On 22 January former leader and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron MP, gave the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum's annual Gladstone Lecture at the National Liberal Club.
Read Tim's lecture in full below.
Our party’s greatest ever leader, and effectively its first, was William Gladstone.
He was Prime Minister for 12 years, made more comebacks than Duran Duran, and made a colossal impact.
He introduced free education, extended the franchise beyond the property owning classes, tackled poverty, increased the freedom of oppressed and minority groups, and was the first to seriously devolve power from Westminster.
Gladstone was a Prime Minister who didn’t just hold office, he made a huge difference. A radical, a reformer, arguably the most successful, powerful and effective politician our party has ever seen. He was of course a Christian. An evangelical Christian.
In fact, as a founder of the new Liberal movement in 1859, it was his evangelical Christianity that made the Grand Old Man count himself as a Liberal. The same Christianity that shaped the Liberal party from its beginning and which underpins our values in 2018, whether we realise it or not.
Gladstone’s Christianity led to Gladstone’s liberalism because he believed that individual conscience should guide us, not the traditions of church or society, not the prevailing fashionable opinion, not human authority.
Not every early liberal was a Christian. John Stuart Mill was agnostic. But he was committed to a politics where conscience trumped conformity. It was a politics that resonated most though with nonconformist Christians and with other religious minorities whose right to live and worship in accordance with their conscience had been hugely curtailed by law, practice and convention.
So, given that without this William Ewart Gladstone and without his faith, there is a decent chance that neither this building nor this party would exist…perhaps we owe it ourselves to understand the faith that drove him?
So, what is an evangelical Christian then? Well, it’s a term I don’t like that much because it gets so misunderstood and so misused by proponents and opponents alike.
The root of the word evangelical is ‘evangelos’ from the Greek, ‘to bring good news’. Christianity is a belief that Jesus is the son of God, that he died for us, rose from the dead and is the saviour of all who will trust in him. And because Christians believe that, they should want others to know that too… unless they are being rather selfish.
If you are an evangelical Christian then that will mean that you trust the Bible. You won’t understand all of it, I don’t. You may not be comfortable with all of it, I’m not. But you trust it. It’s God’s word, his inclusive and comprehensive good news for everyone.
But I confess that I squirm a bit at the word ‘evangelical’. I shouldn’t because Evangelical, Bible-believing Christianity is growing like wildfire across the world.
In Africa, Asia, Latin America in particular. It feels like the more challenging the circumstances, the more rapidly the church is growing.
In North Korea where a third of Christians are in concentration camps. In Iran, where people who attend church are routinely arrested. In China, where prosecution is part of the deal if you go to an unsanctioned church. And whether persecuted or not, the church is growing most rapidly in the poorest of places. Of the 20 countries where Christianity is growing fastest, 19 are in Africa or Asia. Empirically it is clear that Christianity is a movement of liberation for the poor and the oppressed.
Don’t be surprised by that.
Jesus’ message has always been heard more clearly by those whose minds are least anaesthetised by comfort and material riches.
700 years before Jesus came, Isaiah promised that the messiah would preach the good news to the poor. 700 years later, Jesus stood up in the temple, read out that very section from Isaiah and said, ‘you hear that? That was about me!’.
Hardly the words of a nice, friendly teacher – these are the words of a complete megalomaniac, or indeed the words of God. It’s one or the other. You choose.
For millions and millions of people across the world, living in relative poverty and under degrees of oppression, Christ is who he says he is. He has preached the good news to the poor and the poor are overwhelmed by his grace.
He is their redeemer, their ruler, he is their liberation.
So, why would I feel even a bit squeamish about accepting the term ‘evangelical Christian’?
Well. In a word. America…
Evangelicals in America make up a quarter of the population. 80% of them vote Republican. Even for Donald Trump, whose personal behaviour is somewhat at odds with the lifestyle choices of the bulk of those who call themselves evangelicals.
Furthermore, the majority of those voters support the right to own an unregulated and unlimited number of fire arms, support lower taxes for the wealthy, and regard state healthcare as some kind of hideous Marxism.
Many hold views that are borderline racist, some hold views that are well beyond that borderline and most, it seems, are opposed to America’s proud tradition of actively welcoming those who would migrate there to flee hardship or persecution and to seek a better life.
It’s not that my world view is perfect, but seriously. Am I reading the same Bible as these people? Let me reassure you that none of those viewpoints has any foundation in scripture.
The penny dropped for me about six weeks ago. I read a wonderful article by Tim Keller in the New Yorker in December. Tim explained that the term ‘evangelical’ in the United States had become a cultural and political term, every bit as much as it referred to a denomination. Many who aren’t actually Christians, still consider themselves to be evangelical because they’ve bought into the political and cultural associations of that descriptor.
We have that here don’t we? I remember Paddy Ashdown talking about being confronted by a fellow Ulsterman and fellow soldier, who asked him ‘are you protestant or Catholic?’. Paddy being quick witted sidestepped this googly and replied ‘I’m Buddhist!’ to which his colleague stopped to think for a minute and then responded ‘yeah, but are you a protestant Buddhist or a catholic Buddhist?’
You see, terms can come to mean something broader than the original intention. They can come to carry cultural and political meanings. To reflect other allegiances, loyalties and identities.
That distortion doesn’t just affect those who call themselves evangelicals, it affects everyone who isn’t an evangelical but who has an opinion on that movement.
Most people in politics in Britain will hold assumptions – however lightly - on evangelical Christianity.
Some of those who call themselves liberals will assume that evangelical Christians are right wing and hateful, they may seek to shut down Christian contributions as a result, not normally by legal constraint but by what John Stuart Mill referred to as the ‘tyranny of opinion’.
And yet evangelical Christianity essentially formed the Liberal movement in this country. Liberalism, as I have said elsewhere, may be eating itself!
So, I want to ask two things this evening.
The first is that we as liberals should be open minded, inclusive and tolerant. You know, actually be liberals. And accept and even celebrate the fact that Liberal, left of centre, progressive people can be Christians.
My second ask is that Christians should consider, once again, coming home to the Liberal movement that they initiated. The need to fight to ensure that conscience comes before conformity is more necessary now than at any time since Gladstone. So to Christians: This Liberal movement can once more, be your home.
Why are either of these two requests even thought of as a challenge? Why are they even remotely controversial?
But we all know that Christianity is seen by many today as being incompatible with liberalism. It’s not compatible, so it is thought, because it isn’t rational, it isn’t good and it isn’t liberal. Not rational, not good, not liberal.
So lets start with rational. Liberals pride ourselves as being rational. Ultra-rational. In today’s political climate, against the populist nationalism of many on the right and the left wing populism of Jeremy Corbyn, its the Liberal Democrats role to be the rational grown ups.
Its our role to avoid the simplistic solutions to complex problems put forward by the other two parties, but to think, speak and act rationally.
Not to cover up the absence of a plan with the union flag, or the red flag.
Rational also means rejecting silly fanciful notions about faith doesn’t it? Well, I am generally against silly and fanciful notions of faith.
I’m also against silly and fanciful notions that dismiss faith without looking at the evidence.
Firstly, from a philosophical and political point of view.
You see, the absence of faith is not neutral. To not believe in a god is a perfectly legitimate standpoint, it will legitimately inform ones world view. But it is a standpoint and a world view. So it isn’t neutral, and we shouldn’t treat it as such.
But in Britain in 2018, we do. As rational liberals we should not put up with this. To have our society beholden to any such faith-related viewpoint, including the absence of faith, is utterly illiberal. It is to encourage conformity and not conscience.
Increasingly in our media, in our politics, in public discourse, in education we treat the absence of god and the absence of the belief in god as the centre ground, the assumed default position, the neutral state.
That is silly and fanciful. It is irrational. It is a myth. And too many who call themselves liberals have fallen for this nonsense.
I am against state religions. Liberals tend to be. I am against Christianity being the state religion. And I am against atheism or secular humanism being the state religion.
If we believe in diversity and pluralism, we must demonstrate that by conceding that there is no neutral ground when it comes to belief in god. There will be people who are undecided, but there is no standpoint that is neutral.
If we are rational, we will concede that rather than relegating faith below absence of faith, we must seek to defend the freedoms of those who hold differing and even conflicting world views. We will work to ensure that we have a society that is at peace with that difference, rather than assuming that people must assimilate or else be considered eccentric or worse.
So we should treat these matters in a rational, balanced and liberal way…
And we should also acknowledge that belief in Jesus Christ is rational. That Christianity is rational. That those of us who bow to him as ruler and redeemer have not taken leave of our senses or unscrewed our brains in order to do so.
This does not mean that I can prove beyond doubt that Jesus Christ is the son of God. Nevertheless I believe that there is sufficient evidence to mean that it is reasonable to draw that conclusion, and rational to take that step of faith to trust him as my saviour.
I could fill all evening with a canter through the evidence, but lets just consider some of the basics.
First, Jesus Christ definitely existed. The romans Tacitus and Pliny the Younger testify to this. So does the Greek satirist Lucian, the Jewish writers of the Babylonian Talmud and, most graphically, the Jewish historian Josephus. And those are just the non-Christian sources.
To say that Jesus didn’t exist or that we have a wildly inaccurate sense of his place in history just isn’t credible. If you want to prove that Christianity isn’t rational, do yourself a favour and don’t start there.
Secondly, the New Testament documents are very very credible. They were written in the lifetimes of those who were eyewitnesses. Many were written by eye witnesses. The earliest copies of those documents are from a mere generation after the lives of those eye witnesses. There are thousands of early copies, they are astonishingly consistent.
Why does that matter? Because this means that what you read in the Bible today is what the original eyewitness authors wrote. Not more, not less. This tells us that it is not credible to claim that the message has been embellished, amended or has anything legendry about it. If you want to prove that Christianity isn’t rational, do yourself a favour and don’t start there.
Third. The eyewitnesses whose accounts we read in those documents, suffered unspeakable horrors for proclaiming that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.
Of the apostles, only one of them – John – died a natural death. The rest of them were murdered for what they believed, for what they preached. Crucified upside down, burnt alive, stabbed to death – often tortured beforehand. Grisly, slow, horrible deaths most of them.
Consider this. If what they died for was untrue…then they knew it to be untrue. Are you seriously telling me that it is likely that dozens of people from diverse backgrounds would go to horrific unnecessary deaths for something that they know isn’t true? To believe that really would take a leap of blind faith… If you want to prove that Christianity isn’t rational, do yourself a favour and don’t start there.
And then, lets remember what the writers are trying to do in those documents. They are trying to do two things. To record historic events and to persuade you. Insistently to persuade you. These are not neutral overviews, not a collection of nice thoughts, not a work of philosophy.
These are writings that are consistent, insistent, and persistent. Jesus claimed to be the son of God, he’s the only route to salvation. Have a look at the first four verses of Luke, and then the last two verses of John 20.
These guys are very clear that they are recording history and that they are doing so because you need to know this stuff because its life and death.
So, look, does this mean that I have just proved the existence God beyond doubt? I’m afraid not.
But I hope I have suggested to you that when it comes to the New Testament documents that underpin the Christian faith, there are only really two logical conclusions.
Conclusion number one is that they could all be a highly consistent, impressively co-ordinated hoax. A deliberate work of deception from the hands of many deceivers. Sort of Dan Brown squared.
Conclusion number two is that its true. And if its true, well, I don’t need to say anything else do I? Everything you thought you knew is upside down. Everything you hold dear, isn’t as important as this.
That is massively inconvenient. But its not irrational.
Pushing it away and not even allowing yourself to consider which of these two conclusions is right… could I gently suggest that that would be irrational?
But even if Christianity could be rational, its not good is it?
I mean most wars are caused by religion right? Well, I’m not sure about that, but I am sure that 100% of all wars are caused by human beings. Which is an uncomfortable fact if you are a humanist.
I’m also certain that the most striking social reformers did what they did because they were Christians. The abolition of slavery led by Christians most notably Wilberforce, the laws to prevent industrial exploitation led by committed Christian Lord Shaftesbury, the ending of the cruel practice of Sati in India after campaigning by Christian missionaries especially William Carey.
What is it about being a Christian that makes people want to do those things.
Well, lets go to the very beginning. A very good place to start. Genesis talks about the creation. We read how God created the earth, every ocean and continent and every living thing, how he created the stars and planets. Lastly, He creates humans.
But there is something different about humans. Everything else God created he declared to be ‘good’. Humans, though, are better than good.
Genesis tells us that humans are made ‘in the image of God, so that they may rule..’ over creation.
The image of God.
So this is the God who is perfect and all powerful and just beyond awesome. The God who carefully crafted the valles marineris on Mars, who spoke supermassive blackholes into existence, who has crafted billions upon billions of solar systems … that God, says that you are the most important thing he made. Not just a bit more important, but uniquely important.
So, when I stood in the sea at Lesbos and saw those terrified kids amongst the refugees landing in treacherous lifeboats; when I see people who have come to this country to seek sanctuary, left in destitution given £3 a week to feed a child; when I see people demonising those people seeking reasons not to help them… its not just that I care about them, or that I am appalled at the injustice of what they endure, or that I am angry at the unpleasantness of those who will not help. Its much more than that.
You, me, those little girls in the boat at Lesbos, that mother and her child in the hostel in Manchester…that troll on the internet…they are made in the image of the God of the universe.
That doesn’t just mean that we are equal, it means that we are of equal worth, and if you read on to the new testament you find out just how much they are worth. And how much they are worth to God.
They are worth the very life of the son of God. So every desperate refugee, every destitute asylum seeker, every rough sleeper, every abused child, every abused adult… that is an offence against the God who didn’t just make them, he made them in his own image. Every one of those people, made by God, for God, with the highest dignity.
That is why equality matters. That is why we must stand up for those whose plight is unfashionable, whose voice is inaudible, whose case is unpopular.
My favourite line in the whole of CS Lewis’s many works, is in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children ask Mr Beaver whether Aslan the Lion is safe. Mr Beaver replies “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” Lewis uses Aslan as his Christ analogy and he gets it spot on. You see, Christianity will disrupt your life, will cause you enormous personal inconvenience. It isn’t safe. But it is good.
Maybe its rational, maybe its good, but its not liberal is it?
Its prescriptive, its intolerant, its dogmatic…it can’t be liberal!
The thing is in one sense Christianity does restrict your freedom.
But doesn’t liberalism do that too? I mean, it might be inconvenient for me to defend the rights of people who offend me.. but I do so because I’m a liberal. It might be restrictive for you to pay taxes, but you do so because freedom is enhanced by strong public services and by a more equal society.
So liberalism does not consist of an absence of restraint. Liberalism consists of a calibration of restraints and liberties that maximise freedom.
The liberty of the company with a monopoly in its market, is curtailed to protect the freedom of the consumer and the entrepreneur.
Likewise, Christianity is a mixture of freedoms and restraints. Those restraints are not placed on me by you, or on you by me. They are taken on willingly by me and by you in response to God’s grace.
If I were to do a separate lecture on comparative religion. I’d say that there are 2 key areas (amongst many others) which make Christianity jarringly different to any other religious belief system.
The first is that Jesus Christ is the only person in the history of the world to have claimed to be god and been taken seriously by large numbers of people. There’s no one else. Not one.
The second distinctive difference is grace. Grace is truly radical, in fact its mindblowing. And grace has been hugely influential in the establishment of liberal thought and in the securing of liberal democratic values around the world.
So what is it?
Jesus got his message across in many ways, one was to tell stories that illustrated his point. The parables. One of the most famous – and misunderstood – is the parable of the prodigal son. Luke records this story. It tells us what God is like, it tells us what we are like and it tells us about grace.
To set the scene, Jesus is talking to a group of people. Crowding close around him are people who are outcasts, non-religious people, people whose lifestyles or jobs mean that they are looked down on and excluded. But Jesus has been very pally with these folks, he’s even shared meals with them.
Stood a little further away are a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. Very righteous, rule-abiding people with high social status. And these guys sneer at Jesus for being matey with the outcasts who didn’t live carefully according to the rules set by the religious leaders.
So, in the earshot of all those people he tells this parable.
A father – who represents God - has two sons. In that society, a father with two sons would leave two thirds of his estate to his older son and one third to the younger one. But only when he died.
At which point the estate would be liquidated in order to allow the two sons to get their shares. In this parable, the younger lad goes to his dad and asks for his share of the estate now.
Just think how grim that is. Dad, why are you taking so long to die? I wish you were dead. I want your stuff, but I don’t want you. I’m the father of 2 sons and 2 daughters. If one of them said that to me, I can barely comprehend how devastated and heartbroken I would be.
This father was heartbroken too. But he freely did what his son asked. He liquidated a third of his assets, something which would have humiliated him in that society, and he watched this heartless, ungrateful little git wander off into the distance.
We are told then that the lad squanders all this money on wild living. He uses his father’s money to have the time of his life. But it doesn’t last, because it never does. He falls into real hardship.
He sinks so low that he has to works on a farm in this far country, looking after pigs and feeling jealous of the swill that they eat. A Jewish lad, living in a pigsty. This is the pits.
He comes to his senses. I love that line. It completely sums up repentance to me.
Anyhow, he prepares a speech that he will deliver to his dad where he will apologise and throw himself on his dad’s mercy and ask to be taken on only as a servant so that he can work to repay all that he had been given.
He heads home, utterly ashamed, afraid and probably practicing his pre-prepared speech in his head as he went.
One day while he was still a long way from the farm, his dad sees him and runs to his son.
His dad saw him while he was still a long way off.
Now, my family don’t see me coming home until I’m through the door. How come this father saw his son returning from a mile away?
Well, it’s because this father had been looking out for his son every minute, every day for maybe years. Just think about that. This little scumbag of a son, and yet his father was waiting and watching for his return. That’s our god, that’s how he is with us.
And then he legs it to him.
In that culture, old men didn’t run. Patriarchs had their dignity to look after. But this one didn’t care.
Stuff dignity, this is my son and he’s returned home. He gets to his son and before the young man has the chance to blurt out his speech the father throws his arms around him and welcomes him back.
There is to be no repayment of his debt, there is to be no period of servitude, no time in the dog house.
The lad is paraded in his dad’s best robe, he throws the biggest party and the community will look at that family and consider all this to be a scandal.
The son causes the offence, the father pays the price. The son is honoured, the father is disgraced. And yet the father doesn’t give grudgingly, tutting and holding it against the boy. He gives lavishly, lovingly, joyfully, without thought of the cost, to one who absolutely does not deserve it one little bit.
That is grace.
We treat God with utter contempt, we enjoy his creation, and we tell him to shove off.
And then if we come to our senses, if we return to him then he accepts your shame, pays the price to redeem you. He forgives and accepts you.
You cannot earn God’s approval. You cannot do enough good to satisfy God.
And we human beings hate this. That’s why no other belief system does grace like this.
If I am not able to earn my way to acceptance, then I must be helpless, I mustn’t be the ultimate boss, I must be wholly reliant on another. Christianity is a two-fingered salute to my ego.
But its wonderful. Because if my acceptance is in my hands then I will screw it up, I would be a neurotic wreck all the time, I couldn’t bank on my place in eternity.
But if my acceptance is in God’s hands and if Christ has paid for all of my sins once and for all. I am safe and secure. I am as free as you can get. It is not possible to be more liberated than that.
So the prodigal returns. Its all lovely, the father welcomes the son back. There’s loads of tears, loads of wine. A happy ending. And that’s where most people stop reading.
But it doesn’t end there.
The story continues. We switch focus to the elder son who is furious that his wretched brother has been forgiven, he refuses to come into the party. He is contemptuous towards his brother and hateful towards his father for showing such grace.
Just as he did with the younger brother, this father goes out to meet him but this time there is no reconciliation. The older brother has shown just as much hatred and disdain for his father, he’s just done it in a more socially respectable way that’s all.
This parable is often called the parable of the lost son. And it is accurate to call it that, so long as you realise which son is lost, and its not the bad lad. It’s the good lad.
And there we see who this parable is for. Its not for the bad kids, its for the good kids. Its for people who don’t think they need forgiving.
Back then it was for the Pharisees. Now its for every self-righteous person who condemns the other but will not look to their own need for forgiveness.
Its for the judgemental. Its for you and me. Its for our society today.
Grace is key to liberalism. Its about generosity towards others not because they deserve it, but because you have been offered generosity from above. Its about forgiveness and tolerance of others, because you are offered the same.
To be a legalistic Pharisee is to be the opposite of a liberal. It is to preach rules, some of which may be right and some wrong, and then sit in judgement on those who don’t measure up.
The Pharisees are everywhere, they are all over social media.
When finger-pointy self-righteousness wins, liberalism loses. Understanding, and better still accepting, the grace set out in the Bible underpins liberalism.
Becoming a Pharisee will kill your liberalism, no matter what it says on your membership card.
To sit in judgement on others, to seek to close down or humiliate alternative points of view or lifestyles – I’m afraid that seems to be the standard, the established, conventional way. When was the last time you saw a measured exchange on social media which involved each side seeking to understand the other?
But Grace is utterly radical. It doesn’t mean you accept that others are right in their choices, but it does make you respect their right to make them.
Christianity teaches right and wrong, it’s not fuzzy or unclear. But it also tells us that God judges and that we must not.
Grace scoffs at the very notion of the deserving and undeserving poor, of the deserving or undeserving refugee. When you understand grace you are motivated to freely give and freely show compassion because we know it could have been us.
Christianity is radical. And it is counter cultural. In a world teeming with people seeking to cause offence or indeed apparently desperate to be offended, where so few people seem to give a moment to attempt to understand the other but rather leap to condemn… Christ teaches us to turn the other cheek, to accept offence, to be gentle.
In a world where materialism and personal achievement are the guiding motivations, Christ teaches us that everything we have is a temporary gift from God and so we should hold those things lightly and rejoice in giving them away to serve others.
In a world where self expression and self determination are elevated as being of overarching importance, Christ teaches us to be humble to serve God and our neighbour not to celebrate ourselves.
Christianity is the radical disruptor to every human convention, tradition or assumption.
And Christians formed this party because freedom of conscience must defeat the pressure to conform.
Christianity to Gladstone and to the people who built this place and built this movement, was most definitely rational, good and liberal. But today our society seeks to push away faith as a semi-tolerable eccentricity. That is not rational, not good and not liberal.
My message to Liberals is that we must not join in with this new wave of Pharisaism. Neither should we look at our shoes and pretend its got nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with us.
We are the movement that fights for freedom of conscience, we are the movement that rejects the tyranny of opinion, we are the movement sees the powerless, the poor, the pariah and thinks not ‘what’s in it for me?’, but instead ‘that could be me’.
And my message to Christians out there is this: you really need liberals right now. Come and join us.
Somewhere out there, with their cursor hovering over the membership page of the Liberal Democrat party website, is the 21st century’s William Ewart Gladstone. We need you, you need us. Come home.