Does faith belong in politics? What we can learn from Kate Forbes' campaign

The question of what role faith has in 21st century politics has come to the fore in the last few days as the socially conservative Kate Forbes launched her campaign to become the First Minister of Scotland. Kate belongs to the Free Church of Scotland, a denomination which opposes abortion rights, marriage equality, and the banning of conversion therapy. It is obviously possible for members of a denomination to differ significantly in their personal convictions from the official doctrines espoused by their denomination, as has been made so painfully apparent by the recent debates around same sex blessings and marriage in the Church of England’s recent general synod. It is often the case that congregants depart significantly from the accepted doctrine of a denomination; in the UK 78% of Catholics are in favour of allowing gay and lesbian people to marry legally.[1] However, this is not the case when it comes to Kate Forbes.

On the 20th of February, the first day of Kate Forbes' campaign to become the new First Minister of Scotland, she stated that if she had been an elected MSP in Holyrood when same-sex marriage was legalised in Scotland in 2014 she would have voted against it.[2] However, she hasn't hidden these socially conservative views so it is not a great surprise that this would be her stance. In 2019 she was 1 of 15 SNP MSPs who signed a letter requesting a delay to fulfilling the manifesto commitment she was elected on to reform the gender recognition act.[3] Even before this, in 2018, Forbes indicated her pro-life stance at a prayer breakfast alongside Brian Souter,[4] known for founding the company Stagecoach and for his opposition to repealing section 28.

With the launch of Forbes’ campaign to become First Minister the conversation on sites such as Twitter have turned to the role of faith in 21st century UK politics. There is the usual dismissal of faith as a relic of the past that has no place in the political sphere, and with the history of how religion has been used in politics I am sympathetic to this view. However, as a committed Christian and a socialist I am well aware that in one’s personal life at least, the political cannot be separated from the spiritual. Our conception of what it means to be a disciple and to follow Christ often act as an anchor for our political convictions to serve the least of these and be part of building a society which promotes the radical love and inclusion that we see in the life of Jesus. Our campaigning for LGBTQ+ inclusion, wealth distribution, nuclear disarmament and environmental justice is but a wave whose undercurrent is a divine love with a preferential option for the poor and outcast.

Yet, living in a liberal democracy it is necessary to differentiate between a liberative and a restrictive faith when it comes to politics. The issue that many people have with the role of faith in politics is not where people of faith campaign for greater equality under the law but rather when they attempt to restrict equality. This is precisely because in a society which legislates to allow individuals to live out their varied personal convictions without fear of discrimination, it is necessary to promote and continue to expand the hard-won protections of the most marginalised. It is one thing to hold to a socially conservative view on marriage and to say that you would never personally make the decision to marry someone from the same sex; it is entirely different to say that if you had the chance, you would have voted to restrict that right for others. It is not Kate Forbes’ faith which makes her unfit to be the next First Minister of Scotland but rather her willingness to admit that given the chance she would restrict the rights of others to live out their own personal convictions.  Even though she has stated that she would not seek to overturn the current rights provided under the law, it would not be possible for any LGBTQ+ person to trust her to represent their interests.

In Scotland where same-sex marriage is allowed in the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Scotland, and the United Reformed Church among others, it is not faith which acts as a barrier to participating in politics but the willingness to restrict the rights of those with different or no faith from acting upon their moral convictions. There is a place for people of faith in politics, but it is not in restricting the rights of others and it is not in the promotion of a state religion. Rather it is in fighting for liberation for all and raising our voice in support of the most marginalised.

The question of faith and politics has also been raised in relation to another one of the candidates for First Minister, Humza Yousaf, a Muslim. Yousaf backs Nicola Sturgeon’s position on same-sex marriage, abortion buffer zones, banning conversion therapy and gender recognition.[5] Yousaf stated that “People can look at my track record, but I don’t legislate on the basis of my faith. I do what I think is the best for the country”. In this way Yousaf differentiates himself from Forbes - he recognises the need in a pluralistic society to value and protect difference and the rights of individuals who have varying moral convictions. Despite Forbes’ statements on protecting the rights of all, her track record and willingness to vote to restrict those rights stands in stark contrast to Yousaf’s position. There are also questions we need to ask on Yousaf’s position such as why he abstained from voting for equal marriage in 2014. 

I am not a SNP party member so I won't get a say on who the next First Minister of Scotland will be, but the question of the place of faith in politics will continue to be an important and necessary conversation over the coming weeks. I am reminded of the words of James Baldwin, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving”.[6]






[6] Baldwin, James. "Down at the Cross." The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfic tion, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. 352.