Free speech, persecution and sinful gay sex

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Former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was interviewed on Premier Christian news where he said he regretted stating that gay sex was not a sin.

(You only need to listen to about a minute of this clip.)

Farron’s points are, I think, these. Firstly, that politicians should be allowed to hold personal views on behaviour which they may think abhorrent, immoral or sinful but defend people’s right to practise such behaviour. Secondly, later in the interview, he states Christians shouldn’t have to hide their faith to get elected (though he admits he wouldn’t want an American system where politicians essentially fake it).

To an extent, he has a point. One could think “gay sex” immoral but still support its legality. A woman may think abortion abhorrent but still be pro-choice if regardless of her personal beliefs she does not support imposing them on others. Or in Farron’s case, a vegetarian who doesn’t propose the prohibition of meat consumption.

Freedom of speech can never be absolute. The classic example is it is not legal to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre. Here, it’s clearly reasonable to limit free speech. And often criticism is mistaken for a curtailment of free speech. Take the recent example of Virgin no longer selling the Daily Mail.

Farage is wrong. If Virgin is banning the Daily Mail, then so am I, at every point I am not selling the Daily Mail. Virgin are still allowing customers with a copy on to the train.

6 years ago, when comedian Daniel Tosh was heckled after joking about rape, a number of comedians came to his defence. One argued comedians should be allowed to say “almost whatever they want” and the audience could laugh or not laugh. Heckling aside, the criticism Tosh received is not limiting free speech – it’s free speech in action. You can’t say something and then get angry when others say they think you’re an idiot.

More than anybody, politicians must to be careful about what they say; it can have profound consequences. And politicians accept that – it’s a price of the job. (If you don’t believe me, ask the US State Department about their opinion of President Trump’s tweets.)

This is particularly true for the Liberal Democrats; our party’s manifestos are created democratically. Each policy has to be voted through by the party. The leader is there to advocate policy even when they disagree, a principle which killed Nick Clegg’s political career.

Is there a glass ceiling for Christians?

Yes but no.

He was asked this question originally by Cathy Newman in 2015 after he was elected leader. After two years, when asked repeatedly in 2017 he still had no answer until finally admitting (well, lying) that he didn’t think gay sex was a sin.

It would have been perfectly reasonable for him to say “if you want to know about sin, ask a priest; I’m a politician”. He didn’t – he responded by saying “we are all sinners”, which in the Premier Christian Radio interview he admits is evasive. However, one cannot say “I want to be an openly religious politician” and then complain that one is quizzed on what those religious beliefs are.

Further, Farron admits in the interview that most people don’t understand what “sin” means. As such, he understands that when he says he thinks “gay sex” is a sin, most will interpret that as, “gay sex is a bad thing”.

The glass ceiling is for those whose Christianity justifies abhorrent beliefs. That’s exactly the sort of glass ceiling we should be trying to build.

The false equivalence of immutable characteristics with religion

There is a wider issue here on how criticism of religious belief is conflated with the persecution of minorities. If you are an ethnic minority, LGBT or disabled, it is not a choice. A religious belief is.

Clearly, abuse of religious people simply because they dress or act differently is unacceptable. Shouting at those exiting a mosque because they have “Muslamic ray guns” is indefensible (though it is worth noting that such abuse is usually couched in nationalist terms, religion effectively being used as a proxy for racism). I also don’t think it’s acceptable to criticise a politician’s religious beliefs if they wish to confine them to their personal life.

Liberal Democrats are supposed to support progressive causes unapologetically – calling “gay sex” sinful does the opposite. Claiming to be a Christian is no defence. Moreover, using the term glass ceiling to equate systemic discrimination against women in the workplace with the right to call “gay sex” sinful is indefensible. Or to put it more succinctly:

PS: so…you may have noticed I referred to “gay sex” in quotes. It’s because it’s a form bi-erasure. If two bisexual men have sex or two bisexual women have sex, neither is “gay sex” – no gay people are involved. Unless Tim Farron thinks homosexual sex is a sin but is fine with same-gender bisexual nookie, we shouldn’t really be using the term “gay sex”.

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