Tim Farron explained that his resignation was due to his conservative Christian beliefs having hampered the liberal views of his party. Paula Zoido Oses analyses this argument and explains how liberalism can work in public life.
Tim Farron,recently stepped down as the leader of the Liberal Democrats due to a conflict between his Christian Faith and the liberal values defended by his party. This event has raised important questions about the lines between religious belief and public policy, with some commentators going even as far as stating that it signals the decay of liberalism. For this reader, however, Farron’s resignation does not symbolise the decay of liberalism, but rather an action that unveils a high-definition picture of its otherwise usually concealed flaws.
What we mean by liberalism is a long and contested issue, too long to explore here. However, in a very basic sense we can probably agree with Rawls’s later definition of liberalism as a political stance depending upon a capacity to set clear boundaries between the political arena, and everything else. That is to say, liberalism is not necessarily a moral doctrine with contents of its own that tells us how to act. Instead, liberalism is a vessel that allows citizens with different backgrounds, each carrying their own moral doctrines and personal beliefs, to find an area of consensus for the sake of peaceful coexistence, without having to renounce to their moral beliefs.
If we want liberalism to work, we should maybe understand it more as a set of rules (the domain of politics) than as a set of values (the domain of morality). But what is crucial is to never overstep what seems to be the only rule of liberalism – to never impose our comprehensive, private views on to others, for that would go against what seems to be the only clear value attached to liberalism: liberty.
To this extent liberalism presents itself as a political doctrine, and not a moral one. In this pretence lies its most powerful and enigmatic promise: that you can be a liberal and not be one, if that is what you want, as long as you find ways of making sure that your illiberal beliefs do not become an obstacle to the correct functioning of the liberal state. In other words, and as I like to put it, liberalism lets you be anything you want to be – as long as you are a liberal, too. This is also the reason behind the liberal stress on the distinction between the private and the public. The idea of a private sphere where individuals are allowed to act according to whichever moral doctrines they choose makes the liberal demand of keeping the political arena separate from our comprehensive beliefs considerably more bearable.
If Farron’s resignation is truly the result of his ‘impossibility’ to combine both his role as a political leader and his commitment to the Bible’s teachings, then this can hardly be seen as a sign of the decay of liberalism, but instead as an honest and brave admission of his incapacity to comply with the rules of the liberal game. And yet, it seems unfair that someone would have to leave politics simply for holding religious beliefs. Even if not acting as a politician, Farron will surely continue to live as part of a liberal political community within the United Kingdom. Does this mean that all Christians like him – or even all those holding religious beliefs of any kind, by extension – should be excluded from the liberal sphere of politics? The answer is as simple as yes and no. If it truly is the case that one cannot compromise a part of their private beliefs when entering the political arena of liberalism, then surely one has to be excluded from it.
But also, as stated above, the main promise of liberalism is precisely that its arena should be ample enough for everyone to be able to step in without having to leave too much of their private moral beliefs outside it. However this promise is not always fulfilled. Farron’s decision is a good example of this. It points directly at the greatest weakness of liberalism, namely the big question mark that hangs over the expected capacity of individuals to split themselves in two. For instance, nobody seems to have questioned whether, in fact, what drove Farron to quit was the impossibility to keep his faith a private matter and separate from his job. Farron may have felt, and rightly so, that by being a liberal politician he was betraying his Christian faith.
One commentator on the issue pointed at Jeremy Waldron’s work, which connects the birth of liberalism to Christian values, and used this to argue that Farron’s faith made him a better liberal and not a worse one. There is nonetheless another key element that has shaped liberalism which seems to have been forgotten in this debate, and that is the secular revolution that transformed Europe from the Enlightenment onwards. It is only when we imagine citizens as able to conceive the world in a secular way that liberalism makes sense. That is to say, liberalism only works when we can expect individuals to at least act as if they recognise the existence of a common ground outside religion where we can still communicate with each other in a way that makes sense.
This common ground, in the case of liberalism, is what since the Enlightenment has been known as ‘reason’. Regardless of whether we are religious or not, we are also expected to be rational individuals. I would go as far as to say that above all, what liberalism expects from us is to be rational. That is what allows us, in theory, to engage with others in the public sphere, to reach consensus in public matters that can be accepted by all regardless of their religious faith, and to be able to mould our private beliefs in order to fit with the demands of our public life. If we are rational enough, too, we will do this voluntarily, for we will understand that the trade-offs of liberalism are better than merely living in a society that allows no space for our private selves at all, as happens with non-liberal societies.
However, Farron’s resignation reminds us that the big problem of liberalism may in fact be its strong reliance on a secular idea of universal reason. For as far as we know the evidence of reason being a universal trait is far from solid, and historically this is a concept tied more to Western Imperialism than anything else. After all, even the leader of a so-called ‘liberal’ political party is left struggling to make sense of liberalism’s way of managing value pluralism through rationality. Does this mean that liberalism is bound to fail? Not necessarily. Yet it is certain that by admitting his impossibility to disentangle his Christian faith from his political actions, Farron has reminded us all of the usually hidden limits of liberalism.