Tim Farron, Intolerance and Classical Christian Sexual Ethics

It has been interesting to follow reactions to Tim Farron’s resignation while reading Rod Dreher’s best-selling book The Benedict Option, which was reviewed last week by Rowan Williams in the New Statesman. Like Williams I have some problems with Dreher’s diagnosis and prescription, and with his occasional hyperbole. Yet I was struck by Dreher’s assertion that western Christians who maintain a classical approach to biblical teaching on sex and marriage now ‘have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.’ Similarly, a Facebook thread about Farron’s decision to which I have been contributing has been exercised by the suggestion that if even private religious espousal  of white surpremacism was once politically and culturally tolerated but then repudiated, it should not be so surprising that a similar shift from tolerance to repudiation should now be bearing on even personal religious convictions about sexuality such as Farron appears to hold – convictions that he, albeit regretfully, identified as no longer acceptable in a mainstream party leader.

Rogers Brubaker, Professor of Sociology at UCLA, has written illuminatingly about sex/gender/race intersectionalities in his recent book Trans, which uses the notorious 2015 Rachel Dolezal case as a starting-point for exploring such issues. Typically, classical Christians today distinguish between race and sexual expression by saying that the former is innate, unwilled and thus beyond legitimate ethical sanctioning of one or other of its plural forms, whereas the latter is ‘chosen’ and so more patient of legitimate contention about which varieties of it might be preferred. Yet as Brubaker points out, the Dolezal case raises the uncomfortable question of whether race might be ‘performed’ in the same or similar senses in which Judith Butler and other Third Wave feminist and Queer Theory writers propose that something at least as apparently innate as sexuality is ‘performed’. In short: if someone defined at birth as biologically male chooses subsequently to ‘identify as’ female, what is the problem with Rachel Dolezal’s ‘identifying as black’ even though she was born white? Cultural appropriation, perhaps? Maybe, but if so, a whole host of Second Wave feminists from Ti-Grace Anderson, Katie Sarachild, Sheila Jeffreys and Michele Wallace to Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have construed the rise of male-female transgenderism as a cultural appropriation of femaleness – of women defined innately or biologically as women. To be clear: present-day ‘culture-wars’ are hardly confined to the religious-secular interface; they proliferate  at least as intensely between different versions of secularism, and, of course, between different religious and theological constituencies.

The point of all this is to suggest that we might be moving to a civic ethics and a jurisprudence determined far more by the delimitation of which identity choices are deemed acceptable by the greatest number than by what people might be deemed to be in and of themselves – a more voluntaristic public epistemology which will inevitably be defined by present-day majority ethical opinion or moral consensus than by traditional or historic mores construed to one degree or another foundationally or deontologically. In this landscape, the key question becomes one of tolerance for those who take a minority view distinct from the consensus, and more specifically of which particular minority views are to be publicly tolerated and which publicly repudiated. For Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘Whose Justice? Which Rationality’ read ‘Whose Tolerance? Which Equality and Diversity?’

As it stands, western society is evidently unwilling to accept a white-born woman like Dolezal identifying/choosing to present herself as black, yet it is moving towards allowing those born as male in sex to identify as female and vice versa regardless of surgical reassignment, and to change their birth certificates accordingly. With respect to a longer-established legally-protected characteristic – age – the same western society might tolerate movie stars and others ‘identifying as’ five years younger than their birth age, but it is not yet willing to allow such identifications to be retro-fitted into legal certifications of birth or age. As Brubaker shows, the criteria by which these different modes of self-identification are defined as legitimate are far from straightforward or philosophically consistent. Race, after all, is far less biologically or genetically based than sex, yet Dolezal’s attempts at ‘trans-racial’ self-identification were massively repudiated. At best, it does indeed seem that sheer public opinion will increasingly hold sway where such matters are concerned. If this is the case, the position of what Thomas Oden calls classical Christians in contemporary western society looks as if it will become increasingly marginalised, not least because the very proportion of such Christians in that society as a whole is diminishing. In this respect, the most significant sense in which Farron’s resignation might be a ‘watershed’ moment is the sense in which it signals that classical Christians in Britain might no longer have the sheer numbers on the ground even to claim ‘protected minority’ status for their views on sexual ethics in a social and political culture that has decided, for all its championing of tolerance in general, to stop tolerating their particular position.

While I myself profoundly disagree with the equating of classical Christian sexual ethics with racism, in practical socio-cultural and political terms, Dreher is basically right to observe that the two are being elided, or, perhaps, in the Farron episode, have already been elided. Farron would surely not have resigned had he not felt that this – or something close to this – had become the case. The irony, of course, is that as a self-described ‘liberal to his fingertips’ Farron had pretty much consistently upheld LBGT rights in his public role as a legislator and party leader. Yet whereas in the historic Lockean, Millian or Berlinian construal of liberalism the quid pro quo for this would have been public toleration of his personal religious convictions on sexual ethics, it is now clear that this quid pro quo is no longer in play. Of course, in the face of such countervailing cultural and political pressure one might adjust one’s outlook in a more consensual direction, as theological liberals and self-professed ‘affirming evangelicals’ have typically done on this issue of sexuality, as on other issues. But for classical Christians – those mainline Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants and Pentecostals worldwide who in Tom Oden’s definition set relatively more store by Scripture and tradition than by philosophically-construed reason and contemporary experience or cultural norms – this accommodationist approach is fraught with problems.

In 1846, a large chunk of the American grouping at the inaugural conference of the Evangelical Alliance walked out when British representatives moved that slave-holders be barred from membership. Those Americans seceded on the grounds that the Alliance, as a plural and diverse body, should ‘tolerate’ different viewpoints on this matter. The Alliance as it stood disagreed that tolerance should extend that far, although subsequently a compromise was brokered which devolved the intended global body into semi-autonomous continental associations – a move that allowed the Americans to admit slave-holders until Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War resolved matters on the wider national stage two decades later. With hindsight, of course, we regard those American evangelical seceders as deeply misguided and wrong. And for the 30 years or so that I have been engaged in theological debates about sexuality, I have consistently said that my own classical Christian position on it might be proved wrong in due course, not principally because the state declares it unacceptable – although as with Lincoln God can speak prophetically through the state to the church – but because a biblical-hermeneutical key emerges that compels me and other such classical Christians to change our view in this area. After all, we see but through a glass, darkly. Until and unless that hermeneutical key emerges, however, the Tim Farron case suggests that we might well be increasingly stifled in the public square, marginalised from mainline politics and, in time, perhaps, legally sanctioned for speaking, writing and even privately thinking as we do. In that case, Dreher’s Benedict Option – in many ways a popularisation of the option MacIntyre envisaged 30 years ago in his ever-more prescient study After Virtue – might become the only realistic option. I hope not, since that’s not my own theological or missiological vision for Christianity today. Even so, St Benedict acted contingently in response to a social and political crisis for the church of his time, and there may indeed be lessons that we can learn from the example he set.

David Hilborn

16th June 2017


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