Book Review: A Better Ambition Confessions of a Faithful Liberal – Tim Farron MP (2019)

                                   

Tim Farron MP, the former Liberal Democrat leader between 2015 and 2017, and perhaps the country’s most famous Christian politician, resigned from the Lib Dem leadership on the 14th June 2017. He made the following statement in his resignation speech:

The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.

A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.’ [1]

For many it seemed to represent the final nail in the coffin to the notion that religion could co-exist successfully with life in the public square. His decision to resign embodied the fear of many that to be a Christian meant to exclude oneself from political office. Christianity had lost; it no longer had a voice in the public sphere.

Faithfulness.

Farron’s book carries the reader through his life story with the wit and honesty he has become renowned for in his politics. Bookended with his reflections on the 2017 election, he charts his journey from life as a young lad in Preston, through the collapse of his parents’ relationship, to his election as the Lib Dem Party Leader.

His time in British politics has indeed been impressive. Farron held the highest positions in the Lib Dems becoming both President and later Party Leader, a feat achieved by few that seek such heights. His influence during the Coalition years and impact on the Lib Dem’s Brexit policy also cannot be underestimated. Despite all this, Farron’s chief concern throughout his book is the question of faithfulness.

The key themes of the book align with those revealed in his resignation speech. Can one be both faithful to God as a Christian whilst also being faithful to their political allegiances and liberalism in particular? Whilst his resignation would suggest not, his book and life argue otherwise.

Fundamentally, his biography wrestles with the questions and accusations that dogged his time as political leader. Rather than deterring political engagement, Farron seeks to defend the need for Christianity in the public square and what to expect once in that arena. What then explains the divergence between his experience and his book?

Fear.

The difficulties Farron faced are embodied by the well-known debates surrounding his views on homosexuality and abortion, issues he constantly wrestles with throughout his book. [2] Amidst the uproar caused by his views, his other policies were overlooked leading him to describe himself as a ‘vandalized advertising hoarding: the intended message obscured by whatever someone else had daubed across it.[3] The pain of this clearly burdens him leading to the confession ‘I do feel wounded.’ [4]

Ultimately, Farron centres on the tale of faithfulness as pitted against the tale of fear. Just as Peter caved on the night Jesus was crucified so Farron admits he caved out of fear.[5]

‘The real problem is that – unusually for me – I was afraid, and it showed… I was afraid of the loss of approval and of being misunderstood… when it came to my faith, I was nervous, and every word was carefully chosen.’ [6]

Whilst the battle with guilt and confusion roared within his heart and ultimately led to his resignation, Farron’s book does not advocate a faithful retreat to the fringe of the public square. Rather, Farron presents a tale of hope. What might have been a tale of bitterness and regret is one characterised by the robust grace and forgiveness of the gospel.

Hope.

‘I want to say one more thing: I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party.

Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.

In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.’ [7]

Farron’s resignation speaks of a sense of immense loss but also incredible gain. Immense loss in the sadness that he felt he couldn’t hold true to his God and his party. Incredible gain because despite losing the treasures of political power he did not lose his God or his party.

The ‘liberal’ society from which he faced abuse he calls to reflection. Citing the deep Christian heritage that underpins the liberal tradition, Farron calls liberals to remember that freedom, dignity, and equality are rightly found in a God who affirms the value of each and every person. [8]

Society may have slipped into an era where tyranny of opinion dominates public discourse. [9] Yet, Farron challenges liberals to be faithful to their tradition and refuse the forced assimilation of views. [10] In his resignation he has found he is free to serve his constituents and serve God in speaking ‘out on the need for real liberalism, for rational politics, for a politics that is genuinely kinder and gentler, and for the duty of a free society to understand that faith is an essential part of a liberal and decent country.[11]

In challenging the most illiberal elements of liberalism Farron faces a significant task. He does not walk the road alone and here he presents the antidote to the fear that once undermined him.

Psalm 23:4 ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me. To follow Christ is to know that God will not always deliver you from difficult situations, but he will most certainly deliver you through them.[12]

Faithful not fearful.

Faithfulness then has been a difficult pursuit for Farron. Conflicted between the priority of protecting his party or serving his creator he wavered, and his wavering undid him. In his resignation, faithfulness was deemed to have been an impossible task. Nonetheless, Farron’s fall from grace brought a redeeming hope. A hope which persuaded him that to be a faithful liberal is to challenge the deeply illiberal forces that attacked him. A hope which persuaded him that to be a faithful Christian is to never apologise for having faith in the God who made you.

To be faithful is to be fearful and carry on anyway. His political influence may have changed but faithfulness remains the pursuit and there is much to be learnt from his reflections for those that also seek to be faithful in politics.

There is great freedom in this pursuit. For following the Lord of all ‘means that everything that happens in this life matters, but it also means that you can hold these things lightly. Triumphs and disasters alike are not permanent. You can therefore rise above them both.[13]

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[2] See for example Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.22 and p.34.

[3] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.11.

[4] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.285.

[5] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.215.

[6] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.201.

[8] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.241.

[9] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), pp.230-231.

[10] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.225.

[11] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p. 287.

[12] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.286.

[13] Tim Farron, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’ (2019), p.138.

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