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Kate Forbes vs liberal intolerance

A truly open society would not try to banish Christian politicians from public life.

Sebastian Delfs

Topics Politics UK

When Michael Portillo spoke candidly of his ‘homosexual experiences’ back in 1999, it was seen as a potentially career-ending move for a high-ranking Tory. The Guardian called it ‘the gamble of his life’. Some speculated that it may have even cost him the 2001 leadership race.

Today, it’s hard to imagine anyone batting an eyelid over a politician’s sexuality. We’ve certainly come a long way. In just over two decades, we have witnessed the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, the Civil Partnership Act in 2004 and the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act in 2013.

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about these reforms is that they came without seeking to create a monoculture. The rights of religious communities to live out their values are not infringed by these laws. It is unfortunate, then, that against this encouraging backdrop of liberalisation, there has been a growing cultural hostility towards those who hold traditional Christian views.

With the resignation of Humza Yousaf as Scottish first minister this week and another SNP leadership contest on the horizon, this intolerance has come into sharp focus. SNP MSP Kate Forbes initially appeared to be considering entering the race, before pulling out this week. Even in this short time, hysteria swirled about her religious beliefs. She was treated with disgust and horror, all because she made clear that she believes in the teachings of her church, the Free Church of Scotland.

It was the same story a year ago. Almost immediately after launching her campaign for the SNP leadership, she was attacked for admitting that she would not have voted in favour of same-sex marriage, had she been in Holyrood at the time. Nor would she have voted for the awful Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill to allow gender self-ID.

At the same time, Forbes stressed that, should she become first minister, she would not repeal any of the gains made for gay rights. ‘I would have respected and defended the democratic choice that was made’, she said of same-sex marriage. ‘I am a servant of democracy, I am not a dictator.’ Nonetheless, thanks to her Christian views, many commentators predicted that her campaign was over before it had even begun. She eventually lost, though only narrowly, to the favourite, Humza Yousaf.

As soon as Forbes pondered whether to throw her hat into the ring again, the same old tropes began to rear their ugly heads. The Scottish Greens stated unequivocally that they would not consider a renewed coalition arrangement with her at the helm. The media class sent itself into a blind panic about how supposedly dangerous she is. ‘Whoever leads Scotland next’, warns a comment piece in The Times, ‘it can’t be Kate Forbes’.

A common theme in the bigotry Forbes faces is the idea that it’s unacceptable for a politician’s personal religious convictions to have any influence over their decision-making. The same sentiment could be seen in the vitriol that Tim Farron was subjected to during his short-lived time as leader of the Liberal Democrats. In the face of fierce scrutiny over his faith and views on homosexuality, Farron stepped down in 2017. He was convinced that it was ‘impossible’ for him to stay on as Lib Dem leader and still ‘remain faithful to Christ’.

The message from all this is essentially that Christians should only live out their faith in the privacy of their own homes. This is something we ask uniquely of Christians and not of any other religious group. On the contrary, Humza Yousaf, who was among those to criticise Forbes for following her religious beliefs, was widely celebrated for being the first Muslim national leader in Western Europe. He had no qualms about organising an Islamic call to prayer at Bute House, the first minister’s official residence. It certainly seems like public displays of religion are more acceptable for some faiths than others.

It is understandable that people take issue with Forbes’s views on gay marriage, premarital sex or abortion. But in truth, for most Christians, especially those in politics, the sexual teachings of their church are far from a priority. No one wants to be the next Mary Whitehouse. Far more important is that these emotive issues can be discussed with decency and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

I’m reminded of the words spoken by Labour MP Chris Bryant following the tragic death of Conservative MP and staunch Catholic Sir David Amess in 2021. Reflecting on his late political opponent’s character, Bryant said: ‘I never managed to persuade him to support gay marriage, but he always asked after my husband.’ Surely, there’s a lesson for us all there.

Sebastian Delfs is a Catholic educator who writes about the relationship between faith and culture.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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