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 

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