Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Lib Dems diversity problems - will they ever be solved?

Many years ago the black Democrat politician Jesse Jackson created what he called a Rainbow Coalition to support his bid for the Democratic nomination for president of the USA. This Coalition was intended to include all those who are oppressed by hostility to their identity, whether women, BAME, LGBT and other groups.
It is something all Liberals aspire to achieve and in theory should be able to achieve. Liberalism celebrates diversity does it not?
The lack of female, BAME and disabled MPs suggests otherwise, but for this blog I want to focus on religion.
People who are religious often look at the great moral issues of the world and find this draws them into politics. It is remarkable that if we take Christianity that as a religious faith it's set of moral values do not sit easily with any political ideology. Christians can be found in all political parties, and it is worth considering that many were founded by Christians based on their interpretation of their faith. Foremost amongst those was the Liberal party of course.
Everything seemed fine for many years, religious and secular members of the Liberal party and Liberal Democrats worked well together. Some were put off Christianity because it was used by Mrs Thatcher in particular to support her "Victorian Values" where women knew their place and homosexuality was not allowed. Generally Christians who joined the Liberal party and the Lib Dems did not support that interpretation of their faith and so there was no problem.
However there has over the past 20 years or so been a dramatic rise in the Humanist movement and parts of this movement has changed the conversation. Today there are humanists who support toleration and those who do not and both types are members of the Liberal Democrats. So if you are a Christian or a Muslim you are often made to feel unwelcome within the party. How can this be?
There is a new cadre of evangelical atheists who not only disagree with religion, they consider it beneath them. This critique of Richard Dawkin's autobiography by John Gray puts it well:
"If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance). But as the Victorians well knew, there are many types of atheism, liberal and illiberal, and many versions of atheist ethics. Again, Dawkins imagines an atheist is bound to be an enemy of religion. But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood."
And so many followers of Richard Dawkins do believe in Liberal values and naturally would join the Liberal Democrats. But in one sense they are not liberal in that they are intolerant. Why is that? It is their insistence that anyone who believes in a religion can only believe in it literally, as Gray points out:
"Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally. Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story. Later, in the twelfth century, Maimonides took a similar view. It was only around the time of the Reformation that the idea that the story was a factual account of events became widely held. When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theories—one primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true. In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist."
And so it is this insistence that the literal interpretations of religious texts are the only valid one which makes it easy to lampoon and ridicule religion. And with that comes a sense of intellectual superiority. Within a political party that believes in diversity, that celebrates that different people think differently, this attitude is counter productive and makes religious people feel unwelcome. As far as the Lib Dems are concerned, in some constituencies with a large Muslim population this could make them unelectable, and if we want more ethnic minorities in the party this will be another barrier stopping them from joining.
There are understandable concerns that many religious people are socially conservative and will not support policies such as gay marriage or LGBT rights in general. Often that is not so much to do with religion and more to do with people coming from societies - particularly authoritarian societies - where are serious debate on LGBT rights has not even started.
Those who have been on the receiving end of homophobia may feel unsafe in the presence of religious people joining the party. But in politics our aim is to change things for the better, not accept them as they are. Many Muslims and Christians support LGBT rights, and many more can be persuaded. It is not the job of the Liberal Democrats to turn religious people into atheists. Maybe Richard Dawkins can do that. And given that is not our job, what we do need to do is make the case for Liberalism and invite people of all varieties to join us and help us campaign for it. A campaign instead to exclude people will only make us a smaller party and less diverse.
The problem though is an ideological one. The believers of evangelical atheism also believe they are Liberals and in many respects they are. On policies outside of religion I often find myself in complete agreement with them. However if the problem with diversity is simply a disciplinary issue, or an organisational issue, that can be tackled. If it is an ideological division, then who gets to adjudicate, or do we somehow muddle along regardless - and not get anywhere?

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