If Kate Forbes opposes gay marriage, SNP members have the right to oppose her
Following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and first minister of Scotland, attention has turned to Sturgeon’s successor. Kate Forbes, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy and a frontrunner to succeed Sturgeon, has attracted attention for her membership of the Free Church of Scotland, a conservative denomination which opposes gay marriage, abortion and gender self-ID. Last night, Forbes acknowledged that she would have voted against gay marriage, asking her party for tolerance.
This case raises questions about tolerance and its institutional foundations, a focus of this Substack. I have long worried about liberal intolerance, reflecting the majority status of liberal values in postmaterial societies.
In such societies, the religious often receive unfair treatment, reflecting the minority status of faith. As a devout Christian, Tim Farron faced difficulties as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Certain criticisms of his voting record were legitimate, yet Farron’s (apparent) belief that gay sex is sinful inspired opposition in its own right. Liberals should oppose this. When 'liberalism' censures private beliefs, it becomes something else.
There are ambiguous cases. In Poland, society has long debated whether Catholic doctors should be required to perform abortions. Given the complexities of such issues, one may avoid commitment to fixed positions.
But the Forbes case is unambiguous. Having stated that she would not have supported gay marriage, Forbes has taken a position on a key policy issue. Admission that this reflects her faith is to Forbes’ credit – I wish all politicians were so honest (!) – but should be irrelevant. In liberal democracies, ideas must be debated on their own merits and religious conviction should not provide exemption. If SNP members do not wish to support a leadership candidate who opposes gay marriage, that is their prerogative.
I share concerns that Christians are treated differently to other religions, reflecting the perception that Christians are historically privileged, yet do not see the relevance here. Whilst Humza Yousaf, a rival of Forbes and devout Muslim, may follow traditional Islamic teachings on homosexuality (he has fended off questions), Yousaf supports gay marriage, stating that his faith is not a basis for legislation. This distinguishes Yousaf from Forbes.
Some lament that traditional religious beliefs are now incompatible with high office. This may be true; in Britain, none of the main parties would select leaders who publicly oppose gay marriage. Though liberal democracies must protect the right to dissent, complaints have limits; to a great extent, liberal democracy is a popularity contest. Religious people might concentrate on opportunities. At its best, Christianity is countercultural, the most celebrated Christians bearing the costs of faith.
Kate Forbes’ integrity and commitment to her faith is not in question. But SNP members have the right to discriminate against policy positions.
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