It's not a question of faith... it's a matter of politics

It's been a very strange last couple of weeks.

First came the shock news that Nicola Sturgeon had resigned as First Minister. I don’t think anyone saw that coming and I have to admit to not sharing the glee that some of my fellow Liberal Democrats expressed at this development. Nicola Sturgeon has a somewhat mixed legacy, but there can be no denying her commitment to equalities or her skills as a communicator. In those respects at least, she will be a tough act to follow.

In the coming weeks and months we will perhaps find ourselves in a better position to appraise Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy. Personally, the events of the last few days - which I will come to in a moment - have convinced me that her greatest achievement was the cultivation of an image of the SNP as a united party of social progressives, and that her biggest single failure was the lack of succession planning. 

Secondly, we have seen the equally surprising but altogether more ironic situation in which the Free Church of Scotland has suddenly decided it cares about liberal values. Seemingly oblivious to its own historic attitudes towards other Christian denominations, the FCoS has railed against what it decries as “anti-Christian intolerance”

This is, of course, entirely due to the Kate Forbes saga. So, just in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid the news for the last ten days or so, here’s what’s happened so far.

Following Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, some of the expected names to put themselves forward to succeed her surprised many by failing to do so. These included Angus Robertson. Instead, the three confirmed candidates for party leader are Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan.

My attention, for the purposes of this post, is turned to Kate Forbes because of the controversy that has followed the launch of her campaign and because of the way this has fuelled discussion about how faith and politics interact.

Kate Forbes has never hidden the fact that she is a member of the FCoS. Neither has she hidden that she has a strong personal faith, and has often talked about it in rather general terms, including during a BBC interview with Nick Robinson.  She talked about her personal belief in Jesus Christ as saviour and that she was made in the image of God. No-one blinked an eyelid, precisely because she steered clear of distinct questions of policy. Interestingly, she did say in that interview with Mr Robinson that she was "as guilty as anybody of tiptoeing around [when it comes to talking about her faith, because of] fear and a sense that the public will think we only speak for our own rather than speak for everybody".

The BBC article referred to the beliefs of the FCoS, but Ms Forbes herself did not reference these. She did not state what her views were on same-sex marriage, abortion, gender reform... or even the doctrines of election and eternal security or a raft of other ideas that her church is likely to have views on. She kept things personal – and when faith is kept personal, as we see, few people object.

Some will argue that we should have been aware that the finance secretary had conservative social views, as evidenced by her church membership. However, to judge people according to their church membership would be unfair. Everyone is an individual and every church – even the FCoS – has a breadth of views represented among its followers. Ian Blackford, for instance, clearly takes a very different line from Kate Forbes on many issues; despite being a member of the same church he called same-sex marriage "a marvellous thing". I am quite sure that the moderator of the FCoS would neither require nor expect all members of his church to share precisely the same views.

On the first day of her campaign, Ms Forbes got into a bit of trouble when she told Channel 4 News that she would have voted against same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP at the time.  She promised not to “go back on any rights that currently exist” but made it clear that her personal view is that marriage is “between a man and a woman”, irrespective of the current legal position. This was something entirely new. Some people may have suspected this, but never before had Ms Forbes actually confirmed that she would have voted that way (and presumably still would if the opportunity was there).

A senior member of Ms Forbes’ campaign team told her on day one that the game was over. OK, they may have used stronger language, but you get the gist. On day two the finance minister had to announce that it was not, in fact, over – hardly a great look. However, she was determined to create an even worse look by doubling down on her opposition to same-sex marriage and defending her stance as “mainstream Christian teaching”, thus insulting the many Christians who take a very different view. She also talked about having children outside marriage as being “wrong” and turned on those she accused of seeking to ban people of faith from high office. New lines were being drawn on which she aimed to fight her campaign.

If we weren’t absolutely sure what Kate Forbes’ views were before, we certainly know now. She is opposed to same-sex marriage. She believes marriage is only between a man and a woman, which means – by implication – that she does not see the marriages of several of her parliamentary colleagues as valid. She is opposed to the recently passed – and later blocked – gender reform legislation and dismissed it as “not a priority”. She believes that it is “wrong” to have children outside of marriage, as presumably extra-marital sex must also be. She believes there should be exceptions made within anti-conversion therapy legislation for faith groups (she said “we should defend the rights of other minorities like people of faith when it comes to their freedom of expression, their freedom of speech and their freedom of practice”).  And she believes there is some kind of anti-Christian conspiracy out there to ensure people of faith are kept out of high office.

But one thing is even more obvious – that Kate Forbes is no match for Nicola Sturgeon as a communicator. What I was most surprised about, given the years she has had to prepare for this moment, is that she never looked convincing answering questions that should surely have been predictable, quickly going defensive and even into conspiratorial mode. There were obvious ways in which she could have chosen her words more carefully and with which she could have reassured LGBTQ+ people, political opponents, liberal Christians and the public. The fact she found herself in a mess largely of her own making says far more about her lack of political prudence rather than her religious beliefs or personal faith.

For me, the biggest problem was that her rather weak answers were the kind of thing I’d have come out with when I was 16 years old (when my religious outlook was quite similar – I’ve been on quite a journey since). She didn’t look like a leader-in-waiting. Can I imagine Nicola Sturgeon tying herself up in knots like that? No. Ms Forbes had time to think through responses and still managed to come across far worse than Tim Farron did when facing similar questioning.

Another issue is the framing of opponents as being motivated by anti-Christian prejudice. Kate Forbes’  recent attack on John Swinney, claiming that he inferred that people with “Christian views” were unsuitable to lead, was particularly offensive as Mr Swinney is a Christian and an active member of the Church of Scotland. Framing the discussion in this way is not only disingenuous but dangerous, inflaming religious tensions unnecessarily. What Ms Forbes is effectively doing is spinning a narrative that her socially conservative views represent the essence of “mainstream Christianity” and that those who oppose them are, presumably, not Christian.  This does little to facilitate understanding between people of different belief. 

The awkward but undeniable fact is that Ms Forbes’ beliefs are not the only Christian beliefs out there.  There are Christians and people of other religions whose faith, like mine, tells them that same-sex marriages are valid, that conversion therapy is intrinsically evil and that consenting extra-marital sexual relationships are none of our business. There are Christians who support gender reform. There are many, many Christians who don’t follow the teaching of the Free Church of Scotland, whose “mainstream” credentials may be – how shall I put it? – somewhat questionable.

I have no doubt that Kate Forbes’ conservative political views are the product of her faith. But they can no more be used to characterise Christianity as, say, John Swinney’s very different understandings. I welcome the fact that there are people from diverse faiths and none in our parliament, but ultimately politicians will be judged by what they believe and how they vote.

I don’t believe that Kate Forbes’ views are a barrier to her standing for the office of First Minister. It is for SNP members to decide whether those views represent them. However, I do have some interest in this because, while I am a Liberal Democrat, I also want a competent First Minister who is a good communicator, who understands the needs of others, who values religious pluralism and who can demonstrate they understand the anxieties, frustrations and aspirations of minority groups. Moreover, it is absolutely vital we have a First Minister who, when talking about LGBTQ+ issues, will positively affect the tone of the public conversation. Can I trust Kate Forbes to lead a positive discourse around LGBTQ+ inclusion? I’m afraid not. Not when she dismisses those who continue with this line of questioning as not focusing on "what really matters". Some our our marriages matter, too. 

There have been times when I have supported our outgoing First Minister. And I have been proud to. I am not sure that I would feel so proud to support a First Minister who believes my sexual orientation to be sinful, or who believes the marriages of many of my friends – including a wonderful Christian minister – are invalid.

It is not enough to simply “not roll back legislation”. Firstly, nothing is ever – to use the often misused phrase – “enshrined in law”. Legislation can always be revisited. Speaking hypothetically, if Scotland gains independence under Kate Forbes’ leadership, what will the new constitution say about the questions she’s been so keen to talk about: same-sex marriage, abortion rights or gender rights? Secondly, there’s a question of influence in play here that is arguably more important than mere policy detail. A First Minister must govern in everyone’s interests and cannot simply dismiss public statements on areas of policy as “matters of faith” as if there should be absolutely no political consequences to unwisely unburdening yourself to Channel 4 reporters. 

Kate Forbes has expressed some very strong views. She is entitled to do this. What she is not entitled to do is portray disagreement with those views as anti-religious prejudice. Many of us speak against those views from alternative religious angles. It’s almost as if it is the opinion that is problematic rather than the faith behind it.

It doesn’t matter where beliefs come from. However, it matters greatly how they are expressed.  Once a view has been expressed in the public domain people are entitled to make political judgements. And, while Kate Forbes clearly has a strong faith that leads her to arrive at particular viewpoints, what she has verbalised are political opinions. I cannot deny that my own faith leads me to embrace specific political perspectives and values; however, I would never ask that I am not judged politically for those beliefs. If I am standing for public office and people disagree with me, they are more than entitled to vote for someone else. Being rejected because of your views is a reality of politics. When my faith manifests itself in political expression, it will – and should – be judged politically. Religious people don’t get a free pass.

Former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars, defending Ms Forbes, claimed that what is being discussed are merely “conscience issues”. In times past, LGBTQ+ issues were generally categorised as such and I can see his argument. But this changes once rights are established. There was a time when views we would now consider racist could be freely expressed on the basis of religious freedom. Now same-sex couples have the legal right to marry, Kate Forbes has shown a certain amount of intolerance by stating – quite categorically – not only that she would not have voted for the change in the law but that she only recognises opposite-sex marriages.

Where I disagreed with Mr Sillars is his suggestion that journalists simply shouldn’t ask these questions. Why not? Doesn’t the public have a right to know? Indeed, don’t the media have a moral obligation to establish what politicians think about the key issues of the day? And even if my MP or MSP does take a different view on “conscience matters”, can I not check how they voted and allow that to influence how I vote at the next election? Of course I can, and many voters do.

When faith is personal few object. What Ms Forbes and her husband think about abortion, extra martial sex and so on is a personal matter for them and no-one else. No-one would be particularly interested in how their religious understandings underpin their personal decisions.  However, when a candidate for First Minister declares that they would have voted against equality legislation and comes out in opposition to legislation recently passed by Holyrood but blocked by Westminster, that is a political statement. The decision not to pursue legal appeal of the UK government’s Section 35 order is a political one and not an issue of faith.

Where does this go now? Most obviously, to the SNP members, who have a very difficult choice to make. None of the candidates inspire me. I suspect it will be a close-fought contest between Ms Forbes and Mr Yousaf, and the result may tell us something  about the nature of the SNP as a party. I suspect that the SNP’s decision to ban journalists from leadership hustings already says quite a bit about where that particular party is currently. 

However, the conversation about faith and politics will go on and, sadly, the way it has been dishonestly framed in this episode will do little for those of us who care passionately about the public discourse surrounding both. There are mature conversations to be had about where faith and politics merge, but this toxic “debate” isn’t it.

If Kate Forbes’ faith or church membership is an issue for you, then I suggest you grow up. If, however, her personal views are a problem for you – and you happen to be an SNP member – then vote accordingly. But please, let’s have none of this nonsense about persecution and people’s faith being a barrier to public office – she’s the finance minister, for goodness’ sake, and people of faith are disproportionately well represented in our parliaments in both Holyrood and Westminster. It's only since Ms Forbes has revealed her opinions on certain issues that she has attracted controversy, which tells you everything you need to know.

How people express their faith matters. And I’m afraid Kate Forbes simply hasn’t expressed herself very well.