Several strands of comment have emerged since the election about the social liberalism of our country. It all started when the government announced that they were in talks with the DUP – a party which holds clear views on social issues such as marriage and abortion. Ed Vaizey was first out of the blocks on BBC Breakfast, the morning after the election.
In his view, social liberalism is now ‘part of our DNA’ and any moves to concede social rights on same sex marriage and LGBT rights in order to annexe DUP support would not be welcome. He would regard any such move as both socially illiberal and a means of ‘taking the country backwards’. Social liberalism, he argued, is‘part of what makes us the great country that we are’.
He was quickly followed by Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative party, who received assurances from the prime minister that LGBT rights would not be affected by any DUP deal. In fact, the prime minister went further in agreeing to ‘try to use her influence to advance LGBTI rights in Northern Ireland’. Ruth Davidson also said that LGBT rights matter more to her than party.
This illiberalism is concerning on several counts. What right does the prime minister have to seek to impose her particular social orthodoxy on Northern Ireland? The point of liberalism, if there is any longer a point, is that people are free to decide for themselves how to live and to use the ballot box to demonstrate their wishes. It is also worrying that Ms Davidson cares more about the rights of a minority group than about the politics of the party and the people whom she serves. If the issue is so close to her heart, she should leave politics and become an LGBT activist, rather than use her position to seek to impose her views on others. The problem, of course, is the relentless march of identity politics, a march in which governing for the common good is subsumed in personal ideologies and identities.
Perhaps the saddest moment of the whole debacle began during the election campaign, when Tim Farron was relentlessly pilloried by the media about his views on human sexuality. It was a debate he was always going to lose as a Christian, because there is only one right answer in the minds of those who hounded him. LGBT rights good: everything else bad. The end of his resignation speech was both powerful and moving: ‘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”.’ And in making his decision, Tim Farron highlighted the essential illberalism of those very people who claim to be social liberals. He was forced to choose between honouring his faith and assenting to contemporary culture. Why should he have to make that choice, if we live in a country that is genuinely liberal in its DNA?
And the implications of all of this for education policy? It’s clear, from the media feeding frenzy surrounding Tim Farron; from Ruth Davidson’s demands for the prioritising of LGBT rights over those of the democratically elected DUP; from the promise of the prime minister to seek to impose LGBT rights on Northern Ireland, and from a vocal minority who insist that if you don’t agree you must be silenced, where education policy is headed.
Alongside a range of other points of view, in a genuinely liberal country, schools should be able teach about marriage as the basis of building strong families in which to raise secure, happy children. Schools should be allowed to teach that we are created male and female and that this is God’s design for humanity. And teachers who choose to teach that shouldn’t be branded extremist, hate-filled homophobes. Christian teaching presents God’s design, but it does not demand that people accept and promote it at the risk of losing their careers. Only social liberalism does that. We no longer prioritise the teaching of traditional family values in our schools, leave alone Christian values. So how long before teachers also have to make the same choice as Tim Farron – their faith or their career; conform or go?
In the book of Samuel, a prophet visiting the priest Eli, whose sons had abandoned all pretence of honouring God, delivered two statements. One was a warning: ‘those who despise me will be disdained’. But God also made another promise, that ‘Those who honour me I will honour’ (1 Samuel 2:30). How willing are we, as Christians and educators, to honour our God rather than our culture?