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‘Kate Forbes: Religion Isn’t an Answer to Accountability’

Nobody is trying to impinge on a politician’s right to freely practise their religion – but they cannot use that religion to shield themselves from important questions, writes Nathan O’Hagan

Scottish National Party MSP Kate Forbes. Photo: PA/Alamy

Kate ForbesReligion Isn’t an Answer to Accountability

Nobody is trying to impinge on a politician’s right to freely practise their religion – but they cannot use that religion to shield themselves from important questions, writes Nathan O’Hagan

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Just two days after launching her bid to replace Nicolas Sturgeon as Scotland’s First Minister, Kate Forbes appeared to self-sabotage her quest during a series of car crash interviews in which she, among other things, reaffirmed her belief that marriage should be solely between a man and a woman. 

While she was also clear that she would not seek to “row back on rights that already exist”, Forbes – who was still two years away from being elected to the Scottish Parliament at the time of the vote that made same-sex marriage legal in 2014 – was equally unequivocal that, had she been, she would have voted against it.

Forbes is a member of the Free Church Of Scotland, an evangelical denomination committed to a strict Calvinist doctrine, and it was her religious faith that she cited as seemingly her only guiding light on this issue, as well as her stance on other issues including sex outside of marriage. 

While her belief that sex should only be reserved for marriage might seem old-fashioned, prompting a level of fairly childish mockery, it is because of her views on gay rights that she has really found herself under the spotlight.

Despite her claims that she wouldn’t overturn any rights, her views have clearly not evolved in the near decade since the 2014 vote, and it is hard to imagine that they will do so in the decade hence.

Many in the LGBTQ community, and beyond, have expressed a suspicion that, while Forbes herself wouldn’t seek to lead any overhaul of this law, if the opportunity to vote on this issue presented itself in the future, she would feel compelled to vote with her conscience.

Forbes’ situation has echoes of that of former Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron.

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In 2015, Farron – himself a practicing Christian – got himself into a similar muddle when asked to clarify his views on whether homosexuality was ‘sinful’. “We’re all sinners” was his deeply unsatisfactory response – one he repeated in the run up to the 2017 General Election. As with Forbes, Farron’s Christianity was seen as the motivating factor, and the justification, for his opinion on the issue. 

Then, as now, the defence of religious freedom and freedom of expression was invoked in defence of his comments. But this defence seems a flimsy one. 

If expressed in any other circumstances, and without the context of a person’s religion, these views would broadly be seen as ‘backwards’ and completely out-of-step with a modern, liberal, society. Should they been seen as any different when coming from a Christian or an individual of any other faith?

If a person’s belief that gay people are somehow unequal is truly driven by their religious views, surely every person who shares that religion would also share that view? This is not the case and any suggestion otherwise would be as nonsensical as suggesting that all atheist and agnostics are pro-gay rights. 

Many people of faith are in favour of equal rights for LGBTQ people because of their faith, not despite it, and deeply resent any notional link between religious belief and socially conservative policies. So this defence doesn’t hold water. Its seem like someone cherry-picking aspects of religious doctrine to justify views that, in isolation, would simply be unacceptable. 

Forbes’ interviews, and the response to them, have also prompted disingenuous questions around whether those being critical of her views are suggesting anyone with religious views should immediately be disqualified from public office. Of course no reasonable person thinks or is suggesting this. But nobody who aspires to hold high office should be shielded from scrutiny simply because they claim that their conservative views stem from their religion.

Many have gone further in their defence of Forbes, even flexing so far as to assert that those criticising her views are, in fact, themselves the ones guilty of intolerance – religious intolerance. This is, at best, a little desperate and, at worst, a form of gaslighting. 

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There is also an element of hypocrisy from religious liberals defending her and who defended Farron. Were these same people as quick to apply the same defence to Jacob Rees-Mogg when he used his Catholicism as the rationale for his views on abortion and same-sex marriage? No, liberals were rightly disdainful.

When others on the right have tried to use the same defence, liberals have dismissed it as ‘political beliefs masquerading as religious beliefs’. So why should liberals not be subjected to the same ridicule when trying to use theology to explain away abhorrent opinions? Is it just easier to turn a blind eye to blatant homophobia when it emanates from a supposed liberal? 

Nobody is trying to impinge on any politician’s right to freely practise their religion or even for that religion to influence their policies. Forbes and Farron are not the victims of some kind of ecclesiastical cancel culture. It’s just about accountability.

Tim Farron’s views didn’t cause him to step down, despite the calls from many within his party for him to do so, but they may have had an impact on how people voted in 2017. Should Kate Forbes remain as a candidate, her views may have an impact on how members of the Scottish National Party vote. Should she win, the same will again apply to the wider voting public. 

Ultimately, a politician’s faith isn’t a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It doesn’t give them a free pass on any issue or turn them into some kind of ideological Batfink, with their religion acting as their protective wings of steel.

If people decide not to support Forbes, and her campaign is brought to an abrupt end, it won’t be because people have decided not to support her because she is a practising Christian – it will simply be because a majority of her target audience feels the views she has expressed belong in another millennium.

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