The case of Kate Forbes and her seemingly doomed pitch for the leadership of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is filling many column inches.
Ben Rich has published one perspective on the issues. He titles his piece “Is a single, settled religious issue really the basis on which to veto political leadership?” He also comments that “the scorn of the secular commentators for its power [to drive social action] is to disavow the actions of our numerous religious institutions.”
In this piece I would like to frame the issues somewhat differently.
Acceptance of people’s religious faiths and how they personally choose to interpret such faith is a well-established cultural and political position in the UK – except that religious beliefs are not an acceptable reason to flout the laws of the land.
There has been much progress in making sure that people with different religious beliefs are not held back from achieving high office. We have a Hindu Prime Minister, have had Catholic ones, we have a Muslim Mayor of London – and on it goes. The evidence is overwhelming – though doubtless we can continue to improve.
But the issue with Forbes, and indeed with Tim Farron before her, is not that. The issue is whether, in a secular, multi-faith society those elected to high office should be guided by their own specific religious beliefs when making policy for the whole population.
Also whether specific religious beliefs, and one’s own personal interpretation of them, is a private matter, or whether it is appropriate as a subject of political statements that can sound uncomfortably close to preaching from the pulpit.
I suggest that people’s discomfort with Forbes and Farron are not a result of their religious belief. Rather it is a result that they may choose their own religious interpretations in driving the direction of policy. They may well deny such a thing but are such denials credible when the first thing that Forbes does is to wear her religion on her sleeve and state clearly that she does not agree with what is settled policy both in Scotland and in the UK as a whole?
It doesn’t have to be like that.
Tony Blair was a Catholic. He devoted a lot of effort to ensure that there was never any hint that his own personal belief system would influence the direction of policy. He thought that religion was a private matter and had no role in the discharge of his duty in affairs of state.
At the time, many advised Farron to adopt the same approach. He refused. He wanted to make his religious beliefs one of the centrepieces of his leadership. With predictably disastrous consequences. Forbes is Farron revisited.
The British people are not, in general, religious bigots. They largely accept everyone’s right to hold and practice their own beliefs.
But where they do tend to draw the line is when they believe that such personal religious beliefs risk being imposed upon them by their political leaders. It all raises the spectre of revived pre-Enlightenment thinking.
Ben asks: “Don’t we want to know what is driving our political leaders?”
That is exactly the problem. We do!
When Forbes launches her campaign with policy statements explicitly rooted in her religion, the assumption (or at least the concern) is that her personal religious beliefs will drive her policy agenda. When she denies that, people are confused and unconvinced.
The combination of religious strutting followed by denial of its potential impact on policy direction means that voters are left with no idea of what is really driving such political leaders.
They stop trusting them. And maybe rightly so.