Why not judge politicians by their views?

Posted: Tue, 21st Feb 2023 by Stephen Evans

Why not judge politicians by their views?

Kate Forbes' religious beliefs have come under scrutiny as she bids to succeed Nicola Sturgeon, prompting suggestions of 'Christianophobia'. But NSS chief executive Stephen Evans argues that her views shouldn't get a free pass just because they're religious.

Kate Forbes' decision to join the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon has prompted questions over whether her religious views are compatible with being leader of party and nation.

The church to which Forbes (pictured) belongs, the Free Church of Scotland, follows a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. It is opposed to gay marriage and believes there are very few circumstances in which abortion is justified. It traditionally opposes doing most activities on a Sunday, and its adherents used to tie up playground swings to prevent children from having fun on the sabbath.

All of this appears to be at odds with modern Scottish society. It's reasonable to question whether an individual who holds these views is well placed to lead the SNP and indeed hold the position of first minister.

Forbes kicked off her campaign by saying she would have voted against gay marriage "as a matter of conscience" but would have "respected the democratic choice made". In 2018, whilst a backbencher, she told a prayer breakfast that politicians should recognise the treatment of the "unborn" as a measure of "true progress". This will naturally alarm anyone concerned about women's reproductive freedoms. If Forbes is measuring societal progress by its adherence to her religious dogma, that's a concern.

So quizzing politicians, particularly potential leaders, about their positions on social issues is entirely legitimate. That such positions are grounded in religious beliefs does not provide them any exception from scrutiny.

Political parties can of course accommodate difference and disagreements. But leaders set the tone. They need to embody the values of the party, or the country they aspire to lead. So, when it comes to leadership, personal views that clash with party policy are harder to reconcile.

But voters, in the main, have no issue with political leaders holding religious beliefs. They may, however, be less impressed if they suspect these supernatural beliefs inform their public policy positions. It's one thing to live a life according to one's own conscience; it's quite another to seek to impose your religious beliefs on others through the law.

The public are well within their rights to look unfavourably on politicians who want to restrict women's reproductive rights, deny equal rights to same-sex couples or obstruct reforms to allow people the choice of an assisted death at the end of their lives.

Even when politicians express no desire to impose their personal religious views on others, voters may well still judge them on their beliefs.

Tim Farron has said "remaining faithful to Christ" was incompatible with being leader of the Liberal Democrats. Throughout the 2017 election campaign, Farron was repeatedly questioned over his attitude to homosexuality and abortion. After first being evasive, insisting it wasn't his job to pontificate on theological matters, he eventually said he did not believe gay sex was a sin and that he was pro-choice.

Farron made it clear that his role as a legislator would be unaffected by his personal convictions. For many, that answer wasn't good enough.

There's nothing wrong with this. Being judged by the choices we make and the opinions we form seems reasonable. And a discriminatory belief motivated by religious faith isn't a free pass from criticism.

People vote in different ways for different reasons. If voters make up their minds based on a politician's beliefs, that's not discriminatory, it's democracy.

In an increasingly secular society, it's no surprise that so called 'traditional Christian values' are becoming less popular. The idea that gay sex is sinful has caused incredible harm and is repulsive to many, including an increasing number of Christians. Politicians with unpopular ideas are going to have their judgement questioned. Again, that's democracy, not discrimination.

Scrutiny of Kate Forbes' beliefs is being used by some social conservatives to push a narrative of 'Christianophobia' – the idea that an anti-Christian bias exists in modern Britain. Writing in the Telegraph, Fraser Nelson asked whether Forbes' faith effectively debars her from public office. Rod Liddle asked, in trademark provocative and devious style: "Should Christians be allowed to stand for elected public office — or should we ban them, as we do with serving coppers and bankrupts?"

The idea that scrutinising politicians' religious views is symptomatic of anti-religious prejudice is nonsense. Unpopular opinions and discriminatory beliefs may be a disadvantage but being Christian isn't.

Let's look at the facts. The role of head of state in Britain is reserved exclusively for an Anglican. Church of England bishops are given 26 seats as of right to sit in our legislature. Westminster's parliamentary sessions begin with Christian prayers. Children from Christian families can be prioritised in the admission policies of Christian faith schools, which are state funded and make up almost a third of England's state school sector. All schools in England and Wales are required by law to hold broadly Christian worship. Schools in Scotland are also required to hold regular acts of religious observance.

Christians have long been privileged, not disadvantaged. As Britain becomes a freer, fairer, more secular society, the privileges they've become accustomed to will increasingly be challenged. 'Traditional Christian views', often a euphemism for prejudice, will be challenged too. In an open, liberal society, diversity of thought should be defended and all opinions, however unpopular, should be aired. But no beliefs or ideas should be insulated from criticism on account of being religious.

Kate Forbes is entitled to her beliefs. But democracy demands that they are open to scrutiny. And if her beliefs are at odds with those of the party and nation she aspires to lead, she may not be the ideal candidate for the job. That's for SNP members to decide.

Image: Scottish Parliament, OSPL

What the NSS stands for

The Secular Charter outlines 10 principles that guide us as we campaign for a secular democracy which safeguards all citizens' rights to freedom of and from religion.

Tags: LGBT, Reproductive rights