Is a single settled religious issue really the basis on which to veto political leadership?


On their first media round following their announcement that they will be standing for the leadership of their party, a candidate announces that “gay marriage is a sin”.

Politicians, journalists and commentators declare their campaign “dead in the water”.  How could they not have been more prepared for such a question?  How come they did not “finesse it better”?

In fact, Tim Farron went on to become leader of the Liberal Democrats, although his success may well have been more due to a dearth of alternatives than a willingness of his party to accept his theological interpretation (I speak as his campaign director at the time). 

And, of course, the controversy pursued him through the subsequent 2017 general election, eventually prompting him to resign, declaring, “To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching – has felt impossible for me.”

Kate Forbes “gay marriage blunder” – as colleagues and commentators seem determine to frame her admission that she would not have voted for same sex marriage had she been in Holyrood in 2014 – seems a remarkably close parallel. 

And unlike my former boss, with all due respect to Norman Lamb, Forbes faces more serious opposition for leadership of the SNP; it is perhaps right that she is now toast.  But should she be?

I write as a liberal Jew, part of a progressive tradition which campaigned, along with the Quakers and the Methodists, for the legalisation of same sex marriage and which would be left high and dry were it not so welcoming of gay clergy. 

So, while I have no theological sympathy with Forbes or Farron whatsoever, I remain frustrated at their fate.

Of course, their positions are different: Tim was very clear that, as a liberal, his theological view that gay sex was a sin, should have no bearing on how he would vote to legislate.  The government had no role in determining how people lived – that was and is the essence of Liberalism. 

Forbes was instead commenting on how her personal morality would determine how she would have voted, although she went on to say she would have no difficulty attending a gay friend’s wedding.

But do we do ourselves and our society any favours by making this question the sole litmus test of political acceptability?  And at a time when we claim to crave ‘authenticity’ from our politicians is it right to criticise them for failing to use weasel words to avoid awkward questions?

Personal faith is a huge motivator for political and social action.  I have no doubt that Kate Forbes came into politics in part to address the concerns that her faith caused her to identify.  Tim, Kate, and millions like them, are motivated by their religious beliefs to act to reduce poverty, tackle inequality, provide a platform for the dispossessed and change the lives of the disadvantaged. 

Religion is of course far from being the only motivator of social action but the scorn of the secular commentators for its power is to disavow the actions of our numerous religious institutions, from the Gurdwara that feeds the homeless every night outside my dad’s Covent Garden flat to the Red Crescent and Red Cross organisations distributing aid to the survivors of the recent Turkish and Syrian earthquakes, to the numerous churches, mosques and Hindu temples that performed endless acts of service throughout the covid crisis.

Far better surely that our politicians are inspired by a belief in a divine power than – without naming names – a belief solely in their own personal divine right to rule? 

Don’t we want to know what is driving our political leaders?   Is a single settled religious issue really the basis on which we want to veto candidates for high office?  It’s time to move on.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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