Keep religion out of the UK election

Keep religion out of the UK election

VOTESBYWOMEN_V8Tim Farron has been hounded over his private religious beliefs; Theresa May seems to do well out of hers. Wouldn’t it be better, asks Eleanor Marriott, to agree that we ‘don’t do God’?

Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street press secretary, has strong religious beliefs: he strongly believes that religion should stay out of politics. In 2003, when Tony Blair was being quizzed about his Christianity in an interview, Campbell famously stated: “We don’t do God.”

Tim Farron may well have wished that he’d had a Campbell in the shadows pressing the mute button when he “came out” as a devout Christian. The Liberal Democrat leader seems reluctant to hide his beliefs, but doesn’t want them to be seen as influencing his policies. Yet since the election has been called, his religion has become his Achilles heel, with interviewers repeatedly asking about his religious views on homosexuality and forcing him to deny that he thought that homosexuality or homosexual sex was a sin.

In response, the comedian David Baddiel tweeted that Farron was a “fundamentalist Christian homophobe”. Farron had always seemed pretty moderate to me, so I looked up his parliamentary voting record on gay rights: six votes for; one against and three abstentions.

Given the Lib Dems’ pro-equality stance, it would look better on paper if Farron had consistently voted in favour of gay rights, but six times out of ten doesn’t seem like the hallmark of a homophobe. He has since stated that he regretted abstaining on the equal marriage bill, explaining that he did so because of a detail he didn’t agree with and not because he was against it in principle. I’m sure he is wishing he could turn the clock back on all those votes now, however, because it appears that no matter what he does or says – such as being the only main leader to speak out against gay torture camps in Chechnya – the homophobic label won’t seem to come unstuck.

For me there is a more pressing concern: the way Baddiel and others have lumped “homophobe” together with “fundamentalist Christian”, as if one relates to the other. For the record I’m not religious myself, but it’s unsettling that somebody’s personal beliefs have to be dragged out before everyone for analysis and presented as a badge of shame.

Farron’s refusal to say whether he believed gay sex was a sin has been described as “abhorrent” by certain indignant MPs. If he had blocked every attempt to give homosexuals more rights, issued a statement saying that gay sex was a sin or stated in his manifesto that gay rights will be reversed – well yes, that would be abhorrent. But is it really so monstrous to refuse to get drawn into a discussion about religion? Does it not sound like the kind of question more suited to the Spanish inquisition than a 21st-century TV interview?

And let’s not forget, the ink had barely dried on Baddiel’s righteous indignation over the Labour Party’s failure to have punished Ken Livingstone enough for being anti-Semitic before his Farron tweet started doing the rounds. It seems somewhat hypocritical to call for blood one minute because someone has incited hatred towards a religious group, and the next minute brand someone else a “fundamentalist Christian homophobe”.

Perhaps this crude kind of stereotype won’t wash with the electorate. Last year, when Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign used Sadiq Khan’s Muslim faith to suggest that (among other things) he sympathised with extremists, Londoners refused to take the bait. Khan became mayor and Goldsmith became about as popular as a UKIP supporter at a Remain rally.

Yet there does seem to be an odd willingness among the British people – those on the sidelines as well as politicians and journalists – to decide that they know what a person’s Christianity means. To take another example, if I had a penny for every time that someone refers to Theresa May as being a vicar’s daughter I would personally be able to fund the NHS without any need to “take back control” from the EU.

Fortunately for the Prime Minister, she is seen to represent the safe and respectable side of religion. She didn’t have a religious awakening; she is a good, old-fashioned Church of England worshipper, which makes her about as English as strawberry jam. Not for nothing is the Church of England often referred to as “the Tory Party at prayer”.

Compared with this, Farron has a relatively ordinary background, from which the presumption seems to follow that if he chooses to be a Christian, let alone a devout one, there must be something wrong with him. And besides, he’s in the wrong party for that sort of thing.

Is this strictly fair? I for one don’t care that Tim Farron is a devout Christian any more than I care that Theresa May is a vicar’s daughter. I didn’t care in the last election that Ed Miliband was the son of a Jewish refugee, and if Jeremy Corbyn is an atheist that’s fine too. Of course your religious beliefs or upbringing may help to shape you as a politician but, so long as you are open about what your policies are and stick to those policies, there are more important things to worry about.

Let’s stop bothering the godly and stick to the issues that matter – whether it’s the EU, taxes, the NHS or a party’s policy on marijuana that concerns you. Or if you must launch a personal attack based on religion, then at least be fair and damn everyone, not just those without the benefit of inherited faith.

Eleanor Marriott is a London-based writer and photographer. She has a website and blog at www.anenchantedeye.com

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