Comment: Should strict religious views on morality prevent political leadership? Read a selection of views

Image credit: Scottish Government. CCLIcense2.0

SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes, a member of the Free Church of Scotland known as the Wee Frees, caused a storm of protest after giving media interviews saying she was against same sex marriage and that sex should be within marriage between a man and a woman. Her freedom to say what she thinks is fiercely defended by some, but her suitability to lead a more progressive society is in doubt among others. For some this is an issue of religious freedom in a liberal society. Here’s a selection of comment:

Kate Forbes in her own words on a Guardian podcast with Jonathan Freedland, 26 August 2020. She was asked whether she had any difficulty squaring her private religious views, with the public position of the SNP on social policies such as abortion, same sex marriage and trans rights. “No, because I think on two points, one is that I’m a member of the SNP knowing full well what their manifesto positions are and knowing full well some of the the changes that they’ve brought in themselves. And I think a party like the SNP is broad enough to accommodate debate and discussion and at the end of the day, when it comes to government, collective responsibility… Even as a leader, there’s plenty of room for debate, but then they come to a conclusion. And that conclusion stands. And when it comes to same sex marriage, that was a decision that was taken a number of years ago, it is the law of the land, there is nothing that I’m doing in terms of campaigning on any of those points, you know, that is the position that the SNP has come to”.

Nicola Sturgeon, the current first minister,  told the BBC: “Scotland is a socially progressive country and I believe that is the majority opinion. Whoever is first minister, the views that they have on all sorts of issues matter because people look to their first minister to see someone who will stand up for them and their rights”.

Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, has defended the right of Kate Forbes to hold conservative views on same sex marriage and children born outside marriage. She told a Politico event she would not condemn  politicians for their religious beliefs as her job is to defend the right to free speech. Badenoch, who used to be minister for faith, admitted “I’m not religious at all but I understand it. I grew up in a very religious country, so I understand what it means to people and how they live their lives. So to stop people from saying what they really feel is overly draconian”.

Ben Rich, Chief Executive Big Tent and Radix: “While I have no theological sympathy with Forbes or Farron whatsoever, I remain frustrated at their fate. Of course, their positions are different: Tim Farron was very clear that, as a liberal, his theological view that gay sex was a sin, should have no bearing on how he would vote to legislate.  The government had no role in determining how people lived – that was and is the essence of Liberalism. Forbes was instead commenting on how her personal morality would determine how she would have voted, although she went on to say she would have no difficulty attending a gay friend’s wedding. But do we do ourselves and our society any favours by making this question the sole litmus test of political acceptability?” 

Ian Macwhirter, columnist in The Times, Scotland: “I don’t know about the SNP, but Kate Forbes has done wonders for ecumenism. Not only has the Church of Scotland condemned the hounding of politicians for their religious views, this scion of Wee Free Protestantism has been defended by none other than Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland. The Scottish Association of Mosques has also expressed its “deep concern . . . that holding and/or expressing religious values deem an individual as unfit for leadership”. Hindus and Buddhists have yet to declare but it can only be a matter of time. Even pagans are considering their position, I am told. But more importantly, in a secular society, Scottish voters still seem to be backing Forbes as she begins the first week of campaigning today. The Times/Panelbase poll confirms that she still leads Humza Yousaf by eight points. She also leads the “continuity candidate” among SNP voters. This is remarkable after a week in which Forbes has been portrayed, by everyone from Nicola Sturgeon down, as a religious bigot for her views on same-sex marriage”.

Gillian Bowditch, columnist The Sunday Times, and chair of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs, Scotland: “..The problem with fundamentalism in any form is not so much individual beliefs but mindset and fealty. Individuals who adhere to the teachings of the Free Church do not merely eschew sex before marriage, homosexual relationships or abortion for themselves. They believe these practices to be inherently sinful and that those who practise them are condemned to eternal damnation…The Free Church believes the Bible to be the literal word of God. Forbes, to my knowledge, has not said if she is a creationist, but that might be a more pertinent question than her ideas around sex. A leader of a modern nation who, for example, rejects evolution or genetic medicine could be of concern to many scientists and academics. Then there is the pressure the church is likely to exert on her. Ultimately Forbes is right to stand. Religious belief should be no disbar to the highest office. But it is naive to think her beliefs don’t matter and won’t shape the society she leads, for good or for ill, depending on your point of view. The controversy surrounding her candidacy is the ultimate test of democracy”.

A.N.Wilson in The Times: The hounding of Kate Forbes shows godless squad have won: “The hoo-ha over Kate Forbes signals that we have actually now moved into a different world, where the virulently anti-Christian secularism of a certain section of the elite is in the ascendant. For 150 years, until their repeal in 1828, the Test Acts kept Catholics, Jews and other nonconformists out of public life. Would militant secularists like to see their return, with clauses to exclude all overt expressions of faith?…. do we really want to shed the values of our Christian past? Is there any evidence that we are a better society for having discarded Christianity? Is it right that Christians, such as Kate Forbes, should be hounded out of public office for sharing the faith of Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Thomas More?”

Dr Kathleen Stock, formerly University of Surrey, now University of Austin, Texas, writing in Unherd: The crucifixion of Kate Forbes “What we have here is a clash of two religions. One of them is full of sanctimonious, swivel-eyed moral scolds, rooting out heresy and trying to indoctrinate everybody into their fantastic way of thinking. The other is a branch of Calvinism. One of them asks “what would Jesus do?” and the other “what would Owen Jones think?”. Faced with a choice between their representatives on earth, I know which kind I would prefer to see in high office”.

Ian Dunt, columnist writing in the “i”: Don’t feel too sorry for Kate Forbes – her contradictions are clear to see: “Forbes’s comments have provoked the standard all-guns-blazing “they’re trying to ban Christianity” brigade….Notice that in each of these cases the suitability of a socially conservative Christian to a progressive political party is expanded out to the suitability of a socially conservative Christian to all of politics, in an extraordinarily misleading bait-and-switch. Jacob Rees-Mogg is a proud and outspoken Catholic. At Easter, he tweets: “Christ is risen, Alleluia.” He voted against gay marriage. He describes abortion as a “cult of death”. The reason that this does not threaten his career while it does threaten Forbes’ is because he is in a conservative party and she is in a progressive party. This is not a complex idea”.

Michael Deacon, columnist in The Telegraph, says the attacks are appalling: “It has been an absolute feeding frenzy…Her interviewers focus obsessively on her faith, to the exclusion of all else. The voters of Scotland are barely permitted to hear any actual policies she may have to offer them. All they’re ever told about her is that she’s a Christian – as if this makes her freakishly unusual…Yet she gets treated as if she’s some terrifying theocratic tyrant, who plans to force everyone in Scotland to spend their Sundays bellowing Onward Christian Soldiers while simultaneously burning heretics inside an enormous wicker haggis”.

Fraser Nelson, Editor of The Spectator, says her words were polite and restrained: “This is the real question raised by Forbes. How can a multi-faith democracy work unless we accept and respect religious differences? Do we want to live in a country where children growing up in a Muslim, Jewish or Christian family see – in Ms Forbes’s monstering – that they’ll hit a glass ceiling in their career unless they renounce certain aspects of their faith?”

Tom Harris, former Labour MP now columnist in The Telegraph, says the SNP treatment of Kate Forbes shames Scotland: “Scotland, just like the rest of the country, is more complex than its leaders would have us believe. It is a collection of people with diverse and opposing views, even on those issues that MSPs regard as sacrosanct.”

John Swinney, deputy first minister in Scotland told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio programme: “All of the debate that has been aired about Kate Forbes’ position for me has got absolutely nothing to do with Kate’s faith. I’m a man of deep Christian faith but I do not hold the same views as Kate has set out in the course of the last couple of days. Kate is perfectly entitled to express her views, but party members are equally entitled to decide if someone who holds those views would be an appropriate individual to be SNP leader and first minister.”

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s former Westminster leader, also a member of the Free Church, said it was important to “defend and celebrate” gay marriage, and also questioned whether someone who holds Ms Forbes’ views would be the right person to lead the country. He has in the past voted to legalise abortion and gay marriage in Northern Ireland, which earned him a rebuke from his church.

Dave Thompson, former SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, before Kate Forbes told BBC Radio Scotland that the country was “going down a very dangerous road” if people with particular views could not hold political office. Now convenor of Christians for Independence, he said: “Angela Merkel voted against gay marriage even though it was passed by her parliament. The principle is exactly the same. Kate has said she would not impose her views on others. I think she can win and I think she will”.

The Free Church of Scotland said in a statement: “The Free Church of Scotland is concerned at the level of anti-Christian intolerance which has been displayed on social media, and by some political and media commentators.  Kate Forbes is standing on the basis of her policies – the fact that she is being criticised for her Christian convictions shows a level of bigotry that has no place in a pluralistic and diverse society”.

Alex Massie, Scotland Editor of The Spectator. “The Free Church of Scotland, of which Forbes is, like Ian Blackford, a member takes a pretty uncompromising line on a host of issues. Whereas Forbes’ rival Humza Yousaf says he divorces his Muslim faith from his politics, Forbes plainly finds this more difficult to do. Even if this were not so, Christianity – and especially evangelical or old-school protestantism – is probably the least respectable faith to have in British politics today”. 

Christopher Howse in the Telegraph, writes an explainer on the Free Church. He says a notable characteristic of Presbyterian churches is that they tend to split. “The Free Church of Scotland came into being in 1843 when about a third of Church of Scotland ministers resigned because of state interference in its affairs. This event was called the Disruption. For ministers and congregations who forfeited church buildings, livings and manses, it meant material sacrifice.  Something similar happened after 1900, when the Free Church of Scotland split with the United Free Church. On the control of property, the House of Lords, to some surprise, sided with the Wee Frees against the majority United Free Church. It would be unfair to see the Free Church of Scotland as defining itself as against everyone else. But its members know what they believe and the rest of the country must decide whether it can allow them to take part in public life”.

Ayesha Hazarika, Times Radio weekend presenter 4-7pm, wrote in The Standard: “The once disciplined SNP is all over the place, largely due to the frontrunner and Finance Minister Kate Forbes, who has gone from rising star to car crash extraordinaire in one day because of her deeply held religious views which don’t quite seem in step with the modern world. She doesn’t like gay marriage and then went on to say that children being born outside marriage was “wrong” but not to worry because that was just her personal view. To call her a dinosaur would be unfair to the inhabitants of Jurassic Park… We do live in a liberal country. You are allowed to have those views but if you have more than one brain cell, you should realise that these aren’t mainstream and you shouldn’t be running for leader. We care about the values our leaders have. That’s why many people didn’t want Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister. His views on anti-semitism were incompatible with modern politics. And it’s just not true to say that politicians of faith are barred from high office. Just look at Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, a proud, practising Muslim whose religion attracts so much hatred, it makes him a target for the far Right and he needs physical protection. He has also consistently supported gay rights. Forbes’s main opponent, Humza Yousaf, is also a Muslim so this isn’t about religion, it’s about values. A person of high faith can hold high office but if they say large parts of society are immoral, Houston we have a problem”.

Marco Biagi, SNP councillor in Edinburgh, wrote on Twitter @MarcoGBiagi : “The only evidence I can see of Kate Forbes being a social conservative is her anti-abortion call at the Brian Souter event and her repeated refusal to say she supports equal marriage, such as on this podcast (Jonathan Freedland at The Guardian). For me, that is enough. I’m not going to assume she holds all the views of her church and try to tar her by association. Many religious people support LGBT rights. Many atheists don’t. For me it is nothing to do with how anyone gets to the views, it is about those views that they actually hold.  They are free to hold the views. I can deal with a big tent approach enough to accept someone holding those views in high office, if that office is mainly unrelated. I served in Holyrood and ScotGov with some people who held them, and was able to have professional relationships. But we campaigned long for equal marriage. As minister I signed the legislation enacting it. I was witness at the first ceremony. And, for me, if a candidate for First Minister of Scotland is asked whether they support equal marriage, the only acceptable answer starts with “yes”.”

Mhairi Black MP @MhairiBlack MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire South: A lot of people have asked me my views of the leadership contest. Truthfully, I have been incredibly hurt so far. Hurt originating with the statements @_KateForbes  has made and since stood by. I, like most people in Scotland, could not care less about someone’s religion…Had a candidate said they do not believe in racially mixed marriages we would rightly be horrified – so why is my marriage still considered fair game?….How I, and others, are expected to have faith in a leader who unashamedly and publicly believes the love between my wife and I should not be legally recognised, is beyond me“.

Kevin McKenna, columnist in The Herald: “Such attacks (that Forbes is unfit for office because of her beliefs) are symptomatic of a regressive and reactionary mindset, masquerading as liberal. It suggests that you are free to practise your faith in modern enlightened Scotland, just so long as – like China – it’s a state-approved version of it. It also coincides with a creeping anti-Catholicism that’s freshly insinuating itself into the media and civic Scotland: that you’re considered persona non grata unless you first ditch some of the tenets of your faith, even though you don’t seek to impose them on others”.


Join our Newsletter