Tim Farron’s religious folly

I was born and brought up in a country where I knew that, on account of my family’s faith, I was barred by law from marrying the sovereign. Not much more than a theoretical hardship, since until recently the law would anyway prevent me as a man from marrying the heirs to the country’s throne because they happen to be male as well. In any case, by the measure of social progress fawningly used at the time of the marriage of Catherine Middleton and William Windsor, I’m still two generations too close to a coal miner.

Nor has any Catholic ever been Prime Minister of the UK. Up to and including Blair’s flirtation with Rome, there was an assumption that, while not strictly illegal, it might be practically difficult or impossible for a Catholic to fulfill the role, given the office’s involvement in church matters.

On the other hand, I grew up knowing that one of America’s greatest presidents was a Catholic, like me. And whether I was first told at primary school or at home, I knew from an early age that John F. Kennedy had given a great and important speech that had persuaded non-Catholic Americans, including Presbyterian and Jewish Americans, that they could safely vote for him without fearing that he was answerable to Rome; or that his decisions in the Oval Office would be made with Catholic doctrine in mind.

In this context, Tim Farron’s stated reasons for resignation are a massive step backwards. There should be no religious disqualification to political office, and Farron’s is self-imposed. If the illiberalism of his church is more important to him than the liberal instinct he claims always to have had, he should have taken some time for private reflection, and in the public sphere worn his religion much more lightly.

I have some sympathy with what seems likeliest to be his position; that whether or not something is a “sin” is a religious rather than a political question, and that he therefore won’t discuss that as a politician. But in how he has, in fact, chosen to answer and not answer the question (as well as in his earliest votes cast on gay rights issues) he has allowed that private religion into his public role.

But it was by using this as justification for his resignation where he did harm. He has explicitly supported the idea that being religious is incompatible with leading a political party with any claim to liberalism. He has projected his own fundamental illiberalism (or at least, his difficulties reconciling his religious and public life) onto others in public life who have personal faith.

We live in a country which has not yet managed fully to reintegrate the Christian sect that I was born into, where the ruling party courts sectarian trouble by seeking the support of the DUP, and where intolerance of Islam is on the march. This is the context in which Tim Farron seems to have confirmed the worst fears of secularists; he has raised the religious bar an inch or two, at least for those who don’t fit the establishment as cosily as do the “sons of the manse” and the “vicars’ daughters.”

Cold comfort

What cold comfort the relatives and loved ones of the hundred plus victims and fifty fatalities of the latest mass shooting in the US must receive from the prayers being offered them from certain quarters. Senator Thom Tillis, for instance, started praying for them yesterday and, rather generously, is continuing to pray for them today. Senator Cory Gardner is both praying and mourning and Senator Joni Ernst’s prayers are with them too. Senator Bill Cassidy offers prayer for them, and also support. Senator David Perdue sends his prayers; the mechanism of delivery presumably being invisible sky-fairy postmen. Senator Tom Cotton offers not only his prayers, but the prayers of all his constituents: one assumes there are no atheists in Arkansas. Senator Pat Roberts also uses those sky fairies to send his prayers, also accompanied by his thoughts. Senator Roy Blunt eschews prayers, but actually appears capable of spelling condolences. Equally sparing with his personal prayer-time, Senator Mitch McConnell can’t find his own to offer, but does note that those of the entire nation are with the victims and their families.

Prayers—especially those contained within the Twitter word limit—are cheap, but votes, it would appear, are not: for these nine senators alone have received a total of $22,596,399 in direct and indirect contributions from the NRA in the course of the careers. If they had prayed for more guidance concerning 1 Tim 6:10 or Luke 16:13 they might, perhaps, have thought twice about receiving such vast amounts of money to vote down gun control laws despite the fact that a clear majority of Americans favour them.

Which mourning relative, which traumatized survivor, which gay man or woman afraid to go out with their friends, which—to be frank—decent person of any country, faith, or background will read these tweets and feel anything but revulsion and disgust at the cheap, vacuous, and hypocritical platitudes of the very people who have obstructed even the most tentative steps towards making this kind of horror less of an everyday occurrence?

In which Fat Martin comes for lunch, and a theological debate ensues

Fat Martin Luther came for lunch here in Rio the other day. I served vermicelli, as I always do for him. “Why do you always feed me this rubbish?” he asked, after pushing it around his plate for a while. “Oh sorry, Fat Martin,” I said, “I forget you’re not so keen on a Diet of Worms.”

He gave me a long stare. “Nearly five hundred years, and that’s still funny?” he asked irritably. “And why must you always call me Fat Martin?”

“Well to be honest, Fat Martin,” I replied, “it’s because I’m amused by the contrast between your obsession with sin and the overt evidence of extensive indulgence in at least one of the seven deadly ones.”

“Popish superstitious nonsense,” he countered. “We are saved not by our works but by our faith.”

“That sounds suspiciously antinomian to me,” I admitted, “but actually that’s kinda what I wanted to talk to you about. This whole sola fide and justification business.”

“What of it?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Euthyphro dilemma—”

“—The what?” he interrupted.

“Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know, Fat Martin. You did the scholiast stuff before you got all vernacular and protesty. Euthyphro, where Plato points out the definitional problem of an all-good omnipotent deity. Either good is defined by Him—that whatever He wills is necessarily good—in which case we can know nothing of Him, for His acts can be entirely arbitrary; or He simply always acts according to what is good, in which case there would seem to be something ontologically prior to Him—goodness—and His actions would appear to be bound.”

“Greek rubbish, fit only for the Schools.”

“Well you have to admit he has a point. And what I’ve been thinking is that your ideas about justification and freedom of the will seem to be somewhat inconsistent on this point: that as far as the workings of justification are concerned you sit on one horn of the dilemma, but as far as its distribution is concerned you sit on the other.”

“How so?” Fat Martin was interested now. He may not have time for the Greeks, but he loves a good wrangle.

“Well, the whole concept of being saved by faith alone kinda requires that we know that God will act in a certain way. That is, He has promised, through His Son (who is also Him—always confuses me, that bit), that He will save those who believe in Him and His promise. You bang on about this quite a bit, you know, and often emphasise the nature of the promise. He has promised something, so we can have certainty that He will do it. This only really works if we accept the secondary horn of Euthyphro: because otherwise God could entirely renege upon His promise, and that would be fine because He is God and if He reneges on His promise then this is necessarily good. For sola fide to work, and for us to be able to know it will, God must be bound by what is good, and what is good must be accessible to human reason.”

“And?”

“Well, there’s a problem, then, when we get onto the distribution of this. Because not everyone believes, not everyone will be saved. Fair enough, but you also insist—actually, quite correctly—in the absence of freedom of the will. You got into quite a spat about this. The saving belief in God is not taken by the individual as a freely-willed act, but is granted, by the grace of God. But then we come into a problem, because of the apparently arbitrary distribution of this. It seems resolutely unfair, doubleplus ungood, that people are not saved by their merits, or by their works, but by the whim of the deity. All people are necessarily equally deserving of hellfire, yet God selects some but not others to be given the saving grace of belief in Him. Doesn’t this require the exactly opposite view of the dilemma? We can only reconcile God’s goodness with this arbitrary allocation of grace if we accept that whatever He does is necessarily good, and that we should not attempt to reason about his acts using the human understanding of goodness. So which is it? If I cannot rely on God not acting arbitrarily then I can have no grounds to believe His promise; but if He cannot act as He pleases, how can we understand the random allocation of grace?”

Fat Martin was silent. He’s well known for his temper, and I worried he might be building up to a paddy. But eventually, slowly, he spoke. “I never thought of that,” he admitted. “You kinda got me there. I suppose I’d better take it all back. The whole shebang.”

“It’s a bit late for that now, you know,” I said as I passed him the bread.

He chewed it thoughtfully. And then suddenly gagged, coughed, and, red-faced, spat out two Brazilian coins which were buried in the dough. “What is this?” he shouted, perhaps relieved of an excuse to rant. “Are you trying to choke me?”

“They’re a gift for you,” I answered.

“Do you usually give gifts like this?” he inquired furiously.

“I’m sorry, Martin. I thought you were a fan of the Real Presents.”

Fat Martin stared at me again. “Fuck you,” he said, eventually. He does have a potty mouth on him, does Fat Martin.

Fat Martin is not amused

Fat Martin is not amused.