The venerable left-of-centre UK magazine, the New Statesman, asks, “Will Kate Forbes ultimately be forced to choose between politics and God?”
Forbes, a public Christian, missed out on becoming leader of the Scottish National Party, and First Minister of Scotland this year after narrowly losing a poll of party members. A member of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, Forbes opposed the Gender Recognition Bill during her candidacy for leadership. The First Minister of Scotland is the rough equivalent of the Premier of an Australian State.
It is notable that the magazine profiles Forbes, although the leadership poll was at the beginning of 2023. The New Statesman piece provides enough background so that we can see her as a case study for evangelicals in politics in non-conservative political parties. She offers us an example of well-thought-out motivation to be a politician and unflinching resilience under fire.
A motivation to serve
“Forbes is a Highlander, the daughter of Scottish missionaries who worked among the rural poor of northern India and sent Kate and her siblings to local schools in the Punjab and Himalayas. She is a politician because of her religious conviction. Her calling is to serve and honour Christ.
“The primary calling is to be in the dirt of reality,’”’ she told me [the writer for the New Statesman Jason Cowley] during a series of conversations that began when we met for lunch in early November at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. “Where do you see Christ historically? You see Him, not in some sort of cathedral or some elevated ivory tower; you see Him in the midst of vulnerable, under-represented, underprivileged people. That’s what politics is, theoretically. So, therefore, there is a natural home in the midst of the underprivileged, under-represented, voiceless people. You then go from there into parliament to try and make good law that serves those people, and that’s where, quite rightly, there’s a democratic debate.’”
The New Stateman recounts how Forbes came under fire. After Nicola Sturgeon unexpectedly resigned as First Minister, Forbes, with the eventual winner Humza Yousaf, became a leadership candidate.
“But the immediate focus of attention was on her religious and personal beliefs. She answered questions about equal marriage (she would have voted against), pre-marital sex (she was opposed), trans rights (“a trans woman is a biological male who identifies as a woman”) and the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill (she would not seek to challenge the decision by the Sunak government to block it) as directly and honestly as she could.
“What followed was a public shaming. Forbes was denounced and abused on social media.”
Senior SNP ministers joined in, leading an instant firestorm. Looking back, Forbes tells Jason Cowley of the New Stateman:
“If I had answered dishonestly, it would have haunted me throughout not just the leadership contest, but it would have haunted me throughout my tenure. You would never have been able to move beyond it, had you not been honest… There’s something quite liberating about being truthful when going for the job, because you know if you win it, you’ve won it on the basis of people fully knowing who you are.”
Then she looked at me directly and said: “I hate cowardice in myself more than anything else.”
Cowley looks closely at Forbes Missionary parents who served in India as origins for her resilient nature. She is still a member of the Scottish parliament and still in the SNP.
He quotes her tweet from when the social media firestorm was raging. “I feel greatly burdened that some of my responses to questions in the media have caused hurt, which was never my intention as I sought to answer questions clearly. I will defend to the hilt the right of everybody in Scotland, particularly minorities, to live and to love without fear or harassment in a pluralistic and tolerant society. I will uphold the laws that have been won, as a servant of democracy, and seek to enhance the rights of everybody to live in a way which enables them to flourish. I firmly believe in the inherent dignity of each human being – that underpins all ethical and political decisions I make.”
And he is puzzled that “She is an ultra-religious social conservative in her private life and a liberal who defends the rights of all sexual and gender minorities in her public role. If she ran for the leadership again would the contradictions become too great? Does she simply love God too much to do politics well? Will it ultimately be a case of either/or, of a choice between God and politics – the binary choice she has so far resisted?”
Or could it be understood as one Christian simply trying to love their neighbour as themselves? She knows her Christian views are unpopular – Scotland is a very secular country with fewer Christians than Australia. The larger churches are socially liberal; her Free Church of Scotland is a small denomination of 10,000. But she is unafraid to be her Christian self in public, while urging freedom for herself and others.
Forbes offers more than bravery and a desire to be upfront about her Christian beliefs.
She offers an alternative to the “christian nationalist” phenomenon of Christians seeking public office – mostly in the US – to create a theocracy where society follows God’s laws.
Forbes supports God’s laws for Christians, but she would like all minorities protected, not just Christians. She is unafraid to oppose some popular ideas however such as a gender law that would allow people to simply change gender ID at will. But she wants space for people to be different, too.
Tim Farron is a Christain MP whose tenure as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK ran from 2015 to 2017, with his view that homosexual sex is a sin leading to him stepping down. During the general election that year he had avoided the question in interviews, or replied that he did not belive gay sex was a sin. He expressed regret for those answers as he stood down as party leader.
The Guardian reported the Lib Dem media advisor as saying he had hoped faron would be a long term leader ““I hoped that was going to be Tim and I feel very sorry for him,” he added. “I wish he hadn’t made this decision, but it was always going to be the most difficult issue for Tim as leader to balance his faith with what it means to be the leader of a liberal party in the 21st century.”
That comment captures the dilemma for Christian politicians in political parties outside of conservatives. However, it is significant that Farron and Forbes remain in parliament as members of their non-conservative parties. Their stories demonstrate that while there may be a glass ceiling, making it impossible for an evangelical Christian to be a party leader in a non-conservative party, evangelicals can serve in non-conservative parties in a parliament.
It is clear that given the choice, Politics or God, Forbes and Farron have come to a place where their relationship to God is more important than high office. But as things stand, they still are in politics – as they serve in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood and at Westminster, respectively. – and serve God too, with the second form of service extending into eternity.
Image: Kate Forbes, Credit: Peter Devlin / Wikimedia