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Comment: Tim Farron’s silence on the ‘sinfulness’ of gay sex is not good enough

Gary Powell August 10, 2015
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Writing for PinkNews, Gary Powell says Tim Farron must give a clear answer on his beliefs when it comes to gay sex, and that he let young LGBT people down by failing to answer the question when asked.

Just imagine, for a moment, that shortly after his election as leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron had been asked during a news interview whether he believed that inter-racial sex was “sinful”. Imagine that he needed to be asked this question four times, but still failed to express an unequivocal and passionate conviction that inter-racial sex was not in fact sinful. Imagine, furthermore, that one of the answers he gave when pressed on this was that “to understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners.”

If asked such a question about the sinfulness of inter-racial sex, Mr Farron would, I believe, have been falling over himself to say that he did not regard it as sinful, and to make his position perfectly clear on it. Why would he have refused to give a clear answer? What message would the answer “We are all sinners” have conveyed to the listening public?

Inter-racial relationships, as you may know, have historically shared the same kind of theological condemnation as same-sex relationships: the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa campaigned to oppose the legalisation of inter-racial marriage, much the same way as some religious traditions continue to campaign against same-sex marriage in modern times.

Where Mr Farron is concerned, I could never imagine him being unkind or unfriendly to a person because of his or her sexuality. From a purely political perspective, his record on supporting LGBT equality, in terms of what he says and what he does, is arguably satisfactory, despite legitimate questions raised about his voting on the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2013, for which Mr Farron subsequently offered his explanations to PinkNews. Mr Farron is even on record as saying that LGBT rights are “at the top of his agenda” and that he is “passionate about LGBT rights”. However, there is still that small, niggling matter of the Channel 4 News interview where, despite being asked four times whether he believed gay sex was a sin, he repeatedly failed to deny holding any such belief, at one point answering, “to understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners.”

Caroline Dinenage, the Equalities Minister, recently told PinkNews she thought that Tim Farron needed to come out and say, one way or the other, whether he believed gay sex was a sin; and in a sense, she has a point. What is it that he does not want us to hear him saying? Despite this denial to the viewing public of what might have been an interesting soundbite, it is still not credible, in my view, to take his refusal to answer the question firmly, clearly and unequivocally, as anything other than a tacit statement that he does indeed regard gay sex as sinful, especially in view of the “we are all sinners” response. I cannot imagine him for a moment being so reticent in response to a question about inter-racial sex. It is not even as though he answered by saying he was not prepared to talk about his religious beliefs on principle, but that this did not imply a presence or absence of any particular belief. Indeed, he explicitly shared one of his religious views with Channel 4 viewers when he said, “to understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners.” As a consequence, and despite his professed passionate support for LGBT equality, I believe it is perfectly acceptable to regard Mr Farron, as kind and good-hearted a man as he undoubtedly is, as having a basic and deeply-held attitude towards gay sexual relationships that is profoundly unacceptable.

“What difference does it make what his private religious beliefs are?” I can hear some people ask. “Politically, he is very supportive of LGBT equality. That’s all that matters. Leave the poor man alone.” Well, I think that, in this specific case, his private religious beliefs do matter with regard to his position as a political leader, and there are two reasons for that.

A piece I wrote for PinkNews in 2013 details my own torrid and harrowing experience as a teenager of coming to terms with being gay after getting involved with an evangelical Christian church. The orthodox evangelical line is that homosexual relationships are sinful and that, without repentance and conversion, gay and lesbian people will be consigned to hell when we die. Furthermore, the orthodox evangelical line on hell is that it is a place of real physical and mental torment that never ends, and the Bible refers to it as “a lake of fire”. The concepts of hell fire and of the sinfulness of homosexuality feature large in both fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, with generation after generation of children having their lives blighted by such guilt- and anxiety-inducing terrors.

Now, I can’t be sure how sophisticated, unorthodox, unconventional or comparatively liberal Mr Farron’s evangelical Christian beliefs might be in some areas, but I am certainly not optimistic given his failure explicitly to deny that he believes homosexuality is a sin. My first concern relates to all the young, closeted LGBT people brought up in evangelical Christian families and attending evangelical Christian churches, who will be struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, and racked with anxiety and guilt about it: young LGBT people going through something similar to what I experienced in my own youth. Mr Farron had an opportunity, as an evangelical Christian, to offer those young, tormented, confused LGBT evangelical Christians watching the Channel 4 News programme some affirmation and a lifeline: but he failed to do so. He let them down. In fact, his reticence was a deafening whisper of moral and theological disapprobation. Not only that, but he had a chance to send a clear message to the heterosexual evangelical Christian peers of those young LGBT people who have been taught that homosexuality is a sin, and he failed to do that as well. No matter how hard he works to take away the external obstacles, sanctions and injustices that obstruct LGBT people from living equal and happy lives, Mr Farron has left the internal, psychological obstacles perfectly intact that torment so many young LGBT evangelical Christians. So that is my first criticism of Mr Farron as an influential political leader with regard to his behaviour during that Channel 4 interview.

The second point of criticism relates to the disjunction between Mr Farron’s proclaimed passionate support for LGBT equality and his repeated failure – which in my book is a “refusal” – to deny that he believes homosexuality to be “sinful” (and therefore immoral): which, as I have argued above, strongly implies that he does in fact regard homosexuality to be “sinful”, and therefore immoral.  There seems to be a serious theological and moral inconsistency here that may not reflect well on Mr Farron’s capacity to make sound judgments in the public interest. This would transport the whole issue of his theological views about gay relationships out of the private, religious sphere, and into the public, political one.

If Mr Farron harbours a private belief that homosexuality is sinful and therefore immoral, and if he espouses the orthodox evangelical Christian belief that unrepented sin will lead to eternal condemnation, then he surely needs to ask himself whether he believes it is in the better interests of a gay or lesbian person to be sexually active, or to be celibate. By campaigning passionately for LGBT equality, he is helping to make our society more accepting of and tolerant towards LGBT people, to make the lives of LGBT people easier, and to make LGBT people grow up feeling that there is nothing wrong with our having an adult, consensual same-sex sexual relationship. But what about our eternal salvation? If he believes gay sex is sinful, and that it could lead to eternal perdition, doesn’t he owe it to LGBT people to state this explicitly? Because, at the moment, his political statements about LGBT equality are surely doing nothing other than encouraging people to believe it is all fine and dandy to be gay and to have gay sexual relationships. He even supports same-sex marriage.

Let’s take a step inside Mr Farron’s theological system. If gay relationships are “sinful” – a belief Tim Farron repeatedly refuses to deny holding and that it seems to me that he does hold – then his passionate campaigning for LGBT political equality and for an end to social stigmatisation of gay sexual relationships, together with his failure to warn LGBT people that gay sex is sinful, will result in more people committing “sinful” acts than if he had not campaigned, and more people believing that such sinful acts are perfectly fine. Furthermore, Mr Farron’s passionate interventions will surely be instrumental in encouraging this increase in “sinful” actions and the perception that they are either morally good or neutral. He will then have encouraged people to commit “sin”, and have encouraged people to believe that the “sinful” actions in question were blameless. This could (and according to orthodox evangelical Christian theology would) jeopardise the salvation of the individuals concerned.

If Mr Farron really had the best, long-term interests of LGBT people at heart, and if he does believe that gay sex is sinful, and if he does share the orthodox evangelical Christian belief in hell, then shouldn’t he surely be abandoning his political campaign for LGBT equality? Shouldn’t he instead focus on warning LGBT people that gay sex and better civil liberties might make for a happier life this side of eternity, but that homosexuality will cause us, as unrepentant sinners, an eternity of torment in hell on the other side of the grave? I do not believe that this apparent inconsistency, or his failure to say something positive about gay relationships from a theological perspective for the sake of tormented LGBT evangelicals, is by any means an example of the good judgment we should expect from our senior politicians.

I am aware of a group of evangelical Christians called “Accepting Evangelicals” https://www.acceptingevangelicals.org/ who positively affirm and support loving gay relationships, and campaign for their acceptance in the evangelical tradition. I suppose it is always possible that Mr Farron regards homosexuality as sinful, but not a serious enough sin to warrant eternal condemnation. Yet this is not the orthodox position of evangelical Christianity, and if he departs from the tradition in this area, then he needs to tell us, to reassure us. If however he believes that the cost of unrepented gay sex in this life is eternal condemnation in the next, surely it is a serious error of judgment on his part, and a dereliction of his duties to his fellow human beings who happen to be LGBT, not to issue this caveat whilst he is campaigning passionately for LGBT political equality, or instead of doing so. At the moment, he seems to be behaving like someone who, with a kindly and silent smile, is handing out ice creams to people he can see are about to accidentally step off a cliff.

Regarding the possibility that Mr Farron regards homosexuality as a sin, but not as one that would warrant condemnation, where the positive elements in a loving same-sex relationship would outweigh any negatives, then if this happens to be his position, he surely owed it to guilt-ridden and anxious young LGBT evangelicals to explain this during his interview, when he had the chance to do so. There is no reason to assume he has anything other than orthodox evangelical Christian views about sin and theology unless he takes up the opportunities he is offered to share a divergent theological view on a matter of very serious social concern. The public know that the orthodox evangelical Christian position is that unrepented homosexual acts will lead to eternal condemnation in hell. If Mr Farron’s view is different, he needs to let us know. After all, we surely wouldn’t tolerate a senior politician who repeatedly failed to deny he believed that inter-racial marriages were sinful.

No matter how hard a politician works for legal LGBT equality, our intimate relationships with the partners whom we love are worthy of unconditional respect and affirmation in terms of their intrinsic moral status as same-sex relationships. Anyone who repeatedly refuses to deny that gay sex is “sinful”, whilst being perfectly willing to make a different theological point about “sin” in the same interview, is delivering us a very serious insult. It is an insult that that we, and our relationships, do not deserve; and it is an insult that has been one of the greatest historical adversaries to our campaign as LGBT people for self-acceptance, and for psychological and spiritual freedom from religious guilt and ignorance. Mr Farron: it is simply not good enough.

 

Related topics: lib dems, Liberal Democrats, tim farron

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