Tim Farron must be wondering when he became quite such a powerful man. Becoming President of the Lib Dems was one thing, but the mere act of appending his name to a letter has, I hope briefly, let slip the dogs of war within the party. Lib Dems everywhere seemed to decide Tim had made a catastrophic Faith Heal Turn. As I am both a member of the party and an evangelical Christian, I thought I would attempt to set out why the terms of this debate, in my view, are misguided.
I have great respect for Tim. I find his clear-sighted commitment to his political and religious principles inspiring. He’s also a friendly, sincere and caring man. His decision to own up to the fact that he shouldn’t have signed the letter is typically frank and straightforward. And it’s been good to see people welcoming his candour.
But however misguided the letter itself was, it was groping, however blindly, towards a fair point, which is why I can’t defend the Advertising Standards Agency either. Their decision to prevent Healing on the Streets from ‘advertising’ that ‘God can heal’ is defensible – but only if you consider religious speech ‘advertising’. This is surely the nub of the issue.
To be fair to the ASA, it is not up to them to set the Code by which they judge advertisements, nor to define the scope of what constitutes ‘advertising’. That is the job of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). So Tim and friends should really have written to them instead. However, I still can’t entirely defend the ASA, because their judgement on this case did not raise the issue of whether metaphysical statements like ‘God can heal’ should fall into their remit. Given the fervent debate that has subsequently developed, perhaps it should have raised that issue.
I understand why non-believers would see ‘God can heal’ as a medical claim, especially when the group using that phrase decides to accompany it with references to specific conditions. That, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I can’t simply defend Healing on the Streets (for the others, which are more theological in basis, feel free to contact me!). Although I understand that they did actually go out of their way to encourage people to continue to consult medical professionals throughout, there have been far too many appalling examples of purported Christians doing precisely the opposite.
But the ‘medical claim’ issue is, nonetheless, the nub of this debate. And ‘God can heal’ isn’t, in this case, a medical claim.
What mainstream Christianity teaches about prayer makes its effects entirely unprovable from a scientific viewpoint. Christians believe that God hears and answers prayer, and that God heals; very few Christians I know in this country, from any kind of theological background, would claim that the latter is directly attributable to the former, still less that their own specific prayer ‘caused’ healing.
There is thus no way to run a clinical trial that tests the effects of prayer. No Christian that I know of presumes to be able to interpret the results of prayer, nor claims that the results of prayer are guaranteed or even knowable. This is entirely logical if one considers for a moment that most Christians believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God who stands outside the natural laws of our universe.
Studies that purport to measure the effect of prayer, by contrast, start from a necessarily materialistic viewpoint that leaves no room – quite rightly, according to the scientific method – for supernatural intervention (whether ‘healing’ or otherwise). Whether or not you believe in a god, therefore, you must recognise that these trials do not actually test what most Christians claim to believe in – and they therefore do not speak to this debate.
In short, then, there is indeed a freedom of speech element to this – and what is required is a careful consideration of what constitutes ‘advertising’ and what does not. We already have exemptions for political communications; it seems to me self-evident that such material is actually closer to genuine marketing than metaphysical, existential claims of the sort we are debating here.
However, the lessons do not end there. This debate has highlighted an increasing inability on both sides of the debate to ‘think in the other side’s shoes’. Some of the rhetoric thrown about, on both sides, has been abusive and unnecessary – some might even say authoritarian. I find it profoundly depressing that discussion of religion and politics is becoming increasingly polarised. That trend should concern all of us, whether we are atheists, agnostics or believers.
* Tom King is a Liberal Democrat member and blogger. He was formerly a Parliamentary researcher to Julian Huppert. He intends to become a proper activist, starting yesterday.