Faith and Liberalism

Following on from previous discussion on this site around the interaction between faith and being a Liberal Democrat,  I thought I’d share my story and, hopefully, encourage others to do the same. I am writing in a personal capacity, but happen to be Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum.

I am only a Liberal Democrat because of my Christian faith.  I’d better unpack that.  My faith has been a journey, brought up in a protestant household, with my childhood and teenage years in the Assemblies of God, and then working as a musician in the Methodist Church.  When I moved to this country, I participated in Anglican worship and was on church PCCs. Several years ago, our family moved over to the United Reformed Church because of our longing for a theology which embraced leadership by women and LGBTQ.

But as my faith journey developed, my social justice conscience intensified, and I could not continue to live as a Christian and not get involved in politics. The world around me clearly was unequal, unfair, and how could I sit by and watch? I looked at the various political parties constitutions and policies, and it was the Liberal Democrats which fit closest to my sense of how the world should be.

I wasn’t particularly active in the party at first; we had three young children and life was rather chaotic. I even let my membership lapse when I felt I couldn’t afford it. But several years later, it was my URC church friend, very happily in a civil partnership, who took me canvassing for the first time. I got the bug, and jumped in at the deep-end, going for parliamentary candidate approval within the year.

There are many reasons people join the Lib Dems, but I think for a lot it will be because of faith. We don’t talk about, indeed might even be embarrassed to admit it, but our personal values push us into becoming politically active. I realise this is true for those of other faiths, and no faiths, so I am not being exclusive in my statement.

Christianity is a broad church, and I am fortunate to have experienced that breadth and have friends in Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, Quaker and other communities. It is as we find those concerns which unite us – whatever denomination of Christianity we are – that we become Christ’s salt and light in the world around us.  And the exciting thing is, those social justice issues – homelessness, poverty, economic inequality – also unite us within this party, whether Christian, of another faith, or of none.

So my plea is that we value one another, that we respect one another’s faiths, and that we work together for the common good. Being liberal is being inclusive, not exclusive. To quote the opening of our constitution:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

Let’s not narrow that liberalism.

* Kirsten Johnson is an Oxfordshire County Councillor and Day Editor for Lib Dem Voice. She stood as the Parliamentary Candidate for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election.

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29 Comments

  • Stephen Kelly 14th Dec '17 - 2:50pm

    Perhaps I’m nit-picking with the wording, but I don’t like being told to ‘respect one another’s faiths.’ Absolutely respect people’s right to a faith (or any other opinion, for that matter), but for any opinion – religious or otherwise – whether or not we respect the opinion should be based entirely on the opinion itself.

    I fear we have the opposite problem in the UK right now, where in a lot of cases opinions (rather than just the right to have said opinion) have to be respected, just because they’re packaged as religious.

    I’ll always respect everyone’s right to hold whatever faith they choose, but I don’t think the concept of faith in general is worthy of respect. I’m not going to ask you to respect my opinion on the matter, as I’m sure you strongly disagree and that’s completely fine. However, I’m sure you respect my right to hold that opinion. What’s important is that we respect each other’s *right to hold* a faith/opinion.

    Asking to go one step further and automatically respect the opinion itself is a step too far. (It’s also logically inconsistent – you can’t simultaneously respect my belief that faith shouldn’t automatically be respected while saying that I should automatically respect faith.)

  • Peter Hayes 14th Dec '17 - 3:32pm

    There is no doubt religion had a major part in the founding of both the Liberal and Labour parties. The difference between then and now is the growth of interest in topics like women’s and gay rights rather than just social rights in general. I know of several Liberals with religious beliefs and have not had any problems with their political beliefs. We have to be careful though as the disgraceful treatment of Tim Farron showed even though his voting record was in line with party policy. OTOH DUP policies have been defined by their extreme Protestantism.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Dec '17 - 4:39pm

    Kirsten as usual offers an intelligent contribution.

    I grew up Catholic and Labour. I am holistic and Liberal. I have never rejected religion but embraced spirituality. I have never fully been a socialist but was and am partly social democrat and liberal minded to Liberal Democrat was an easy move.

    What we read here is that the personal is political , the political, personal.

    I would have like you , Kirsten and Mark Wright who I like too , and respect a lot, to have seen my article , when politics is personal, as your responses matter.

    I am worried that liberals or even Liberal Democrats, are too intent on campaigning, not enough on listening. I feel very isolated in my attempts at being proactive in many shall we say, spheres.

    The connection religions bring are beneficial when genuinely meant and realised.

    The non conformist tradition is connected with Liberalism, but before John Paul 11 was pope, and though respect and affection towards him was felt by me, his was the exception to the rule, normally Catholics, in this country were liberal or social democrat in mind and politics, more than Tory, which is an old Irish word , for thief ! Conservatism and Catholicism is more recent and was common centuries ago. The era from the sixties was a liberal one even in that church, and could be , with this terrific pope.

    Religion is as much about change as politics.

    We need more like Kirsten.

  • Helen Dudden 14th Dec '17 - 5:00pm

    Did Tim Darrin write an article on the subject for the Guardian two years ago?

  • Helen Dudden 14th Dec '17 - 5:01pm

    Sorry Tim Farron, my spell Checker.

  • Kay Kirkham 14th Dec '17 - 5:17pm

    Stephen – you are not nitpicking. You are absolutely right and the difference between respecting faith ( or non-faith) views and respecting the right to hold those views is essential to liberalism.

  • David Allen 14th Dec '17 - 5:48pm

    Hmm. I am an unbeliever. I certainly seek to “respect” the beliefs and opinions of those whom I disagree with, provided I can convince myself that those beliefs and opinions are “respect-able”. So for example I respect Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism – I don’t agree with his views, but they pass the tests of “sincere” and “well meaning”. I respect many forms of Christian faith, but not Donald Trump’s or Roy Moore’s. I respect many forms of Islamic faith, but not Osama Bin Laden’s. I respect many forms of atheism, but not Stalin’s.

    Respect isn’t automatic. I don’t want to withhold it. But I have the right to do so. (And you have the right to tell me I am the one who is wrong!)

  • Tristan Ward 14th Dec '17 - 6:27pm

    “they pass the tests of “sincere” and “well meaning”. ”

    With respect I do not think this is a sufficient test. I am sure those Catholics who burned a Protestant forebear of mine to death at the stake were sincere in their believe that it was for his own good; but I do not think to do so (or even to think so) is respectable today.

    Similarly Liberals need to be able to say that a person that (say) orders books to be burned is to be condemned, even if those orders are given in the name of religion.

  • Katharine Pindar 14th Dec '17 - 7:31pm

    Christianity sits easily for me as for Kirsten with Liberal Democracy because of the shared values, the wish to cherish each individual, to care about injustices worldwide and to strive for social justice in Britain, as our churches and bishops do. To me our party gives me a focus for action, for trying to care for and serve people, while Christianity is a constant demand to try to love others more and myself less.

    We whose lives are based in a faith and belief in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ are the fortunate ones, because the way, the truth and the life are laid out for us. But the same instinct for loving and caring is of course found in many people of other faiths and none, and in Conservatives and Socialists as well as Liberal Democrats. That is a mystery, and a reminder that we here at this time can only expect at best to have a dim glimpse of truth.

  • Nom de Plume 14th Dec '17 - 7:44pm

    Not surprisingly, many people who have religious convictions also have political ones.

    The points about respect are interesting. What range of behaviours are tolerated and accepted in a society? In civil terms it could be defined in terms of legal rights. In Britain, being liberal, it is quite broad. On personal terms it will be more variable, depending on the ethical perspective of the individual making the judgement. Always open for debate.

  • Robert (Somerset) 15th Dec '17 - 2:30pm

    Can we please refer to ‘religious faith’ rather than just ‘faith’. I don’t have a religious faith but am not an atheist but probably agnostic +++. That said I am more than happy to defend other peoples’ right to follow a religious faith providing they don’t seek special privilege, advocate violence towards non-believers or try to restrict their rights to be themselves and lead their lives within the law.

    However I do object to being referred to as someone with ‘no faith’ which sometimes comes across as some kind of insult. I may not have a religious faith but I do have faith in my personal ethos, my friends and family and the political party I am a long standing member of.

  • matt severn 15th Dec '17 - 3:09pm

    Excellent article, well said.
    And good comment from Kath Pindar too

  • As Kirsten says, faith is a journey. I don’t know what my politics might have been in a parallel universe where I had no faith but in this one I’m in the nonconformist wing of the Church of England and that has had a profound effect on my politics.

    For me it means searching for political and economic insights that are likely to further a programme of social justice, one that isn’t predicated on ‘greed is good’ and ‘might is right’.

    That, it seems to me, leads to surprisingly radical politics because so much of the establishment view is based on just those predicates, albeit thickly camouflaged.

  • Graham Evans 15th Dec '17 - 6:11pm

    While I am sure that some people may feel that their political convictions are consistent with their religious faith, the difficulty with arguing that religious faith leads to a particular set of political ideas is that in respect of the world’s great religions adherents to notionally the same religion often find themselves supporting different political parties, sometimes at opposite ends of the political spectrum. This is because individuals who ascribe their political convictions to their religious faith tend to ignore those elements of their religion which are inconsistent with their political beliefs. Moreover there is plenty of evidence that those with the strongest religious faith linked to political parties are just as likely to promote division within society, as to bring people together and embrace diversity -as the history of Northern Ireland and the present political climate in the USA demonstrates.

  • Let’s keep religion well away from politics?

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Dec '17 - 9:59pm

    Ian – ‘Let’s keep religion well away from politics?’

    No, let’s keep religion well away from GOVERNMENT. The benchmarks that voters use to gauge politicians can be whatever. On my own PCC I find a wide range of political views. Those who are elected are there to represent the voters at large, no more no less.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th Dec '17 - 12:19am

    I don’t think that anyone is arguing that religious faith leads to a particular set of political ideas, Graham Evans, but just showing how they are interlinked for some of us Lib Dems. Surely what is harmful and to be avoided is fanaticism, and any conviction of having special access to ultimate truths.

  • Nonconformistradical 16th Dec '17 - 8:39am

    @Ian – ‘Let’s keep religion well away from politics?’

    However, for someone basing their moral code on their religion this might imply that politics has nothing to do with morality…?

    As an atheist who believes moral codes of behaviour towards others are necessary and can evolve over time without subscribing to a particular religious faith (while possibly incorporating specific moral attitudes from one or more faiths) – the idea that politics might have nothing to do with morality is abhorrent.

  • Ciaran Smith 16th Dec '17 - 3:13pm

    As an atheist, I was disheartened to see the abuse Tim Farron got during the election campaign for his views.

    Whilst I disagree with his religious views, his approach was clearly the very definition of liberalism – supporting the right of others to do something which one doesn’t think should be done, but which causes no harm to others.

    The fact that he got so much flannel for it suggests to me that many self-proclaimed progressive voices are not so at all, and merely advocate another brand of authoritarianism. Labour are (popular) prime examples of this right now, and to me this is one of the biggest challenges moderate liberals face at the moment.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th Dec '17 - 6:43pm

    Well said, Ciaran Smith. And the fact that Tim got flak (I think you meant) from some people within the party as well as from outside was disheartening, suggesting some failure of liberal thinking. However, I believe those objectors within our party were few, whereas as you suggest authoritarianism appears prevalent in the Labour Party. Moreover, having read how the Conservative rebels were treated by their party whips on the day of the success of the amendment passed to ensure statutory decision on the EU negotiations, I guess it is probably just as much a problem in that party.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Dec '17 - 7:20pm

    Excellent from Ciaran, David and Katharine , Tim was not keen to open up about these things, but whether good at that or not, the media were a joke, especially trying to more or less put him under the spotlight for things they do not usually.

    We need now, the values David mentions, in the context of our politics.

  • Ciaran Smith 17th Dec '17 - 2:13am

    Thanks, guys. You are right that I did indeed mean ‘flak’, Katharine; oops! Though the fact that they dodged the real matter-at-hand underlying the whole thing did mean that they also came out with a load of flannel (*continues digging*) 😉

    I also agree that it is just as much a problem in the Tory party, though perhaps the big difference is that Labour, and Labour activists, like to give the illusion that they are progressive, whist the Tories don’t really care. As David commented, many of those who criticised Tim were people who would expect others to be tolerant to them whilst simultaneously deriding someone for being so because they don’t fervently agree with their other values.

    Lorenzo, I agree that perhaps Tim wasn’t keen to address it, but at the same time.. why should he have? He consistently pointed to his values as a liberal that made his personal views irrelevant as they superseded everything else. You’re absolutely right that the media were a key part of the way he was torn apart over this, and that very fact is something which liberals are going to need to deal with: articulating liberalism to an audience encouraged to be authoritarian from both ‘left’ and ‘right’.

  • Helen Dudden 18th Dec '17 - 9:31pm

    Muller Homes in Bristol cared for orphans. It wasn’t until after the death of my grandmother, we found out about her childhood. My great grandmother died leaving my grandmother who was two years old. Her sister a baby. Muller Homes is a special place, only the history exists. George Muller saved many children on the streets of Bristol. He never asked for money, he prayed, and if you Google the history, you can find out more.
    It would be difficult to deny this extremely devote Christian a special place in the history of Bristol. My sister and I, found it very emotional when we visited the museum. The very early life of my grandmother was in front of us, documented and as fresh today as it had written all those years ago.
    A devote Christian who never asked, but prayed for what he needed.

  • Peter Hirst 19th Dec '17 - 1:01pm

    I respect and defend the right for people to believe and practise a religion as long as it does not include promoting violence. I prefer them to where possible keep their religious beliefs out of discussions of a political nature. I know it motivates them and often allows them to be passionate.

  • Helen Dudden 19th Dec '17 - 4:45pm

    George Muller was a gentle caring man, who saved thousands of children. There are those who practice different religions, who too, are very kind and compassionate.

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