The row over Kate Forbes shows we need to reset our idea of a liberal society

The tone of the debate surrounding Forbes’s religious views suggests a lack of curiosity and tolerance towards the Christian faith

February 28, 2023
Kate Forbes is running to lead the SNP. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Kate Forbes is running to lead the SNP. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

When Kate Forbes entered the SNP leadership race, she decided to deal directly with the most contentious issues regarding her Christian beliefs at the outset. She clearly did not want to emulate my “rabbit in the headlights” look during the 2017 general election.

It remains to be seen whether the debate will ever move on to her views on equally important issues of the economy, poverty, and Scottish independence.

And the question is again being asked, can a Christian with particular theological beliefs hold senior public office in a modern liberal society? As an optimist and a liberal, I want to say yes. But I suspect we need to reset our idea of a liberal society. 

The quality of our society is enhanced by free expression of competing world views, within the limits of civility and non-violence, and liberalism should be proud to defend a plurality of views within these limits. But it is currently suffering from a severe bout of what John Stuart Mill called “tyranny of opinion”, which demands conformity of belief, enforced by social pressure.

Anyone can stand up for someone they agree with. But it takes a real liberal to defend the rights of those whose opinions they dislike, and to seek to understand them too. 

Surely the only logical way to run a pluralist society is to allow citizens to express personal beliefs without pressing them on others, to bump up against one another with respect and curiosity, and to protect the rights of minorities. 

There can be no neutral space in the public square because all of us are informed by a worldview and live by a moral code. It is for a reason that we have checks and balances in our political system: so no person’s views can dominate the rest.

You may disagree with Kate Forbes, but we live in a democracy and not a theocracy. The Scottish first minister is not a dictator. She is free to stand for election, and you are free not to vote for her. At least you can’t accuse her of being evasive!

Stephen Evans of the National Secular Society says it is wrong to argue that Kate Forbes’s views should get a free pass just because they are founded on her religious faith. I agree with him. We should absolutely be having a debate. That is the mark of a free society. 

It is welcome that, among the shouting, there has been some thoughtful analysis of the role of faith in public life; an area covered in my book A Mucky Business: Why Christians Should Get Involved in Politics.

But the tone of some of the debate really concerns me.

Of course you should call out the views of someone you disagree with. But instead of distorting them, or closing down discussion with accusations such as “bigot”, why not seek to understand why they hold those opinions, and the worldview from which they stem? 

There is a real lack of curiosity about the Christian faith. It’s easier to insult than inquire. There’s an assumption that Christianity is based on hate. But at its heart is a deep and enduring love, and as Christians we often need to be better at explaining this message of good news.

To believe in the Bible’s teaching of God’s vast love and saving power—and to also believe in people’s right to reject it and to live as they choose—is pretty close to a pure application of liberalism.  

Authentic liberalism has its source in Christianity and its belief in the inherent value of each person. It relieves the immense pressure to create and sustain our own identities that drives much of today’s intolerant liberalism. It reminds us that we are each full of significance and dignity, whatever the world tells us.

If we want to continue to be free to express our beliefs, all of us, on all sides, need to stop and think about how we speak and listen to one another, and to seek to understand why intelligent people might hold other perspectives.

If a politician is open about their framework of beliefs, commits to democratic rule of law, and has a host of talents and ideas, they should be judged on all of these areas, not just one. SNP members will all make that decision for themselves, which of course is what a liberal democracy is all about.