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Will we no longer accept religious views in political positions?

James Bromfield gives his view on faith in politics.

Kate Forbes launched her SNP leadership campaign in prime position as the bookies’ favourite. Within 24 hours her campaign was leading the conversation and headlining the news. But not for the reasons she wanted. 

In her initial media round when questioned over her previously stated views on same-sex marriage, Forbes doubled down. She expressed personal disapproval of same-sex marriage, pre-marital sex, and also reiterated personal opposition to the recent Scottish Gender Recognition Act. The basis of these views? Her religion. Forbes is an active member of the Free Church of Scotland, an evangelical and Calvinist denomination of Christianity which believes that the Bible is God’s word. 

This is certainly not the first time that a political career has been hampered by religious views. Notably, Tim Farron’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats was dogged by his Christian beliefs. He resigned after poor results in the 2017 General Election, stating that he had become “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader”. 

As someone about to write a Master’s thesis on the theme of promoting religious diversity and tolerance, something made me feel uneasy about this situation. Would it have been better for Forbes to be dishonest in the face of questions over her views? Must politicians strip themselves of all personal religious beliefs? I do not support Forbes’ views, nor would I vote for her, nor am I at all invested in the success of the SNP – but answering ‘Yes’ to either of the previous two questions seems deeply problematic if we are to build a religiously diverse and tolerant society. 

Partly it appears to come down to the question: ‘What do we want from our politicians?’. Scotland, and the United Kingdom, operates under the premise of representative democracy – we vote for people to represent us. But do we want elected members who ‘represent’ us in the sense that they will most effectively and competently advocate for our needs and interests, or do we want to elect those who ‘represent’ us in the sense of having a similar background to us (looking, acting, and thinking like we do). Whilst often there are, rightly, calls to increase the notice given to the latter type of representation, in moves to increase opportunities for minority representation – it would seem on the whole we vote with the first type of representation in mind. This is particularly the case when voting in constituency-based systems (Single Member Districts in Holyrood Elections) where one is not just voting for their local representative, but also with the make-up of the national government in mind. 

Yet, if we are voting for politicians to represent our interests most effectively, and to form the most competent governments, then should we not accept a distinction between a politician’s personal views and their professional views. This is perhaps particularly the case when situations such as the cost of living crisis and the Ukraine war increase the need for effective governance more than ever. If the intention is not to represent us in the second sense, but primarily the first, then can we not accept that politicians personally hold views, which they do not intend to represent in their professional capacity, and thus will not be involved in their policy direction or their campaign pledges. 

In her Sky News interview, Forbes initially retorts: “You’re asking me if I would impose my views on other people”. She is quite clear that this is not the case. She goes on to say, “for me, it would be wrong according to my faith, but for you I have no idea what your faith is. So, in a free society you can do what you want.” Does this particular quote not illustrate exactly the attitude that is required if we are to promote a diverse and yet tolerant society? A distinction between the personal and private vs. the professional and public. A mutual respect that, as individuals, we can hold views and engage in discussion and attempted persuasion on such views, but that at the end of the day each individual is at liberty to hold their own private views, so long as it causes others no harm. 

In other jobs equality protections around religion as a protected characteristic are clear, although often tested. Where one’s private religion does not negatively interfere with their professional capacity one cannot be discriminated against. Forbes has promised she will “not roll back on any rights that already exist in Scotland”, and ultimately is the leader of a party that will collectively decide policy, not a sole dictator. Her personal views will not become SNP policy. But is the problem here that politics is different to other jobs? Are we unable to untangle the personal from the professional in politics? Either consciously, through active campaigning or profiling such views via their platform, or subconsciously, through biases during voting and equal interactions with constituents – perhaps politics is a profession where the interwoven nature of personal and professional is too messy to separate. After all, we are particularly interested in the personal lives of politicians – most recently, the character and misdemeanours of Boris Johnson became one of the many reasons for his downfall.

Forbes’ response to this? She cites the example of Angela Merkel, former Chancellor of Germany, who in 2017 allowed a Bundestag vote on same-sex marriage. The vote passed, and Merkel implemented the legislation – but Merkel had personally voted against the legislation, voting instead in line with her ‘conscience’ on the issue. Despite her personal opposition, Merkel stated after the vote that she hoped the result “not only promotes respect between different opinions but also brings more social cohesion and peace.”

There is undoubtedly a major problem of politicians with a platform holding views that, if promulgated, would reduce individuals’ rights. And we should use the ballot box and campaigns to ensure that progressive views are promoted. But if we also advocate for a tolerant and diverse community which promotes freedoms, including religious freedom, then it seems wrong to preclude someone from a professional political role purely on the basis of private religious beliefs. If Forbes is right that the crux of the Sky interview questioning was to ask if she would impose her views on other people, then are we hypocritical to embolden ourselves to impose our views on her? I will not proclaim to give the answer, but if we are to move forward into a truly tolerant and diverse community with a representative political system then these are the questions we must face.

Image credit: Leslie Barrie / CC BY_SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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