The Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Tim Farron has said his religious beliefs would not get the same level of scrutiny if he was Jewish or Muslim.
The committed Christian said people who were concerned that his faith would affect his ability to lead a liberal party should “look more carefully into what liberalism really is”.
“Surely you wouldn’t … run a campaign against somebody standing for leader if they were a secular humanist, or Jewish or Muslim,” said Farron. “And if you wouldn’t do that, then don’t do this.”
Last month the rival leadership candidate Norman Lamb suspended two members of his campaign team after they were found to have run a survey asking party members about what Lamb’s aides considered to be Farron’s illiberal views on abortion and LGBT rights.
“I was once slagged off by somebody senior [in the Lib Dems] for being “a God-bothering little shit”, so I think there is a sense that you can’t possibly have a Christian leading a liberal party,” Farron said.
“But we’re still grieving the loss of Charles Kennedy who spent seven years being party leader and quite a devout Roman Catholic, and nobody looks back and thinks that was some kind of theocracy.”
Farron said he was happy to answer questions about his religious beliefs, but added: “As has been said to me a few times: ‘They wouldn’t be asking you any of these questions if you were Muslim.’ And I just think there is a point where liberals need to be liberals.
“As liberals we’re supposed to believe in tolerance and that doesn’t mean we all have to agree and that means protecting the rights of people with whom you may not agree. And that’s my great worry, that if we’re not careful, we could end up being supporters of a slightly New Labour assimilation, rather than a diversity. And diversity means people being different and not the same.”
Farron was among nine Lib Dem MPs to abstain at a third reading of the marriage (same-sex couples) bill, which was passed with 366 yes votes to 161 no votes in May 2013.
He said he regretted abstaining because it had given people the wrong idea about his views. Farron explained that he had concerns about aspects of the bill relating to “protecting people’s right to conscience” and that it did not sufficiently protect the rights of transgender people, but said he was a firm believer in same-sex marriage.
Speaking in a televised debate with Lamb last week, Farron said he felt every abortion was a tragedy, wording that provoked a flurry of critical responses on Twitter.
In 2007, Farron voted against most of his party in favour of the termination of pregnancy bill, which would have required compulsory counselling and a “cooling-off period” before any abortion. He is clear that he does not favour any change in the current abortion time limits and that the law should be informed by scientific evidence.
“For me to say that abortion is a tragedy does not mean you should make it illegal,” he said. “But I’d be staggered if anybody thought it was a good thing.
“There aren’t many people who’ve been involved in the process who’ve thought it was anything other than an enormously sad one. Both because of the impact on the individual and the situation with the unborn child. If it wasn’t, then we would shrug and allow it to happen on demand to nine months, wouldn’t we?”
The Lib Dem leadership contest, which was triggered by the resignation of Nick Clegg after the party’s poor performance in the general election, is a two-horse race between Lamb and Farron. The ballot papers have been sent out and the winner will be announced on 16 July.
A key figure on the left of the party, Farron is the bookies’ favourite to win and has secured the formal backing of three of the party’s eight MPs (Mark Williams, John Pugh and Greg Mulholland); the heads of the Scottish and Welsh branches of the Lib Dems, Willie Rennie and Kirsty Williams; the party’s only surviving MEP, Catherine Bearder; and more than 100 former Lib Dem election candidates.
Lamb, who is considered to be more aligned with the politics of the coalition, has been publicly endorsed by Tom Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington, Shirley Williams, a founding member of the Social Democratic party, which joined with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988, and former party leaders Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell.
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Friday 3rd July 2015 15.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010