50.50: Opinion

Scotland should heed the US when it comes to religious beliefs and bigotry

OPINION: How Kate Forbes’ religious views affect her candidacy to become Scotland’s new first minister

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
1 March 2023, 10.34am

Kate Forbes, whose personal piety has never been a secret, was viewed as the frontrunner to replace Nicola Sturgeon when she launched her leadership bid


Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

As a woman, I have long looked up to outgoing Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon as a role model of strong female leadership. As a trans person, I am also deeply appreciative of her principled stance on Scotland’s gender recognition bill, which passed the Scottish parliament but was then blocked by an increasingly transphobic Westminster.

It’s disheartening that Sturgeon is stepping down amid controversy over her consistent support for trans rights (she denies that the pushback on this issue is the reason she’s resigning). Her willingness to stand up for her convictions on trans equality, even under fire, is admirable. And it’s encouraging in a period when the transgender community is under vicious attack, in both the US and Britain.

I don’t presume to preach or prescribe policy to populations outside the US. But as an observer of UK politics from the other side of the pond, I have long felt a sense of solidarity with the cause of Scottish independence – especially since Brexit forced Scotland out of the EU, and now that the government in London is actively preventing progressive change north of the border.

So it’s been interesting – and somewhat eye-opening – to observe the current rift in the Scottish National Party over ‘traditional’ Christian values and LGBTQ equality, centred on the (now beleaguered) candidacy of finance secretary Kate Forbes to replace Sturgeon at the head of the SNP and the Scottish government.

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The ongoing row has generated an important discussion of what concepts such as coexistence, tolerance, pluralism and religious freedom should mean for the nitty-gritty of political praxis.

Unfortunately, the discourse around such matters includes a widespread tendency to distance religion from bigotry (even when bigoted stances are clearly religiously motivated), as well as a distorted understanding of ‘religious freedom’ that has been pushed to great success by the Republican Party here in the US. In the Scottish context, it’s more often expressed as ‘tolerance’.

Kate Forbes – whose personal piety as a member of the Free Church of Scotland, a socially conservative, evangelical Calvinist denomination, has never been a secret – was initially viewed as the frontrunner to replace Sturgeon. But she seemed to have blown her chances at becoming first minister when she admitted in an interview that she does not personally support same-sex marriage, and wouldn’t have voted for it had she been an MSP in 2014.

She went on to state that she considers trans men to be women and trans women to be men, and that sex is only a morally acceptable act in the context of a one-man, one-woman marriage. Amid the hubbub this understandably generated, some questioned whether Forbes could even be fully trusted to protect abortion rights.

They now seem quite right to have done so. On Monday, openDemocracy’s own Adam Ramsay broke the story that Forbes’ first position at Holyrood – she worked as an intern for MSP Dave Thompson, who is now a member of the Alba Party – was funded by the right-wing Christian, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ group Christian Action, Research and Education (CARE). Ramsay reports that CARE’s budget consists of almost £2m per annum, but where that funding comes from is undisclosed. He adds that during her time in office, “Forbes has granted considerable access to Christian right lobby groups. Almost 10% of her meetings as an MSP with registered lobbyists have been with representatives of ultraconservative groups, including CARE, the Evangelical Alliance and the Christian Institute.”

Before the interview in which she admitted she would have voted against same-sex marriage, the question of what impact Forbes’ religious beliefs might have on her approach to governing raised a few eyebrows. Even so, she had the support of many prominent party members.

Veteran SNP politician Pete Wishart tried to shut down “all this rubbish about her religious beliefs” in a way I found reminiscent of Republicans’ (and unfortunately some Democrats’) vehemence over valid questions about the beliefs of Catholic extremist justice Amy Coney Barrett during Senate hearings vetting her for federal appointments. She now sits on the US Supreme Court, to disastrous effect on equality and civil rights.

In the brouhaha that began when the infamous interview dropped, some on social media attempted to decouple “real” religion from Forbes’ views on LGBTQ rights. One Twitter user, for example, asserted that “her homophobia and all the rest of it is just plain bigotry and nothing to do with religion.” But this very framing is an example of Christian privilege.

Forbes herself is the source of the conflation of her religious views and her bigoted beliefs, and there is no reason not to take her at her word

What this rhetoric does is protect Christianity’s undeserved reputation as more or less always and inherently benign. But it does not reflect the reality of Forbes’ sincere faith, which she cites as the source for the bigoted personal views she admits would have led her to vote no on same-sex marriage. And given her past as a CARE intern and the organisation’s continued confidence in her social conservatism, there is no reason for women, queer people, and progressives to trust Forbes on social policy moving ahead.

In other words, Forbes herself is the source of the conflation of her religious views and her bigoted beliefs (which are, after all, prescribed by her kirk), and prudence dictates that we take her at her word. Sometimes – not always, but not infrequently – reactionary views and oppression of those who do not conform are a major component of what constitutes Christian faith.

The only question is whether Forbes is truly capable of putting these views to one side so that she can govern in a way that represents all Scottish citizens.

The US has shown time and again that reactionary Christian political leaders are more than capable of lying about such things in order to gain power. To be clear, I am not accusing Forbes of lying, but her own admission that she would have voted against socially progressive bills that have already passed does not inspire confidence that she could represent all her constituents well or that she would support progressive legislation moving forward.

Forbes and her defenders have the audacity to speak of ‘tolerance’ in a way that implies that perfectly upstanding people, who know that Forbes views them as morally deviant and would vote against their rights given the chance, should support her bid for first minister, while the Free Church rails against supposed “anti-Christian intolerance” and “bigotry” against Forbes. This is, frankly, bollocks.

The meaning of tolerance

A functional pluralist society is not one in which submissive deference to the historically dominant religion should be expected; and a tolerant society is not one in which criticism of religion – especially the most powerful religion in a given society – should be taboo. To be sure, Forbes’ particularly reactionary church represents not only a small minority of the Scottish population, but even of Scottish Christians. But the fact that she is any sort of Christian still grants her undue privilege, and her anti-LGBTQ views undue deference from people who should know better.

The largely reactionary and intolerant history of Christianity in the West, where a shift toward tolerance and pluralism followed on the heels of two centuries of brutal wars between Catholics and Protestants, makes it rather rich for the most reactionary Christians to cry that they are victims of “intolerance” and “bigotry”. And it is unfortunate that so many Scots, a majority of whom are non-religious, appear to agree that views like Forbes’ should get a pass not just in personal matters, but even when it comes to the question of who should lead the country.

It is not intolerant for a party’s members to decide that anti-LGBTQ views disqualify a candidate from a leadership position within the party. If tolerance and functional pluralism are to prevail in the long term, intolerant governance – governance that uses the coercive force of law to allow one group to dominate others – must be prevented. Again, the record of Christian churches on this matter is, shall we say, poor.

Most Scottish Christians are in favour of same-sex marriage, a position that even the Church of Scotland – a far more moderate kirk than the one that Forbes belongs to – has officially supported for several years now. But Forbes’ social positions are nevertheless Christian ones.

Religions are, after all, complex social systems constantly subject to internal contestation and communally mediated interpretation, which makes them neither inherently malignant nor inherently benign – but certainly relevant to how leaders might govern.

Incidentally, the comparisons many observers are raising with rival candidate and health secretary Humza Yousaf, who is a Muslim, is one of apples and oranges, given that Yousaf’s stated support for same-sex marriage and the gender recognition bill is unequivocal.

The false equivalence between the potential impact of Yousaf and Forbes' religious views on their politics that has been mentioned repeatedly – including by the BBC – bears at least a whiff of Islamophobia that again comes from a (historically) majoritarian position shaped by Christian privilege.

On 23 February, a self-described “greatly burdened and heartsore” Forbes finally apologised for her comments (without recanting any of their substance), emphatically reiterating that as first minister she would protect the rights of everyone in Scotland, and “particularly minorities”. But is someone who holds her views really capable of doing so?

If the SNP and/or the Scottish people decide that someone who is personally opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage, and trans rights is unfit to head the Scottish government, they are not being anti-pluralist or intolerant. Quite the opposite. Tolerance and religious freedom, properly understood, mean that people have the right to hold intolerant religious beliefs, but not that such people have an unquestioned right to occupy powerful government positions. Indeed, the robust pursuit of tolerance demands vigilance towards intolerance in the public square with the goal of preventing the domination of any social groups by those who oppose their rights.

Rejecting Forbes would ensure that sexual and gender minorities in Scotland feel safe and included under a leader who does not think any less of them because of who they are or who they love. This is a more tolerant outcome than putting a bigot in charge because “tolerance” dictates she not be judged for her religious views.

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