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On 20th February, Kate Forbes, a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for the Scottish National Party (the governing party in Scotland, and the third largest party in British politics), joined the race to become their new Leader and thus the Frist Minister of Scotland. Later that day, in an interview with The Scotsman newspaper, Forbes said that had she been an MSP at the time equal marriage legislation was proposed in Scotland, she would have voted against it:

“I would have voted, as a matter of conscience…that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Subsequently, Forbes expressed her view that “a trans woman is a biological male,” that sex outside of marriage is wrong, and that children are properly born to married parents. All this deepened the impression that her socially conservative views were out of step with the socially liberal Scottish National Party (SNP), and the broader Scottish public.

Predictably, this led to a significant number of her supporters renouncing their support: numerous high-profile Forbes backers turned to other candidates within hours of her views becoming known. It was a stunning fall from grace for an influential politician who launched their campaign to a chorus of support. While she is still (at time of writing) running to lead the SNP, there’s no doubt that her campaign has been badly damaged: she was forced to take a break from media interviews while figuring out how to weather the storm of criticism she has received.

The clutching of pearls

Yet Forbes has received vociferous support from one quarter: online commentators from both the British and American right who view her as a martyr, someone who is being “cancelled” and “banned from politics” for her religious beliefs. GB News (a relatively new right-wing TV news channel in the UK) asked in response to Forbes’ experience “Should your faith exclude you from political office?” – implying, of course, that this is what was happening. On the show Calvin Robinson, a conservative political commentator, declared himself “amazed at the response” to Forbes’ statements, saying “We have a Muslim Mayor of London, we have a Hindu Prime Minister – they’re OK! But to have a Christian First Minister, that’s a step too far.” He decried “the rise of Christophobia” in the UK, and argued that “we need to be a lot more tolerant of people with religious values, especially Christians.”

Elsewhere Rod Dreher, writing in The American Conservative, claimed that Forbes was being “demonized and marginalized” because she thinks “the Wrong Thoughts™”. And the church to which Forbes belongs – The Scottish Free Church—has condemned what they call “anti-Christian intolerance”, saying “Kate Forbes is standing on the basis of her policies—the fact that she is being criticized for her Christian convictions shows a level of bigotry that has no place in a pluralistic and diverse society.”

Forbes, this argument suggests, is the victim of a creeping secular orthodoxy – even atheocracy – which refuses to allow conservative religious beliefs to be expressed in public, lest the holder of those views be “cancelled” and their political career ended. Those making this argument tell us that instead of withholding our support when politicians voice their religious beliefs – which are private and separate from their political decision-making – we should acknowledge our disagreement with those beliefs while still considering them a candidate worthy of our vote. To do otherwise, they claim, is illegitimately to establish a religious test for those in public life – a test which especially and unfairly disadvantages members of conservative religious groups.

This argument is nonsense for three reasons: first, because the criticism of Kate Forbes is not based on her identity as a Christian, but on a set of specific moral and political stances she holds which are not common to all Christians; second, because it is not always unreasonable or bigoted to consider a politician’s religious beliefs when choosing whether to vote for them; and third, because Forbes explicitly told the electorate that she was willing to vote according to her religious beliefs, making those beliefs especially relevant to the electorate.

First, the idea that there is some sort of systematic anti-Christian prejudice at play here is hard to square with the fact that there are countless high-profile and powerful Christians in UK political life. While only a minority of the UK’s population now identify as Christian, the officers of the All-Party Parliamentary Group “Christians in Parliament” is a veritable Who’s Who of influential British politicians. A lot of leading British political figures are openly and proudly Christian – including Ian Blackford (who until recently was the leader of the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons) and John Swinney (current Deputy First Minister of Scotland). If anti-Christian prejudice were rampant in Scottish politics, then surely it would have skewered these two, more senior, Scottish politicians as well? Yet these leading figures in Scottish politics are proud and practicing Christians: Blackford is even a member of the very same denomination as Kate Forbes!

A uniquely privileged position

In fact, far from being systematically marginalized, Christianity enjoys a uniquely privileged position in British political life. A Royal Commission on the reform of the House of Lords noted in 2020 that the UK’s “House of Lords is unique in the democratic world in providing seats in the national legislature for representatives of an established church.” The Church of England receives no less than 26 representatives in our second legislative chamber, securing an institutional influence for Christianity which no other religion or philosophy enjoys.

In a country in which countless prominent politicians are Christian, and in which Christianity has a uniquely privileged legislative position, it is patently absurd to suggest that Christians, as a group, are being hounded out of public life. What is happening, instead, is that Forbes is being criticized for a specific set of views which, while linked to her own understanding of the Christian faith, are not remotely common to all Christians (Forbes’ deeply conservative views are not even shared by all members of the Free Church of Scotland, as it has acknowledged itself). It is perfectly legitimate for the media and voters to question politicians regarding their social and cultural perspectives, and the truth is that in modern Britain any politician who espoused the views Forbes expressed would receive criticism, whether they were Christian, a member of a non-Christian religion, or nonreligious. This is not anti-Christian bigotry, but antipathy among the electorate towards specific beliefs they find unappealing in a politician because of how they might affect their political judgment.

Second, it is not always bigoted to examine a politician’s religious beliefs when considering whether we wish to support them. While it would be prejudicial to say “Because this politician is a member of religion X, I will never vote for them,” it is not bigoted to say “Because this politician believes this specific thing (which they understand to be a component of their religion), and because that belief may affect how they vote on matters which affect my life, I do not wish to support them.”

This point is even acknowledged by some of those who support Forbes. Kathleen Stock, in the midst of a wild article in which she declares Forbes the victim of “sanctimonious, swivel-eyed moral scolds”, accepts that a politician’s religious beliefs are sometimes fair game. She writes: “If legislation in a particular area is still a live question and stands a chance of being influenced by the views of a party leader…then it’s reasonable to place any would-be leader’s background religious or philosophical beliefs about it under the microscope.” I agree, and by that token I think it reasonable to object to Forbes’ religious views when considering whether I want to support her. I, as a gay man aware of the history of legislative attacks on my personhood, am skeptical of politicians who declare their religious convictions make my marriage illegitimate, and reserve my right to apportion my political support accordingly.

An explicit threat against equality

I am especially entitled to be skeptical in this case, as it turns out, because Forbes explicitly said she would have voted against my civil equality – and this is the third reason why criticism of her position is entirely justified. Forbes did not say, as she could have said, “I believe that a true marriage is only between a man and a woman, but I understand that in a secular state, I cannot inscribe my religious beliefs into law, and therefore I would have voted in favor of equal marriage even though I would never want to see one performed in my church.” Instead, she said that had she been in the Scottish Parliament when equal marriage laws were being debated she would have voted against them. Then, she said she would not have supported the gender recognition reform bill – in the context of discussing her religious beliefs about gender. So Forbes explicitly told the electorate: “These are my religious views, and on this basis I will vote in ways which would restrict others’ freedoms, whether they are members of my religion or not.”

Far from being the legitimate expression of private religious opinions, this is doubly disqualifying. First, because if we disagree with the political positions she is taking, that is a perfectly reasonable justification for withholding our support. Second, because it shows Forbes misunderstands the relationship of her sectarian religious views to her political office. A politician in a secular state must not legislate for all on the basis of their private religious beliefs – but this is precisely what Forbes said she would do, on not one but two issues of profound moral concern.

The criticism of Kate Forbes is reasonable and justified. Even if you agree with her positions on same sex marriage, gender recognition, and sex outside marriage,  you should acknowledge that these positions are politically relevant and are legitimate parts of the public discussion. If you doubt this – like so many of the right-wing commentators who have leaped to Forbes’ defense – just think: what would you prefer those who oppose her political views to do? Stay silent? Refrain from expressing our disagreement? Vote for her even though we do not want her to represent us? All these positions place an unreasonable burden on those who do not share Forbes’ views, a burden no one in a democracy should bear: “Refrain from criticizing policies you abhor if they come from a religious place.” This is not respect for religion, but privileging religion and shielding it from appropriate public scrutiny.

To take such a position would especially harm queer people. To take the position that the expression of such views should be ignored by the electorate lest religious people are “banned from public life” is to say to queer people “You are not allowed to factor in a politician’s explicitly stated intentions to vote against your equality if those intentions stem from a religious place.” This is both ridiculous, and homophobic: queer people, under such a regime, are disallowed from advocating for our own equality if to do so offends someone’s religion.

I say no to all that—and to Kate Forbes.

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James CroftUniversity Chaplain and Lead Faith Advisor

James Croft is a philosopher, activist, and Humanist storyteller. As University Chaplain at the University of Sussex he is the first Humanist Lead Chaplain at any UK University. Formerly, he served as...