Can a Liberal be a Christian?

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Yesterday, Tim Farron resigned as Leader of the British Liberal Democrats, basically saying that he could not square his Christian conscience with being leader of a modern liberal party.

Of itself, that might appear to be an isolated occurrence, not worthy of much reflection. But, in my opinion at least, it is not isolated. If one takes a quick look around the politics of the UK and the US, one realizes that this struggle of belief and conscience is at the heart of much of what bedevils the definition of social politics in the modern era.

In Great Britain, there is no separation of church and state. Indeed, the head of the Church of England is the Queen. Its Church Commissioners are political appointees. And, in only a semi-humorous sideswipe, the Church itself is often described as being the British Conservative Party at prayer.

If that were not enough, the current British Conservative Government is, at this moment, negotiating with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party in order to stay in power. The DUP is notorious for its fundamentalist social views, not least on gay marriage and abortion.

For the record, I was raised a Catholic. And am privy to all its teachings on social issues. My mother’s family are what is generically known as liberal Catholics. But, they are a breed under attack.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council sought to loosen the stranglehold of uber-conservative Catholic teaching on social issues, uber-conservatives have been fighting back. As seen in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

They took a line, which, to be honest, I understand. We in the church are not in the business of being political per se, or social per se. We are in the business of being moral. And we say these stances on these social issues are not moral. You don’t have to accept what we say. We aren’t burning you at the stake. But, you can’t be ‘immoral’ and a Christian.

Their context for such a line is that human materialism. Human permissiveness. Has rendered the West (and what used to be called ‘the East’) utterly lacking in moral and spiritual direction. And, therefore, bereft of any purpose other than the pursuit of wealth, greed and self-satisfaction. These leaders of the Catholic Church feel it is their duty once again to enunciate a very clear, even strict, moral code, to provide direction to their lost flock.

Again, I sympathize. One of the underlying themes I advance about the state of politics today is that it is in a mess because for the last forty years politicians of all hue have simply given the populace permission to do what it likes without regards to the consequences. Be those consequences financial, debt-related, moral, social or spiritual.

As a non-practicing religionist, even I can see that we pretty much lack any kind of moral compass in the West. We have substituted a demand for immediate identity recognition and material gratification for a coherent set of moral principles.

So. I can’t find too much disfavor with folk who want to apply to themselves at least some form of coherence by finding sanctuary in adherence to strict moral codes that have existed for millennia.

And I find it difficult to condemn the leaders of those ‘sanctuaries’ for saying, look, you don’t have to be a member of our ‘sanctuary.’ But we ain’t watering down our moral codes just to make you feel good, just so that you can fit in.

Moral codes are, by definition, difficult to adhere to because they work against some of the basest instincts of man. That’s why our moral codes exist. That’s why our ‘sanctuaries’ exist.

I think my problem arises when I observe people telling those lost souls that part of their redemption requires that they proselytize those moral codes onto or unto others. Believe what you believe, for whatever comfort it gives you. But let others find their comfort and safety the way that suits them.

And maybe that is a way forward? Do what you have to do to feel safe. Invite others to feel the same way. But stop preaching. Stop converting. Stop demanding it as a price to be something else.

But, can one keep morality separate from politics? Isn’t it the essence of politics? Shouldn’t it be? Should morality be ‘pure’? Should moral institutions advance their point of view, and then society-makers decide what parts and how much they want to include into political prescriptions? Let moral institutions be moral, and political institutions be political?

And, while we’re on the subject. This issue doesn’t rattle merely Christianity. It applies to other religions, too. Not least Islam. I can’t begin to speak knowledgably about the conflicts within the teachings of Islam as they relate to its practice in civic society. But you’d have to be a half-baked idiot not to realize that there are active discussions within that religion about the manner in which Islamic teachings should be applied, with respect to society, the West and other religions.

Which neatly brings me to the US. I’m not going to engage in the sterile argument about separation of state and church. Frankly, since most important judicial positions are elected or appointed in a political context, there is no such thing as ‘pure’ separation. It all comes down to a judge making a decision which he or she believes is in the best interests of the state.

But, on a strictly political level, there is clearly much discourse in the US at the moment about social religious views and their place in political decision-making. At its most basic level, I think we can characterize this as a contest between identity politics within the left-wing of the Democratic Party and social conservatism within the right-wing of the Republican Party. And it finds its clash most recognizably within the consciences of many of those who support Donald Trump.

People who arguably would normally vote Democrat, certainly for economic reasons, find themselves unable to sit comfortably with the current social positions of many within the Democratic Party, and find more immediate favor with what many might describe as the social intolerance of the Trump wing of the Republican Party.

This is of crucial importance for elections in the US in 2018 and 2020. Again, in my opinion. Both major political parties have to find a way to attract the support of ordinary working Americans who feel threatened on an economic level, and often find immediate release by threatening those not socially like them.

It is why I find myself writing about ‘Democratic Populism.’ Wondering aloud if there is a way to persuade scared working Americans that there is a better way to address their real concerns, without being ugly. Which, in political shorthand, often means finding a way to square their ‘rural’ Christianity with a liberal economic and social stance. And, to be honest, time and time again, I find myself thinking it would be a lot easier if one was ‘allowed’ merely to leave social issues out of the equation.

Which neatly brings me back to where I began. Tim Farron’s resignation. Did he do the ‘right’ thing? Well, that is a matter purely for his own conscience. But I do believe that his resignation raises issues of conscience, religion and politics that will continue to bedevil societal discourse in this continuing generation …

(Facebook comments here.)

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Published in: on June 20, 2017 at 8:05 am  Leave a Comment  

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