Kate Forbes photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / New Statesman

This essay, on the debate over Kate Forbes’ socially conservative views and the SNP leadership race, was my Observer column this week. It was published 26 February 2023, under the headline “Politicians have the right to strong religious views. But not to be shielded from scrutiny”.

“Secularism now means a ban on religious people in public life.” “We seem to have ushered in a kind of reverse religious test.” “Does her faith and her refusal to renounce any elements of it effectively debar her from public office?

The decision by Kate Forbes, Scotland’s finance secretary, to run for the leadership of the Scottish National party has sparked both scrutiny of her socially conservative views, especially on abortion and gay marriage, and a pushback from those who see the campaign against her as an attempt to keep orthodox Christians out of public office. As with many contemporary debates, the controversy is freighted with confusions, and sometimes with bad faith, and requires careful unpacking.

Forbes is a member of the Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland, a Calvinist denomination with a strict reading of the Bible and exacting religious demands. Like any person of faith, Forbes has every right to be in public life, to express views rooted in her faith and to hold high office. In Britain today, religious believers can avail themselves of all those rights.

At Westminster, notwithstanding Alastair Campbell’s quip that “we don’t do God”, a 2013 Demos report observed that “faith has played a more prominent and open role in British politics in the past 16 years than it has done at any time since… William Gladstone”. Every prime minister since 1997, until Boris Johnson, viewed themselves as men or women of faith.

After the 2019 election, just 159 out of 650 MPs chose not to swear the oath of allegiance on a religious text but simply to give a non-religious affirmation. The others were not necessarily all practising believers but certainly felt close enough to a faith to swear on a holy book.

Some of the hostility to Forbes has been ugly and there has been too great a focus on her social views. Nevertheless, the claim that there exists “a ban on religious people in public life” or some kind of “religious test” is unsustainable. Being a member of the Free Church has not prevented her speaking publicly. Nor from becoming an MSP. Nor, yet, from achieving high office. Her views may thwart her chances of becoming party leader but that is not evidence of a prohibition on religious views. The favourite in the leadership race, Humza Yousaf, is a practising Muslim, though a social liberal.

If we accept that people of faith have every right to be in public life, and that there is nothing wrong with their faith shaping their political views, the corollary must be that those views should be open to public scrutiny. Otherwise, it would be demanding that they get a free pass because of their faith. Nor can there be any obligation on others to support them.

There are Christians in politics who are socially liberal and others who are socially conservative. To reject socially conservative Christians is not to reject a place for religion in politics. It is to reject socially conservative politics.

Some claim that only socially liberal Christians can enter public life and that this exposes a lack of diversity in politics. It’s not true, though, that there are no prominent socially conservative politicians, as Forbes herself and figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg attest.

In any case, societies change. Britain is more socially liberal today than it was a generation ago, a shift that leaves less social space for once-dominant views about homosexuality or marriage. Many of those arguing that a tolerant society should afford social conservatives a prominent place in public life also believe in the “marketplace of ideas”. The marginalisation of hostility to gay marriage is that market at work. Social conservatives can unquestionably express their views, but it is the height of entitlement to demand that they should be afforded a privileged place in public life.

Politicians should certainly be judged on their political views and actions, not their private beliefs. In acknowledging that she would have voted against gay marriage and abortion rights, Forbes has not simply expressed a personal view but staked a political claim. She insists that she would not row back on equality laws already made. But to say that one would have voted against certain laws in the past is also to indicate how one might approach similar issues in the future. That may not matter when one is finance minister. It may be significant, though, in deciding who should lead the party and the government. There is nothing wrong with SNP members weighing up such considerations in deciding whom to back.

Part of the reason for confusion in this debate is that it overlaps with culture war confrontations over “wokeness”. The SNP has changed considerably over the past few decades, its centre of gravity having moved towards the big cities such as Glasgow, as it has taken advantage of the collapse of the Labour vote. In this process, it has become more liberal (which, these days, unfortunately can sometimes also mean more illiberal).

Yousaf is an embodiment of that shift and viewed as a representative of a new liberal “wokeness”, especially with his support for the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which legalised self-ID for trans people. As justice minister, he also piloted the illiberal Hate Crimes Act which potentially criminalises private conversations. Forbes has been embraced by many as a religious standard-bearer refusing to buckle against the woke.

The battle lines, however, are messier. Not only is Yousaf himself religious, but Ian Blackford, former SNP leader at Westminster, is, like Forbes, a member of the Free Church of Scotland, though, unlike her, liberal on many social issues. And while most social conservatives oppose the GRA, many who are hostile to it are supportive of gay marriage and abortion rights, opposing the law not from a religious viewpoint but from the perspective of women’s rights. The third leadership candidate, Ash Regan, who resigned from the Scottish government over the GRA, stands in such a place.

Framing everything as a confrontation between the “woke” and the “unwoke” is, as I have previously observed, neither edifying nor illuminating. It makes it harder to challenge the bigotry on either side. There is illiberalism coming from both Yousaf and Forbes and reason to be critical of both. What there isn’t is a religious test.

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