I seem to have been somewhat ahead of the curve regarding Kate Forbes, her religion, her politics and the future of the SNP. Almost a week ago I asked here on the New Statesman website whether active membership of the Free Church of Scotland, a strictly Calvinist body that rejects even mainstream Presbyterianism, would allow Forbes to fully represent the people of Scotland, particularly given her opposition to same-sex marriage.
Since then a predictable divide has emerged, and both sides seem to have missed the point. It’s not that Forbes’s views disqualify her from public office, but that she doesn’t receive a free pass on them simply because they’re allegedly a product of her faith. There are, for example, many atheists who oppose marriage equality. If they aspired to political leadership, they too would be held to account. In other words, this is less about religion than it is politics parading as religion, or even being hidden or protected by it.
This matters, because millions of Christians, myself included, support equal marriage, and find the assumed automatic link between faith in Jesus Christ and conservative social policy to be deeply offensive. Indeed, as a boringly straight man married to the same woman for 35 years, it’s my faith that has led me to campaign for full marriage equality.
Only a zealot would refuse to support Forbes purely because she’s a Christian, but many would feel uncomfortable backing her because she rejects the full dignity of LGBTQ people in their loving partnerships. I read and say historical and traditional Christian prayers every day, and I’ve yet to see any reference in them to marriage or sexuality. Put simply, this just isn’t an issue of creed. Loving one’s neighbour as oneself, however, most certainly is.
It’s worth remembering too that when Church of England bishops spoke out against the government’s plan to deport refugees to Rwanda, they were repeatedly told to keep their religion out of the public square. They were told this, strangely enough, by some of the very people who are now championing Forbes as a martyr to secular cancel culture.
Even if Forbes does see her faith as being glued to conservative social policies, that’s her right. And, in turn, it’s the right of those who disagree to challenge and oppose her. She’s not being threatened with arrest, not being told that she can’t worship as she likes and believe what she wants. Rather, she is merely realising that possessing and loudly voicing opinions that cause enormous pain to countless people may mean that she doesn’t become leader of a major political party. Life, as they say, is tough.
Not as tough, however, as it was until very recently – and even now still is in some places and for some people – to be outed as gay in public life. If this debate is about freedom and respect, it’s that of LGBTQ people rather than religious fundamentalists. The controversy isn’t about the separation of church and state but sheer openness and accountability. Those are virtues we should all embrace, whatever our faith or lack of it.