, therefore… what? What conclusions about morality follow from these premises? You need to add some other premise (like “we ought to do what God wants/commands of us”), and if you need that, why fault secular philosophers for needing to add theirs (like “we ought to do that which leads to human flourishing” or “the greatest good of the greatest number” or whatever)? All moral systems, including theistic ones, are “illogical” by these lights.

He also wonders whether atheist politicians could explain how “their belief that human life is merely ‘an accidental collocation of atoms’, to use Bertrand Russell’s phrase, fits with the various moral imperatives that drive their politics”. Probably not, because politicians, unlike Hume, are generally crap at philosophy. But, as we’ve just seen, Shearer hasn’t explained why his premises about God lead to his moral conclusions, either.

Offred from a Handmaid's Tale, with the caption "But her emails"Shearer ends with a call to Christians to get more involved getting Christian values into law: “it is time that Christians began to unapologetically argue that society is best served by Christian, rather than secular, values shaping the public sphere.” This doesn’t seem likely to end any better than it did historically (pic related).


  1. This is an evangelical term of art, so should be taken with the usual caveat 

7 Comments on "Under His eye or The Harrowing of Farron"


  1. how much more so (or a fortiori, as we probably say in the New Statesman) ought Christians to allow freedom in law for people to commit lesser sins?

    This surely goes double-plus-extra if the Christian in question is one who uses the free-will counterargument to the problem of evil; if they think that even God wants to leave people the freedom to sin so that he can judge them on whether they did so, it surely follows (again a fortiori) that the state certainly ought not to be taking it on itself to confound the results of that test.

    Reply

    1. Perhaps, although I think a Christian response might point to something like Romans 13: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” That might be used to argue that the state is supposed to punish at least some wrongdoing. (Of course, as far as I know, the Bible never puts forward the free will theodicy at all…)

      There’s a theodicy in which were supposed to be sceptical of our ability to judge that something is probably a bad thing, all things considered (this is known as “sceptical theism”), which then blocks the inference that gratuitous evils exist, an inference you need for the evidential argument from evil to work. Unfortunately, this then seems to lead to the conclusion that we can’t be morally obliged to intervene to prevent some apparent evil: who knows what greater good we might be preventing? John Danaher’s post on this outlines the arguments.

      Reply

  2. I completely didn’t, and still don’t, understand TF’s resignation. I hadn’t really paid much attention though: he hadn’t been around for long, and he f*ck*d off after losing an election, so it isn’t clear I should care very much. It just looks like a bloke with little staying power to me; the philosophical implications are second order.

    > Farron was an example of liberalism as a way of living (or modus vivendi, as we say in the New Statesman) in a pluralist society, but fell victim to people who…

    That isn’t really clear. Did he “fall victim” to anyone, or did he just get bored and wander off? If you want to be strongly religious – and he appears to be – and lead a political party then you have to decide how you’re going to answer questions like Gay stuff; he just seems to have fluffed it by being ill-prepared; but I doubt it made much difference.

    > a fundamental right (such as gay marriage)

    I’m not keen on marriage, gay or any other sort, being a fundamental right. I’d rather side-step the whole problem by the govt having nothing to do with marriage.

    > “What Tim thinks” can only be of political concern if

    WTT can be of pol concern if we reasonably suspect it’s going to affect govt policy, if he gets to be in govt. Since he gave a weaselly, vague and evasive answer to a question a bout it, it seems reasonable to think it might.

    > So, what should Farron have said?

    The truth? The problem is, we’re not really sure what the truth is. Your suggestion kinda makes sense, but the whole thing gives the impression that he hasn’t really thought about it, which seems worrying in itself. Shouldn’t he have a coherent theory? He might try saying “I don’t plan to make my personal beliefs, no matter how strongly held, govt policy”, but actually that would be pretty weird. It would be unnatural not to want your personal beliefs to guide govt policy.

    GJS’s stuff is I think wrong and of poor quality. “politics is inescapably about which moral vision is going to be embodied” isn’t really true; see Hayek; it is possible – ha, and I would argue good, to get as much morality as possible out of politics.

    > reductio ad aburdsum. Should the state leave the decision to pay tax up to the individual? Should the state leave the decision whether or not to kill or steal up to the individual?

    See: he just gets silly.

    Reply

    1. > Did he “fall victim” to anyone, or did he just get bored and wander off?

      Yes, I suppose I’m treating it as if TF’s speech was actually giving his reasons rather than rationalising after the fact. If he just got fed up and wandered off, I guess the discussion is more of a hypothetical: how should someone like him be treated?

      > He might try saying “I don’t plan to make my personal beliefs, no matter how strongly held, govt policy”, but actually that would be pretty weird. It would be unnatural not to want your personal beliefs to guide govt policy.

      His voting record suggests that he didn’t want to legislate the standard evangelical beliefs (gay sex is wrong because sex outside heterosexual marriage is wrong, gay “marriage” is not marriage). I agree that if someone was standing as an MP without that voting record (or even a statement that they didn’t plan to turn the country into Gilead, although that’s much weaker evidence), we’d have to wonder what their plans were.

      > See: he just gets silly.

      Yes, even the libertarian position is that the govt should prevent force and fraud. Who thinks that killing and stealing are matters of personal preference which the govt should not interfere in? There are probably some such people, because there’s nothing so stupid you can’t find someone with a PhD who believes it, but the whole argument is about how much you legislate. Allowing that you should legislate against some bad stuff doesn’t force you to legislate against gay sex (or against homophobia, conversely) on pain of being a hypocrite (although you should have some principled distinction between what you legislate and what you don’t, I guess).

      Reply

  3. Thanks for collecting these, they’re interesting. I’ve been thinking about Farron’s resignation and the implications for liberalism, so it’s really helpful to have some insight into what Christians from his part of the spectrum are thinking.

    I agree with other commenters that Shearer’s argument is weak and probably disingenuous; looks to me like he’s just recycling a fairly standard sermon about how secularism is Bad which doesn’t hang together and has only marginal relevance. Stevens I found much more thought-provoking and helpful in sorting through my own ideas. And Spencer makes sense though I am not convinced that his second, ‘comprehensive’ sort of liberalism actually is liberalism.

    What Farron should have done differently I’m not sure. Probably just polished a good soundbite about his voting record on gay rights and confidently asserted that as the politician’s non-answer to whether homosexual sex is a sin.

    Reply

    1. Shearer’s argument is weak and probably disingenuous; looks to me like he’s just recycling a fairly standard sermon about how secularism is Bad

      And the usual stuff about how only theism can make sense of moral obligations. When dealing with evangelical popular opinion (rather than, say, philosophers like William Lane Craig) I can never quite tell whether the whole argument is “If there’s no God, bad people could get away with it, this would be bad, therefore God exists”, or whether they know there’s more to it than that.

      Spencer makes sense though I am not convinced that his second, ‘comprehensive’ sort of liberalism actually is liberalism.

      It looks like what Americans refer to as liberalism rather than what the Lib Dems call it (because over there liberalism is just leftism, as far as I can make out).

      Reply

    2. Yes, if he’d had a really good soundbite prepared then it would probably have blown over instantly. Or not have been a thing. The fact that he seemed taken by surprise by it _repeatedly_ was a really bad sign, and drove me mad.

      Reply

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