Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes (Photo by Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images)

A new test act?

In the new progressive ideology, there is no room for private religious convictions

Artillery Row

Recently, Kate Forbes, Scotland’s finance secretary, declared her intention to run for the leadership of the SNP. Even before Forbes had formally announced, the media was furiously debating the central issue of her candidacy — what does Kate Forbes think about premarital sex? 

Yes, dear reader, this is the really important question — the single issue that matters most in a modern liberal democratic society. It is the sacred duty of the British press to ask each and every candidate their views on every sexual position, act and orientation. What does Liz Truss think about furries? Would Jesus approve of S&M, Prime Minister? Not even a bit of light spanking? Does the honourable member take a view on fellatio? The Great British Public is owed nothing less than full transparency on this burning issue (and speaking of burning issues, what does Sir Keir think about hot wax, eh? He owes us the truth). 

Muslim politicians are mysteriously spared the inquisitorial treatment

Of course, we don’t ask every candidate such questions. In fact, it seems we only ask traditional Christians these sort of questions, in some kind of grotesque modern form of bear-baiting. “Wouldn’t it be funny, if instead of treating the future leader of a political party like a normal candidate, we decided to ask them very pointed questions about whether Jesus approved of gay sex?” Kate Forbes privately believes (like the majority of people in human history) that marriage is between a man and woman, and that’s just not OK in the year 2023, even if it has no implications whatsoever for gay rights or public policy. This was the approach taken to Tim Farron, who like Kate Forbes was a traditional non-conformist Christian proposing to lead a liberal political party. 

Members of the media have defended this extraordinary behaviour by claiming that questions were fair game if they touch on gay rights and the confidence of parties with socially liberal membership. Yet the questions were not about gay rights. Anyone who bothered to ask Farron for his views on matters of law and policy would quickly discover a committed and sincere social liberal, who saw his own religious convictions as a matter of personal choice, not public policy. They weren’t asking him about policy, or gay rights — they asked him whether gay sex was a sin, which is not an issue that as leader of the Liberal Democrats he was ever likely to be asked to rule on. 

This approach adds up to a new Test Act, with politicians expected to prove they hold no religiously conservative views on sexual ethics before being allowed to take high office. Curiously though, it is reserved for Christians, with Muslim politicians (like fellow SNP leadership hopeful Humza Yousef), mysteriously spared the inquisitorial treatment.* You’d think by the media’s own standard, given that over half of British Muslims think homosexuality should be illegal, this was a question that would be put to every practising Muslim politician. 

*Update: The media have finally got around to asking Humza Yousef for his views, largely because so many people kept asking them why they hadn’t yet. Yousef says of course he supports same-sex marriage, though he’s struggling to explain why he carefully arranged his schedule in such a way that he ended up avoiding voting for it. Another glorious chapter in British journalism and politics. 

Secular liberal critics claim that they fear conservative Christians will impose their views on others, but such a view is fully at odds with the political and religious pluralism they claim to uphold. If secular liberals can’t trust conservative religious people to set policy for them, how can religious people be expected to trust secular liberals with their own rights? 

Frankly, as we see with the treatment of Kate Forbes, there is plenty of evidence that they cannot trust secular liberals to uphold religious freedom. There is now a concerted attempt to exclude religious conservatives from the political process and public life, with informal and formal barriers emerging in law, policy and society. The right to protest, for instance, doesn’t extend to religious conservatives when it comes to abortion “buffer zones”. Simarly, registrars who feel unable to conduct gay marriages, midwives and doctors who do not want to perform abortions, and teachers who do not wish to participate in LGBT education, are all considered by many progressives and activists to be bigots who have no business working in their chosen vocation. 

Christianity gives a meaning and shape to liberalism

Whatever you think of religious conservatives and their views, if people cannot live by their own convictions on questions of sexual and medical ethics, then the entire notion of liberal pluralism and religious freedom quickly breaks down. We are left with something else entirely. 

Liberalism is becoming something very different, yet at the same time, old patterns of allegiance and belief are hard to eradicate. Like Tim Farron, Kate Forbes represents the original link of British liberalism to non-Conformist communities. One of the chief wellsprings of the best aspects of this political tradition, from the campaign against slavery to the foundations of the British welfare system, was this fiery but humble form of Christianity. Kate herself is a “wee free” — a member of the Free Church of Scotland, with its origins in its (multiple) refusals to join with the established Presbyterian national Church of Scotland. 

It’s striking that despite a vastly more socially liberal, secular and non-Christian generation of politicians across all parties, so many traditional Christians still make their way into public life and end up topping candidate lists, even in especially right-on political parties. Christians can still make moral sense of liberalism in a way secular liberals cannot, and conservative Christians especially seem to have an earnestness and integrity that appeals to voters. 

Christianity gives a meaning and shape to liberalism. For liberal Christians, freedom flows from the centrality of freely chosen faith, the integrity of the god-given moral conscience, and the metaphysical reality of free will. Human rights and equality are rooted in an understanding of the sanctity of life and the infinite dignity of every human person, created in the image of God. Politicians like Forbes thus seem to represent a more powerful and morally saturated liberalism, with a prior claim to legitimacy that directly challenges the dominance of secular progressives over liberal political movements and parties. 

It is this uneasy fear, not handmaid’s tale fantasies, that really drives the animus many secular liberals seem to have towards figures like Farron and Forbes. It certainly cannot be plausibly located in their hysterical claims that they will have the power to overturn party policy on gay rights. Both candidates, after all, explicitly committed to not doing so. Part of the fear is performative and opportunistic of course —  they want to discredit candidates like Kate Forbes because they know she won’t ride out ahead of public opinion on issues like putting men in women’s prisons. 

Part of the fear is real, though, and it again goes back to that never fully disentangled link between even the most secular forms of British liberalism and Christianity, especially the radical, non-conformist sort. For all that social change is presented as inevitable — and conservative religious people as hopeless anachronisms soon to be eradicated — sincere, decent and likeable conservative Christians in the glare of media attention could readily shift public perceptions.

If candidates like Farron and Forbes are able to take the leadership of liberal parties and lead them successfully, the whole conversation on religious freedom and conscience might change. They cannot be allowed to succeed. Thus many in politics and the media are determined that such people are not to be humanised, and that their views are not to be tolerated, however privately and honestly held. 

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