Shaping debate on religion in public life.

What’s God Got To Do With It?

12 Mar 2023

A Generational Response to the SNP Contest

[A]s a committed Christian and a socialist I am well aware that in one’s personal life at least, the political cannot be separated from the spiritual. Our conception of what it means to be a disciple and to follow Christ often act as an anchor for our political convictions to serve the least of these and be part of building a society which promotes the radical love and inclusion that we see in the life of Jesus.[1]

My friend William Gibson (LLB in Scots law), studying for an MA in theology at Glasgow University and an Associate member of the Iona Community previously reflected on the SNP contest for a blog for the Student Christian Movement. I found this above quote especially moving and relatable for so many Christians who are inspired by their faith to work and campaign in politics.

Seeing our faith being ripped apart in the public square, being called irrelevant, prehistoric, damaging etc, takes its toll, especially for Christians who ascribe to a progressive, liberal agenda. The faith held by Kate Forbes does not reflect my own faith. It is not how I, or many other Christians would embody our faith if/when involved in politics. Fighting for the place of Christianity in politics, understanding that for many Christians it is their discipleship, their call to follow Christ, that leads them into politics to fight for a more just society and better global relationships, is complicated when our interpretations of Jesus’ call to bring His more just world differs, and where the diversity of Christian belonging and theology clash in the public square.

I want to uphold the work of Doug Gay, lecturer at Glasgow University who has consistently tried to explain the complication of holding a conservative Christianity in Scottish politics, ‘a good faith actor, like Kate Forbes, can have deep convictions which they believe they are bound to by divine authority and can hold these in a spirit of humility and love, accepting they are in a minority.’[2] It would be too easy for progressive Christians to dismiss Kate Forbes because of her faith held in the Free Church of Scotland. Yet Forbes’ faith is not one that willingly  celebrates the diversity of God’s children, and her responses to challenges on this question have tended to emphasize her own minoritized position that stems from holding these beliefs.

This is perhaps where I have to take a step back and admit that I am not Scottish. I have lived in Scotland for almost 5 years, and support the Labour Party. I, however, fully support the call for an independent Scotland. Being Welsh and growing up in Wales, I feel equally estranged from Westminster and the current ruling shambles of the Tory Party. But, for the younger generation, for an independent Scotland to not just be a reactive to the disastrous policies of the Tory government, an Independent Scotland needs to be an inclusive Scotland.

My University of Edinburgh seminar this week discussed same-sex marriages in the Church of England. Essays were due imminently  so I decided to have a creative class where the students would role-play different characters involved in the debate. The student who played a young person called for anarchy, joking that all issues in our society stemmed not from the Church but from the State. After laughter, I agreed with this student’s keen perception of how the younger generation understands our society. Politics in the UK have become a joke, where the rich becoming richer, with more tax breaks, more food banks, further hatred towards the ‘other’, and colder houses are taken for granted as the status quo.

 My generation is absolutely disillusioned from what this country calls politics. A game of putting profit before people has alienated a majority of young people whose values are calling for a fairer, more just world, where women can feel safe walking alone and not be blamed for being raped because of the style of their underwear, where their friend can wear their hijab and feel beautiful, where their trans friend can confidently be their true self on a train, or at a football game, or in class and not be maliciously misgendered, or where students from working class backgrounds can be treated with integrity and be taken seriously.[3]

Forbes wishes for ‘better days’ in Scotland, where it can be ‘a country where tolerance is the ruling ethic, differences are welcomed, fairness is the norm.’[4] Simon Lee explained in 2003, ‘[t]oleration only comes into play when one finds X repugnant but decides nonetheless not to use any means at one’s disposal […] to curtail X.’[5] Sturgeon is held by many to  not only endorse tolerance, but actively promote instead inclusion and belonging. As she shared numerous times, her Scotland was not one where bigotry or hatred would be permissible. Forbes is concerned for those whose opinions and views are becoming marginalized as Scottish society contemplates the move to include embodied peoples who have not been allowed to be their full selves in society. Tolerance on its own however does not automatically advance the status quo; it prefers rather to look behind to appease those who are blind to their own privilege and feel entitled to voice their dislike of having to listen to new voices. Forbes declared that she would not have voted for same-sex marriage at the time it came to the vote in the Scottish parliament in 2014; this would not have promoted fairness as to people’s rights to marry whom they love, nor welcome differences in love.

When watching the latest hustings between the three SNP Leader candidates I was surprised at how Kate Forbes and Ash Regan criticized the previous SNP government and leader Nicola Sturgeon. They both advocated a ‘break’ from the previous policies that ‘were not working.’ Humza Yousaf however upheld the work of the SNP and Sturgeon. Yousaf also was the only visibly outraged member on this TV panel reacting to the UK government’s brutal proposed immigration bill. He asked the two other candidates to agree with him that the bill would not belong in Scotland, and Ash Regan collectedly responded that these government policies were a concern for her “among others”. Sturgeon has consistently  praised Glasgow for fighting against forced removals of their neighbours by Home Office enforces, and has publicly refuted racist rhetorics that vilified racially minoritized persons in Britain. Her open-armed acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, especially through the recently passed Gender Recognition Reform Bill showed her commitment to be a true ally of trans people facing profound victimization. Sturgeon pioneered a narrative of a  nation that she claimed was distinct from Westminster through its commitment  to create a Scotland that was legislatively dedicated to a vision of unity and solidarity. Stephen Noon, previously the chief strategist for Yes Scotland, but who is now studying for a Ph.D in Divinity at the University of Edinburgh reflected,

Our nation’s passing of equal marriage legislation not only changed Scotland, but the acceptance it offered to me, and other gay men and women, was transformational. We were not second best, but equal in the eyes of our peers.

All three candidates have been painted as hazy when it comes to supporting LGBTQI+ policies. Yousaf missed the vote, and Regan resigned as minister for Community Safety over the Gender Reform Bill. It seems from her discussions on the topic Forbes would tolerate the law of same-sex marriage in Scotland, and Regan has voiced that she would scrap the GRB if she gets into power. I sense neither figure would want to elevate the inclusive and progressive agenda of Sturgeon. Yousaf however had supported the same-sex campaign and explained he was away on government business during the vote. The media has grilled Yousaf, a practicing Muslim, about his own personal religious views and he has repeatedly assured the public that he supports LGBTQI+ people, wants equality to thrive in Scotland, would uphold the laws and wants what is best for Scottish people. Stephen Noon explains that his own faith, ‘is not primarily a set of rules or propositions; it is, for me, a relationship with the source of love. That means the starting point is not “the law” but always the person in front of me and the reality they are facing.’[6] I am sad that Forbes has tended not to represent how her faith leads her towards building a more generous and accepting Scotland. Yet I see this, and my faith, represented in the love, passion and care I perceive to be shown by Yousaf’s campaign for the SNP leadership. If the political game of vilifying the ‘other’, be that migrants, gay people, trans people, or working-class people enters Scotland I fear the support for Independence from the younger generations will be lost. I hope a humble, love-filled faith can continue to be represented in Scottish politics, and help younger generations restore their hope in democratic governments.


[1] William Gibson, ‘Does faith belong in politics? What we can learn from Kate Forbes’ campaign,’ Student Christian Movement, accessed 09/03/2023 via https://www.movement.org.uk/blog/does-faith-belong-politics.

[2] Doug Gay, Tweet 21/02/2023.

[3] The Times, ‘State Educated Edinburgh Students Mocked for their Accents,’ https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/state-educated-edinburgh-students-mocked-for-their-accents-ndpqqr9md.

[4] Katrine Bussey, ‘SNP leadership contest: Kate Forbes says she wants to lead Scotland into ‘better days’ and declares nation must have tolerance as ‘ruling ethic’ The Scotsman, 24/02/2023 https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/snp-leadership-contest-kate-forbes-says-she-wants-to-lead-scotland-into-better-days-and-declares-nation-must-have-tolerance-as-ruling-ethic-4039973.

[5] Simon Lee, Uneasy Ethics (Pimlico: 2003), 109.

[6] Stephen Noon, ‘Equal marriage was transformational for Scotland and for the acceptance it offered me,’ Hollyrood, https://www.holyrood.com/comment/view,stephen-noon-equal-marriage-was-transformational-for-scotland-and-for-the-acceptance-it-offered-me.

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