I have just returned from an event which embodied much of the best that liberal democrats have to offer; namely genuine, intelligent discussion and free dialogue. With a dose of inspiration mixed in.
This tradition of pluralist democratic open debate is often abused not just in our modern online media, but frankly also in Parliament and in print. This is why I was so grateful to receive some welcome respite at the launch of an important collection of essays brought together under the title: Liberal Democrats Do God. The launch was attended by Colin Bloom the Director of the Christian Conservative Fellowship, several active members of the Christian Socialist Movement (soon to be renamed Christians on the Left) and the Research Director of Theos Nick Spencer (a must follow on twitter). Most of the headlines attached to this book had been about how ‘God is a Liberal Democrat’ inevitably misquoting the Christian Lib Dem MP Steve Webb.
You can read an excellent review of the book at God and Politics.
The main speakers at the launch were Dr John Pugh MP, Greg Mulholland MP and the Right Honourable Sir Andrew Stunell MP, all contributors to the publication.
What is so important about this launch was not so much that Liberal politicians in the UK have stuck their necks out in such a major way on the fact that they have a Christian faith, rather than – as Ducan Hames MP put it – letting it be something that an assiduous parliamentary researcher discovered; but that in consequence it will be such a great help in the ongoing battle to rid our public discourse of certain very deeply ingrained and pervasive myths about the Christian faith.
Firstly, pointed out by the Chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine and expanded upon impeccably by Sir Andrew, was the myth that Christians are anti-secular. In reality of course secularism in it’s true sense does not equate with atheism and all truly committed liberal secularists are perfectly capable of appreciating the contribution to pluralism and tolerance that the Christian faith has made and continues to make. In this one thinks in particular of ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but unto God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:21) but also of Augustine’s City of God Part II (Books XI-XXII). In addition if you haven’t read George Weigel’s The Cube and Cathedral I can thoroughly recommend it as an essential – and short – introduction into some key thoughts in this area. (he gets it wrong on Yasser Arafat, but that shouldn’t lead one to dismiss the whole book).
The second myth that I am delighted Nick Spencer was at pains to point out is that the Christian faith is in opposition to Humanism. In fact Humanism is the very common ground that Christians in public life hope to engage upon in reasonable debate, and indeed it was Christian Humanists such as Erasmus who pioneered humanism, as even Andrew Copson (Chief Exec of the BHA) conceded in conversation with me once at Labour Party Conference.
In addition to these two great myths we can add the idea that Christianity seeks to impose itself on those who do not accept the faith. Greg Mulholland warmly dismissed this error by referring to the time he pointed out to a colleague that a Bishop writing to MPs requesting they vote a certain way was no more an attempt to impose his view than campaigners for and against the culling of badgers were attempting to impose their view.
Dr Pugh also highlighted the problem of political party managers dealing with those of a religious faith needing to be given leeway, but pre-supposing that their view could not in any way be based upon reason or capable of being explained rationally. Not a thought process confined to Parliamentary Whips.
It is worth noting that in Sarah Teather’s contribution to the book she begins by including an Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word Liberal – ‘given, or giving freely, generous, not sparing of, abundant’. Of course this definition is the adjective but Sarah is entirely right to refer to it. Because it is in this sense that we are all called to be liberals: defenders of freedom, not just from authoritarian constraints, but also freedom to engage positively to fulfil our potential as human persons. God won’t touch our freedom but he does call us to a greater freedom.
God is a Liberal; not just in the freedom of the rich young man who walks away from the radical call of discipleship but the freedom to ‘know the truth’ which sets us free, free to have and ‘enjoy life abundantly’.
This can be the freedom that we propose but never impose.