Does private conscience have a place in modern politics?

"Here I Stand", Martin Luther statue, Wittenberg. Image credit: OTFW Berlin CCLicense3.0

At the heart of the inflamed public reaction to SNP Kate Forbes’ rejection of same-sex marriage, is the idea that it springs from conscience, which is impervious to change.

What makes it alarming to people, according to Dr Jessica Scott, is that it appears to be immovable, an assumption that is regarded as morally inarticulate. An imagined response would be: “I can’t tell you why I think this I just do. It’s just what I think”.

Yet, in a Religion Media Centre briefing, Dr Scott said that conscience doesn’t have to be interpreted as this infallible or untouchable thing. Conscience, within a Christian framework, was highly deliberative:

“I’m confident that Kate Forbes will have spent a great deal of time using reason, speaking to thoughtful people, evaluating texts through reason, to arrive at the conclusions that she has”.

Almost two weeks ago now, Kate Forbes gave an interview to Sky News when she said she believed sex should take place between a man and a woman and she would have voted against same-sex marriage. It opened an aggressive debate into whether this should bar her from leading a party that allowed same-sex marriage and thousands of words on whether a person with conservative Christian views could stand for public office, when society had moved on.

Simon Barrow, chief executive of the think tank Ekklesia, said there had been a complete over-reaction to Kate Forbes’ comments, with people saying she should be held to account.

There was a discourse around why this view was held, relating to how the Bible was read, but “Unfortunately, too many people hear faith or religion in terms of a kind of Dawkins approach that all faith is basically a kind of irrational, dogmatic thing that doesn’t engage with this”.

A poll by the think tank Theos had found 50 per cent of people surveyed said those opposed to same-sex marriage should not be able to hold public office.

Nick Spencer, senior fellow at Theos, told the briefing that this was more than an issue of religion and politics, it was about the nature of a liberal society:

“We’re supposed to have a political sphere in which unpopular views that aren’t part of the mainstream, are, if not welcomed, at least tolerated, and interrogated, and sometimes absorbed and sometimes rejected. That’s the whole point of political discussion.

“And if we’ve reached the stage, where we say, ‘Hold any of these unpopular views, they are de facto inadmissible in the public square’, then you are radically shrinking the space of a liberal democratic public square, and that’s not good for anybody”.

He said often secularism became an ideology which was exclusionary, but pluralism was an important concept. “Public opinion tends to be divided on most issues. We exist in a society that theoretically at least welcomes minority views, because they have the capacity to challenge majority views”, he said.

The issue of personal conscience versus public office is not new. The former Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, resigned saying that to be a political leader, especially for progressive liberal party, and to be a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching “has felt impossible for me”.

His campaign manager Ben Rich, now CEO of Radix, said his decision was inevitable.  But he drew the distinction that Tim Farron, while believing that gay sex was a sin, had nonetheless voted in favour of same-sex marriage. That was the difference between Mr Farron and Kate Forbes, because she said she would have voted against.

Asked whether political views should influence religious ideas, Ben Rich said: “I think that Tim Farron actually did find this conflict quite difficult to manage personally. It was a conflict between what his church was telling him, which was his community, and what his press team and parliamentary colleagues were telling him, which was his other community. And he did struggle with this conflict. And one of the things you aren’t allowed to do in politics is have a public struggle”.

Another SNP leadership contender is Humza Yousaf, a Muslim whose faith tradition is also against same-sex marriage, though he himself has said gay sex is not a sin.

Yahya Birt, research director of the Muslim think tank the Ayaan Institute, said: “I think that the conservative end of the Muslim community and Britain will be disappointed in the stance that Hamza Yousaf has taken. They would have, unrealistically perhaps, expected him to have defended what they see as mainline Islamic teachings in this area.

“But really, there needs to be a better conversation within British Muslim communities about having realistic expectations of elected politicians. After all, they have to toe the party line too as well as follow public opinion”.

Asked whether religious dissent was of a different order to dissent over politics, he said this might be the case. Religious views were “groundwork convictions, therefore they are treated somehow more seriously than political convictions”. 

Politicians are allowed to have a private view on policy, and he couldn’t see why this could not be applied in cases like this. “We do need to not just have religious literacy, but maybe more political literacy, as well”.

Dr Jessica Scott, from the University of Nottingham, said there was common ground in how conscience affects both religious views and political ideology.

“In [Kate Forbes] use of religious conscience, she’s not necessarily speaking a language that is so different or so incompatible with a political way of speaking and thinking.

“And actually, I would make the claim that not only is there a compatibility between the use of conscience and the progressive politics that Kate Forbes is interested in, but it might even be the case that her use of conscience can affirm certain principles of progressive politics”.

View the briefing on our YouTube channel here


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