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Opinion: 'Leo is right to welcome people who have socially conservative views'

Pushing Christians whose politics are shaped by their religious convictions to the periphery is wrong and dumb, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

A SIGNIFICANT OCCURRENCE that has been perhaps understandably lost in the media coverage of the fallout from the British general election is the resignation of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron. He did so despite the fact that his party increased its small number of MPs from 9 to 12.

The party had a respectable showing, even if it fell short of the hopes of many of its luminaries and rank and file members.

What dogged Mr Farron, both in public and behind the scenes, were the comments he made in recent weeks and in years previous about homosexual sex and abortion. His personal beliefs about the former – he wasn’t definitive in his pronouncements about whether it is sinful or not – and the latter – he once called it “wrong” – made headlines.

Torn between Christianity and politics

In the words of one Labour MP, Mr Farron’s utterances were “a gift on the doorstep,” in left-leaning constituencies, for his rivals. That said, the Liberal Democrat affirmed that he would always be a champion for the LGBT community and support access to abortion in most circumstances on the campaign trail.

Under pressure from his colleagues, Mr Farron decided to step aside after the election. In a speech that millions in the western world would find equally compelling and dispiriting, he offered the following remarks.

“From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I’ve tried to answer [these] with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser. The consequences of the focus on my faith are that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.”

“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. I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we leave in a tolerant, liberal society.”

His sentiments resonate with me

These sentiments resonated deeply with me at a personal level. It is difficult to belong simultaneously and with the same intensity of conviction to both a left of centre political party and to most Christian denominations – and specifically in my own case, to the Roman Catholic Church.

Progressive political parties, in myriad ways, are natural homes for adherents to the message of Jesus Christ. Their advocacy, in rhetoric and in policy, for society’s most marginalised and disadvantaged, coupled with their insistence that the privileged make more of a financial contribution to the running of government and, as a consequence, to the provision of basic services for those who need them is entirely consistent with what we are called to believe and how we are inspired to act.

Yet an arguable shift in emphasis in recent decades, which is particularly evident in the (my) Democratic Party in the United States, has brought faith and politics for lots of Christians into direct conflict. There has been a movement away from “bread and butter” economic issues towards fulfilling the aspirations of the cultural left. Leaving aside their relative merits, these are often at odds with Christian teaching.

People of faith have some not wholly unreasonable reservations

As well as the crisis of conscience this has precipitated for Catholics and Christians, it has been spectacularly bad for politics in the US.

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump last November and Republican victories in every special congressional election since – the president’s low approval ratings notwithstanding – Democrats are now fighting internally about how they should position themselves. Do they move to the middle or still further to the left? Are they Hillary Clinton’s or Bernie Sanders’ party?

Collectively, the party is asking the wrong questions altogether. In fact, the best electoral answer for the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the 2,623 of 3,112 total counties that President Trump won across a vast, diverse country is to turn to the right on social issues and to embrace economic populism.

It is not to be a Clinton or Sanders Democrat. It is to be a Democrat who grasps the plight of those left behind by globalisation and related developments, but also recognises that people of faith and numerous others have serious, not wholly unreasonable reservations about late-term abortions and unisex public toilets.

Strident proponents on the cultural left cite human rights principles and legal instruments, as well as the importance of separation between church and state, among the justifications for their worldview.

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To an extent, they have a point. The demonstrated unwillingness of some of them to engage or seek common ground with those whose contrary or nuanced stances on issues like abortion are rooted in their religious belief systems and regard for human rights, however, is intolerant and ultimately counterproductive.

Cultural left has made Christians feel unwelcome

The cultural left has won the battle for control of party platforms and can exert considerable influence over policy direction and prioritisation in 2017. But at the same time, they have made many Christians feel unwelcome. That’s why Tim Farron quit.

And on a much broader plane, that’s at least partly why Donald Trump resides in the White House and right-wing Republicans dominate the US Congress, governorships and state legislatures.

Closer to home, the new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, says that “Fine Gael should be a warm house for people who have socially conservative views.” He’s right. And just as importantly, he’s shrewd. Pushing Christians whose politics are shaped by their religious convictions to the periphery is wrong – and dumb.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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