The Lib Dem Leader says UK Christians have to pretend not to have faith. But is Tim Farron right?

ReutersLiberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron

Tim Farron struggles to be heard above the almost unprecedented noise of British politics. With only nine MPs, the leader of the Liberal Democrats simply doesn't have the platform afforded to his predecessors.

He's a skilful politician, a good parliamentary performer and one of the best constituency MPs I've known – up close. Still, he's not often able to cut through and command attention.

This week, though, he got headlines in the Christian press for comments he made to the Evening Standard.

Farron said: 'In America you've got to invent a faith to be taken seriously; in the UK you have to pretend not to have one. You shouldn't be ashamed.' Cue breathless reporting about Farron proclaiming that Christians aren't taken seriously.

I just don't buy it.

I'm a Christian. I go to church on a Sunday and on various occasions during the week. I work for Christian organisations. I worship freely and I work freely.

I'm an occasional guest on mainstream broadcast stations and I've never felt – or been told – that I can't mention my faith.

But it isn't just about me. Farron, who works in the heart of Westminster, the very seat of power in the UK, is a Christian. He was given a rough ride over his views when he first became the Lib Dem leader, but he handled the tough interviews well and remains a high-profile politician.

In the UK Parliament, there are many, many Christian politicians. Although it's hard to pin down exact numbers, a large proportion of MPs and Peers self-identify as Christians, belong to the various Christian party groupings, attend church and support Christian charities.

Would I like there to be more Christians taking up places on the benches? Probably – the Christian ethic and worldview presents the best basis for a vibrant, thriving, democratic society, in my mind. But still, there are many Christians in Westminster and the system itself is still at least nominally Christian. Each day starts with prayers and Church of England bishops retain their seats in the Lords.

None of this is to say that there aren't occasional problems. Farron is correct if he's pointing out that there seems to be an increasing unfamiliarity with faith which shows itself. The recent controversy over a BBC politics Twitter account asking whether it was OK for an SNP MP to have the sign of the cross on her head on Ash Wednesday was a prime example.

As well as misunderstanding, there is also outright hostility to public officials displaying their faith on occasion. When Theresa May was interviewed on Brexit and her faith, social media went into meltdown. Labour politician Christian Woolmar tweeted, 'Surely most worrying aspect of the whole ‪#Brexit affair is that decisions, according to Theresa May, are being made on the advice of God?'

The National Secular Society said, 'While it is fine for Theresa May to have a faith, what she mustn't do is abuse her position to promote Christianity or impose her own religious values on others.'

Given these reactions, and headlines such as 'PM WHO EARLIER OPPOSED BREXIT NOW SAYS GOD TELLS HER IT'S THE "RIGHT THING" TO DO' it would be easy to think Theresa May had actually said she was relying on God to help her work out the Brexit deal.

In fact, asked about making tough decisions by the Sunday Times she'd merely said, 'I suppose there is something in terms of faith... I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do... It's not like I've decided to do what I'm going to do and I'm stubborn. I'll think it through, have a gut instinct, look at the evidence, work through the arguments, because you have to think through the unintended consequences.'

The way this story was spun indicates a lack of understanding about faith and the role it plays in many of our lives – including politicians.

We mustn't minimise the huge job we have to do to help the media and the rest of society understand that to have faith – and in our case a Christian faith – is a normal and acceptable thing. Yet, if that's the worst we have to put up with, then I fear our sisters and brothers in genuine fear of their lives elsewhere in the world may look at us askance.

Let's take one example. In Pakistan, Christian politicians have been murdered for merely suggesting that all citizens should be equal, regardless of their faith. That is real suffering.

Christian politicians and other public servants in the UK simply don't face anything in the same league. Yes there's a lack of understanding of faith at times, but we really aren't made to 'pretend not to have one' as Farron said. Instead, we should calmly keep pointing out our position. It's the British way, and more importantly, the Christian way.

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy

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