In defence of Tim Farron: 3 liberal reasons to stick up for him

Lib Dem party president Tim Farron has caused something of a storm within the party by co-signing a letter in his capacity as Vice Chair of the ‘Christians in Parliament’ group urging the Advertising Standards Authority to withdraw their ruling “that the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath are no longer able to claim, in their advertising, that God can heal people from medical conditions.” The controversy is easy to understand, as it pits two tenets of liberalism against each other: free speech and rational scepticism.

Personally, I am very happy to defend Tim Farron’s stance. Here’s three reasons why:

Free speech

First, and most important, Tim has the absolute right to stand up for his deeply-held beliefs. He is a committed Christian, and believes in the healing power of prayer, a belief shared with millions of others who have a religious faith. Whether you agree with Tim or not is irrelevant to the right to express his views, regardless of the position he holds as party president. The advert itself does not advocate relying solely on faith, does not suggest those who are ill should not seek medical help: in their response to the ASA, Healing on the Streets noted that all ‘volunteers underwent detailed training before taking part in their activities,including instruction that everyone who received prayer must be given a letter which included the statements “if you are on medication STAY on it. Under NO circumstances should you stop doing anything a medical professional or counsellor has advised.”‘

You cannot prove or disprove faith

Faith, by its very nature, cannot be proven or disproven. The ASA has ruled that the claim ‘God can heal’ is incapable of scientific justification, which is an understandable position for a neutral regulator to adopt. But there is an important relativist point to be made here, which I can make even if the ASA cannot — there is simply no comparison between (for example) a cosmetics company’s claims and those of a faith-based organisation. If L’Oreal claims it’s wrinkle-creams are scientifically proven to work, I as a consumer want to know if that statement can be justified: the credibility of its product rests solely on the basis of whether it can assure me of smoother skin. Religious faith is a beliefs-system: ‘consumers’ will choose to believe (or not) on wholly different, and personal, criteria.


The ASA exists to ensure consumers are not misled by dodgy claims, especially pseudo-scientific ones which cause the public to spend money on products that over-claim their effect (or may even have a harmful effect). Preventing harm to the public is the right and proper duty of regulation. But I would argue no harm to the individual will be caused by the Bath ministry’s claim that ‘God can heal’. And I trust in the individual to make their own choice where they place their trust and faith. This comment by Stuart Wheatcroft on the Vote Clegg, Get Clegg webpage sums it up very well:

The key question is not whether something is true but whether broadcasting it causes harm to others. As part of that, we need to consider how an individual might reasonably react. In matters of faith, people are well aware that views are contested, which distinguishes this from, say, pharmaceutical advertising. Thus, it is reasonable to expect them to display a greater amount of awareness of the issues, and thus an advert which states “prayer can heal” can be expected to be understood in its proper context as a claim, not as an empirically determined fact. We can’t completely eliminate the risk that any comment will lead someone to do something stupid, but in the interests of free speech we have to draw the line somewhere, and in this case the greater level of awareness allows us to be less strict in the way we formulate the law.

You can read the full text of the ASA’s ruling here.

PS: many thanks for the vigorous debate in the comments! I’ve posted a postscript responding to the thread at my blog here: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron (and in support of freedom)

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • I agree Stephen – HEAR HEAR!

  • Personally I think it is sickening and has thoroughly dampened my opinion of a man who I had previously deeply respected (and indeed viewed as the future of the party). I am a liberal but truth is more important than liberalism for the sake of liberalism.

    As a scientist I can confirm to you that prayer does not improve clinical outcomes more than placebo and that there have been many studies on this topic. Therefore, regardless of religious freedom, to state that prayer improves clinical outcomes is factually wrong. Presumably God, if He exists, doesn’t intervene day-to-day, which really shouldn’t be news to anyone given how many bad things happen in the world.

    So in this context, prayer is just another form of alternative medicine, proven to not be effective. Now, it’s relatively benign as far as it goes – it does no active harm, there aren’t any snake-oil salesman making a profit off it and as far as I know no-one is suing scientists when they say that prayer doesn’t affect clinical outcomes. Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to advertise claiming it works when it doesn’t – it is basically false advertisement.

    And it is entirely right that false advertisement should not be legal. Think of the dangers in a wider context if it was! So, to conclude, Tim was very wrong on this matter and should have never signed that piece of paper.

  • I was writing my response, but I would like to second what Mark Thompson and sanbikinoraion have stated.

  • Can I ask have any of you emailed him – instead of saying he’s gone down in my estimation etc etc why not ask for him to comment or reply??

  • Paul Pettinger 27th Mar '12 - 12:49pm

    You don’t mean your second point Stephen, because firstly, there is evidence that prayer doesn’t work, and secondly, by your logic you would have to reject any evidence that proved a religion to be true, or the existence of a deity/ god!

  • I am not a Labour supporter, but if he was a Labour MP most people here would not be standing up for him but rather putting the boot in. Not to imply that I at all agree with his action or opinions. To begin with Tim Farron in his capacity as a Lib Dem MP and (I think ?) liberal party leader should not have got politically involved in trying to challenge or overturn the ruling of this regulator. That is in addition to his stance being pretty much objectively wrong as far as any disinterested rational minded is concerned.

  • Warren Swaine 27th Mar '12 - 1:12pm

    As long as the ASA allows blatently false advertising by Red Bull to continue I shall be forced to submit a complaint. .

    I have been drinking their beverage for years and I have not gained even the slighest vestige of a pair of wings. I demand scientiofic proof that it does or they should take their drink and their Formula 1 cars off our screens.

  • I’d have thought the crucial question would be “What constitutes an advertisement?” Surely not everything written on a website should automatically be treated as an advertisement. That really would be a cause for concern.

    Disappointingly, I can’t see any discussion of that point in the ASA’s adjudication:

  • @Simon McGrath

    “I think people are vastly underestimating the slippery slope the ASA ruling puts us on. Once you decide that it is wrong to advertise these views the next step is to say people should not be alowed to say them as all. if someone can’t put in an advert that people can be healed through prayer then why should they be allowed to sell a book with it in? And if they can’t sell a book should they be allowed to say it at all?”

    Frankly I think that opinion is a little bit barmy. Firstly: do you object to there being advertising regulations with regards to food, drugs, cosmetics etc? I would hope so… but if not at least you will probably admit that you would not be locked up or fined merely for making comments of dubious merit or rationality in relation to these things in a personal capacity (assuming you are not trying to flog some snake oil)? These laws have long been in place and the ‘slippery slope’ argument has no merits here, the advertising regulations are clearly delimited, and ‘quelle suprise’ pertain only to the advertising of products.

  • @George

    “But to argue that there should be regulations but that Christians should be given a special exemption from them it utterly disgusting and goes against the entire principle of the separation of church and state – not to mention the principle of non-discrimination!”

    I agree with most of what you have written George, especially with regards to Tim Farron apparently wanting a special exemption for the religious (a group to which, in fact, I belong), but I have to stop you there with regards to the separation of church and state, since our church and state are not separated (although perhaps it might be one of the goal’s of the Liberal party, on that I am not sure).

  • Great article Stephen.

    Our party has always found support amongst both ardent athiests and evangelical Christians. Long may that continue!

    I fully support Tim’s right to co-sign that letter. It makes no difference whatsoever to his role as party president. As a Christian I believe that God can, and does, heal people. Anyone wanting to understand more of the theology might like to read Jesus’s words in St John’s gospel – as well as the sceptical and disbelieving questions of the people around him!

    I would be totally opposed to any church group attempting to use prayer as a substitute for medical treatment, or to try and extract money in return for prayer. However my understanding is that this group, and many, many others like them, offer prayer freely and openly to anyone who wishes to receive it. As liberals we should respect their right to do that, and the right of people to be prayed for.

  • Maybe the ASA should not be able to ban advertising (thus satisfying libertarian leaning and religiously leaning liberals) but should be able to enforce a limited addition to adverts without evidence to back up claims? (Thus satisfying those of us who disagree with Stephen on point 3 in particular – adverts can cause harm if they make unfounded claims of medical healing cf: )

  • I think the church should state what is provable, that prayer can be make the person making the prayer, and the person receiving it (if they are aware of it) feel better. That’s a benefit. And that they believe that God can heal – which is an assertation – kind of like an endorsement. That’s an article of faith and should be presented as such.

    Having seen first hand in Africa the dangers of people relying on God over doctors, forgoeing proper medical care – I think we need to be careful in this area. The liberalism point is a good one and worth taking on board – are we being too “nanny state” in thinking people can’t make up their own mind? But equally, I don’t think the church should be subject to different rules from everyone else, so George Potter makes a good point.

  • Simon Titley 27th Mar '12 - 2:21pm

    I’ll say this for Tim Farron. The overwhelmingly critical response to his views (in both this posting and the one earlier this morning by Mark Valladares) has restored my faith in the Liberal Democrats!

    The party can still muster plenty of articulate, reasonable and well-informed people. I can only assume that God is moving in a particularly mysterious way.

  • Stephen,

    I don’t think you’ve defended Tim at all here. What you’ve done is raise some valid but completely separate objections to the ASA’s ruling. This isn’t about the rights and wrongs of the ruling per se, but about the specific content of the letter Tim put his name to.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 27th Mar '12 - 2:25pm


    There is evidence here that prayer for the sick can make things worse for the person being prayed for

    Also what about this BBC news report that showed that 3 people died because they were advised by pastors to stop taking their medication because God would heal them.

    I agree that Farron has the right to say what he likes as long as he doesn’t do it as a representative of the party membership, as President, though.

  • “It is also worth reiterating that freedom of speech cannot be understood separately from freedom of conscience – without the right to dissent from prevailing orthodoxies practical politics will wither and die, and society will stop improving and go backwards.”

    I think that is a little melodramatic. We are not talking about the very right to say what you think or feel here, we are talking about an objective claim in an advertisement that can actually be measured quantitatively. I am myself a believer, and of course concepts such as God on their own are vague and ambiguous and mean different things from one person to the next, but they assume some sort of meaning when put into a context. In this case the meaning is made obvious by the context: a group of spiritual healers are claiming in an advert for their services (whether they charge or not is irrelevant in this specific dispute) that God can heal you. They are claiming, in fact, that they can heal medical conditions through the power of God- that is what it is reasonable to assume an advert for spiritual healers is driving at.

    Now that can be formulated as a scientific hypothesis and tested. The scientific evidence shows that there is no factual basis for believing that these healers can cure medical conditions. Suggesting to (in the nicest possible use of the word) ignorant people that they can will make it more likely that they will eschew genuine, evidence-based, medical assistance in favour of spiritual healing. The spiritual healers are making a factual claim here, not a philosophical or mystical one, which has no evidence to support it and has the potential to mislead and cause harm to people.

  • Andrew Suffield 27th Mar '12 - 2:29pm

    Medical claims you can’t prove = bogus claims

    Not exactly, but legislation hits reality here. The purpose of the regulation is to stop people from advertising medical treatments which don’t work, and hence cause harm to people by conning them into spending money on things which are ineffective or dangerous, or worse, not using medical treatments which do work.

    However, if we had regulations where claims had to be disproved then the situation would be economically unworkable: it is cheap and easy to invent a false claim, but can require vast amounts of time and money to prove it false. Hence, such a system would give us an endless stream of false advertising, many of which would in time be proven false, but would be immediately replaced by a new lie.

    To prevent this from happening, we instead place the burden of proof on the person making the claim. Hence, our system is that those who wish to make medical claims in advertising must first spend their own time and money on proving those claims. This system has proven to be effective in getting rid of the worst abuses without really impairing the ability for genuine treatments to be advertised.

  • @Oranjepan

    And just to make it clear, we are talking about advertisements here, not freedom of conscience or speech in general. How exactly does being prohibited from advertising something in a few forms of media impinge upon one’s freedom of conscience or freedom of speech in general?

  • Nick (not Clegg) 27th Mar '12 - 3:08pm

    Does freedom of speech extend to allowing snake-oil salesmen and mountebanks to make unsubstantiated claims? How, exactly, does the advertisement which Tim has defended differ from those?

  • “deeply-held beliefs”
    “believes in the healing power of prayer”
    “belief shared with millions of others”

    Do you see the connection? None of the above imply “fact” – simply “belief”.

    I imagine many scientists have faith their medical experiments will work. But you don’t pills released on the basis of these faiths – we wait until they’re proven to work. Otherwise – and this is the kicker – you’re putting people’s lives in danger.

  • Adam Bernard 27th Mar '12 - 3:25pm

    For about the first time, I agree with Nick (not Clegg). Maintaining truth in advertising is a worthwhile project for a society. Giving people who make religious claims a special exemption isn’t something we should be supporting.

  • As a liberal, reading these comments has for the most part been deeply depressing. I simply cannot understand why fellow liberals seem to think that state regulated liberalism is not an oxymoron.

  • “Because the definition of advertisements in the ASA code covers leaflets, posters, websites, and many other ways of expressing opinion.”

    Actually, looking at the code itself, a statement on a website has to be “directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods, services, opportunities and gifts, or … consist of direct solicitations of donations as part of their own fund-raising activities”:

    On that basis, a simple expression of opinion on a website would clearly not fall within the scope of the code.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 27th Mar '12 - 4:43pm

    @ Lisa Harding

    You might just as well say ‘faith is faith and cannot be criticised’ or @faith is faith and cannot be subjected to reasoned argument’.

  • “As a liberal, reading these comments has for the most part been deeply depressing. I simply cannot understand why fellow liberals seem to think that state regulated liberalism is not an oxymoron.”

    So you presumably don’t think there should be any body with the remit to uphold any law then? So you don’t believe the state should have the remit to protect people’s property rights or persons either? Or is you objection to the perfectly logical idea of state enforced liberalism merely one that arises when it comes to enforcing things you personally disagree with?

    What you seem to be suggesting is that the state should not have the power to uphold the law, but if it didn’t have such power the whole concept of liberalism would be meaningless to begin with. The belief that there shouldn’t be a state is properly called anarchism, not liberalism;.

  • “The ASA exists to ensure consumers are not misled by dodgy claims, especially pseudo-scientific ones” What is this christian claim if it doesn’t fall slap-bang into the above category? Christian propaganda should be approached with the same scrutiny as everything else if these people choose to enter the world of advertising and not keep their fairy tales to themselves. No-one has special exemption because there’s a presumption that everyone knows that it’s all about faith and it doesn’t need to ‘prove’ itself.

  • Wow – I am astounded that Tim Farron suggested this and ‘liberals’ defend the right of the religious to make unsubstantiated claims.

    As a scientist I must say I find this worrying and it also seems that the proponents of religious exclusivity are also those who support the right-wing drift of the party. I bet Evan Harris is glad he got beaten at the last election if this is typical of the party he is a member of.

  • Farron et al are threatening to make this a Parliamentary issue unless the ASA do what you admit they cannot: disprove a faith claim (when it’s not their place to offer the proof either way in the first place). This is a hugely misconceived action, and Farron ought to spend his time fighting for things the Lib Dem grassroots membership is rightly concerned about: the NHS reforms, the Welfare Bill, and many other matters that threaten society far more than a pretty sensible ruling by a responsible regulator.

  • Graeme Cowie

    I did use the word ‘seems’ based on a small data set, hardly ‘sweeping claims’ – don’t be so pompous as it was made flippantly. You do not have to educate me on being a scientist thanks.

    Perhaps you can use the same criticism for the dodgy data used to support George’s 50p tax abandonment last week.

    By the way I thought your post earlier was good

  • If you can advertise homeopathy you should be able to advertise prayer.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 27th Mar '12 - 7:32pm

    @ Prue Bray,

    You can advertise both. But be very careful what claims you make for them.

  • Stephen Tall 27th Mar '12 - 8:34pm

    Many thanks for the vigorous debate — I’ve posted a postscript responding to the thread at my blog here: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron (and in support of freedom)

  • Lisa Harding

    This is nothing to do with religious freedom it has everything to do with false advertising

    Why do you think that we should have different rules for religion.

    You are wrong on one thing, science cannot examine faith as that is up to the person, what it can do is examine specific claims such as ‘faith healing’ or that the ‘earth is the centre of the universe’ or ‘the earth is 5000 years old’. These are all measurable using the same techniques as used to measure and hypothesis. Unfortunately for your argument, they have all been found wanting.

    This ruling from the ASA does is not related to faith but rather to ‘faith healing’ – two different things

  • As a Christian I don’t think churches should be promising that which they cannot deliver. Since I believe in freedom of speech, I respect Tim’s right to complain, but I would be disappointed if ASA change their position.

  • Paul Pettinger 28th Mar '12 - 12:22am

    Tim Farron’s letter agitates humanists, secularist and rationalists, but a good number of religious Lib Dems won’t have welcomed or feel comfortable with his letter either. I am starting to feel a little sorry for him; he felt he was doing the right thing, but has made himself look completely irrational. I think he needs to iron out his faith; is he a Liberal before he is a Christian? I am not sure that he is, and I don’t think someone can lead the Party in this era with such a hierarchy of priorities.

  • Andrew Suffield 28th Mar '12 - 12:51am

    Tim Farron’s letter

    Nitpick: not his letter, he just countersigned it.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Mar '12 - 8:30am

    @ Lisa Harding

    I agree with bazzasc. By the way, are you using the term “ideological” in the Marxian sense of that word: i.e a false view of the world?

  • Jaska Alanko 28th Mar '12 - 11:14am

    This debate is interesting beyond ‘free speech’. As a Christian Scientist I am even keener to ensure that when guarding our freedoms in expressing our fundamental beliefs about life, we do not slip, through lazy and superficial reasoning, into questioning or curtailing our freedoms in action as independent moral agents. From time to time some of our Parlamentarians and health experts/regulator have wanted to go down this road. If I choose a scientifically spiritual prayer as a means of healing, I do not wish the legislator to inhibit that choice, or the ‘public opinion’ to intimidate those who do. In terms of ‘give us proof’, I’d invite Jennie Rigg and others of doubting persuasion to examine our healing record as Christian Scientists. Over 100 years we have relied solely on a scientifically defined method of spiritual healing to improve our and our fellow-man’s health and wellbeing, and beyond the physical we employ scientific prayer to bring harmony and peace to individuals, families, communities and the world. The results are on public record in the form of properly verified testimonies published in Christian Science Journal. Why not have a look on and you may be surprised to note that there is an altogether different view of man active in our (liberal) society. And Tim, let’s not fret about this. I’ve just retired, after 40 years in advertising, and have witnessed the kind of ‘proof’ that ASA works on. Like one famous chap once said, I’d say ‘suffer it be so now’.

  • Paul Pettinger 28th Mar '12 - 12:21pm

    You are quite right to bring me up on using the word Liberal Linda, when people give a range of labels to their political beliefs, so sorry about that. However, I genuinely think it is questionable whether that anyone who places their religious and non-religious worldview ahead of their commitment to their politics, and who advocates policies in direct recourse to their worldview, can be Leader. Otherwise how can those who don’t share the worldview of the Leader engage with them, know that their own worldview will be respected, and that the leader won’t try and seek privilege for theirs? I am a humanist, but am a (social) liberal a long way before I am a humanist. However, if I placed my humanism ahead of my broader political principles, how could you engage with me if I advocated something in direct recourse to my atheism? In short, you wouldn’t be able to. This is not about trying to police people’s opinions or strong convictions (which the non-religious can have too!), but about how we get along with each other. I think Tim has crossed that line, as there is no way that as a humanist I can properly engage with what he is suggesting, as he has placed his reasoning in direct recourse to his faith, which I don’t share. That is not a liberal way to do politics, and not a particularly liberal manifestation of his religious belief.

  • Penny Burgess 28th Mar '12 - 4:12pm

    Can I just point our that these people are not doing this for free. The street healers may be, but the person behind them is making a lot of money out of this.

    A couple of excerpts from their website :


    “Thank you so much for the interest of your church to partner with us. It will be great to partner with you! The next step in becoming a partner is to transfer fees. Once you have agreed to pay (please see the details below) we will be happy to support you as described in the partnership brochure. And of course, depending on where you are at in the process, we continue to guide you with starting or continue to support you in running your ministry.

    As mentioned before, the partnership license fee is £400 for up to 5 churches. Your annual partnership will start on the day you agree to the partnership and will last for 1 calendar year.

    The preferred payment option is to send a cheque to our church offices, made payable to ‘Causeway Coast Vineyard’.”


    “When you see miracles taking place in front of your eyes, you want to jump up and down and tell everyone. To see legs growing, twisted fingers being straightened, fibromyalgia disappearing, being told of cancerous growths vanishing from scans and x-rays, and doctors left scratching their heads, you know that God is merciful.

    They say they have 7000 churches on their books, that’s over £200,000 a year.

    They are charlatans, and the ASA are right to ban their advert. This has nothing to do with religion.

  • Stephen W

    Dear dear dear!

    I love you using the term ‘illiberal’ – made me chuckle a bit. Religion is not renowned for its liberalism

    ‘Thou shalt have no other God but ME’

  • Paul Pettinger 28th Mar '12 - 6:26pm

    God is deliberately trying to fool rational investigation, arbitrarily cures people of ills that it created in the first place, and you know this because you have witnessed it you self, but can’t (as yet) provide us of any evidence of this other than through your personal testimony. 1. Do you by any chance need my bank details to help you transfer over millions of dollars from Nigeria? 2. If there isn’t a God, or if there is it does not actively interfere with the world, what outcome might you also expect to see from scientific investigation into the power of prayer?

  • I’m not religious, but I’m very relaxed about Tim’s letter. I don’t agree with what he says, but I’m proud to have a leader who stands up for what he believes in.

  • There are people in our society who are very gullible and trusting. Many of them lead desperate lives that lead them to seek any comfort that they can. If some of those people see printed adverts telling them that prayers can cure their illnesses, then some of these desperate, gullible people will stop taking their prescribed medicines and will try to rely on the power of prayer to cure themselves. Some of them may stop giving medicines to their children or people they look after. Some of them will not seek medical help when they are ill. There are many such people in our society. They are unaware that there is debate around religion or the power of prayer. Such people need protection by the state and the ASA has done a good job in trying to protect these vulnerable people.

  • Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera 30th Mar '12 - 2:53pm

    Even as someone who has a strong belief in what some deem as a faith, Buddhism, I remain deeply concerned about the direct influence of ANY faith on a political party, and specifically on the State as a whole.

    I feel that the sooner that we can separate the Church from the State, the better for as we are hearing at this moment, people are attempting to maintain inequalities in society with regard to who may, or may not be married, by selective interpretation of their faith.

    I am certainly not trying to criticise Christians alone, for the reality is that wherever injustice exists, there will be people who will use their interpretation of a ‘faith’ to support prolonging the suffering that others are experiencing.

    Most religions actualy agree on, what many non-religious societies deem as universal truths, such as not being supportive of killing other humans and theft, etc, but we do not hear politicians using their religious beliefs to stop the war in Afghanistan, where countless people are needlessly being killed, or to resolve poverty, poor housing, health, education inequalities, etc, that all play a party in the causes of crime?

    Faith is a deeply personal issue, and I feel should not be worn as a ‘Scout Badge’ as if one has achieved a higher status because one has it. Our actions ultimately are what we are judged by, and not the religion, faith or belief that may have played a part in influencing such actions.

  • Richard Swales 1st Apr '12 - 10:44pm

    Would we be quite so in favour of the president’s rights to free speech if we were in a David Icke – style situation?

    @Phillip – yes, but there are other methods of doing the research besides experimentation. For example I have never seen research saying that Christians live longer than atheists controlling for other lifestyle factors.

  • I’m afraid he has done nothing more than make himself look rather silly, and like many other here, has gone down in my estimation.

    The RCT may not be perfect, but it is the gold standard to which we should aspire when seeking the truth of whether or not a treatment works. I can believe all I like, but it will only make me feel better, it will not cure me. We need to reflect not on those who are confirmed in their faith, but those who are not but who are uncertain, and who would be ruthlessly exploited if faith were allowed to be inserted into the medical model.

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