Today, the Scottish National Party (SNP) elected is next party leader and First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousef. Following the surprise resignation of the Scotland's longest serving, and first female, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP was plunged into a dramatic leadership election that was overshadowed by a range of controversies including questions around transparency over SNP membership figures and the resignation of the SNP’s chief executive Peter Murrell, who happens to be Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, over concerns about partiality.
However, for me, the most interesting aspect of this leadership election has been the media attention on the Christian faith of the contest’s runner-up, Kate Forbes.
Kate Forbes became Scotland’s Finance Minister in 2020 at just age 30. In the leadership election, she won 47.9% of the SNP members’ vote on second count (the SNP uses single transferable vote), losing to Yousef’s 52.1%. Kate Forbes is also an evangelical Christian and member of the Free Church of Scotland. Since her rise to political prominence, Forbes has been consistently open about her Christian faith. However, the SNP leadership election brought renewed scrutiny of her faith and views on various social and ethical issues.
Ultimately, Forbes lost the election, although the vote margin was very narrow. In addition, polling by Ipsos in the run up to the election showed that Forbes was the clear favourite to succeed Sturgeon amongst Scottish voters. 32% of voters said that they preferred Forbes, compared with 24% who preferred Yousef.
Therefore, I think that Christians, particularly those in the public square, can learn a lot from the way Forbes handled the media scrutiny of her faith. Here are my three lessons I believe we can learn from Kate Forbes.
1. Straight Answers Gain Trust
From the beginning of the election campaign, Forbes was clearly prepared to field questions about her faith. As became apparent, her strategy was to be clear and open about her Christian ethics from the offset, on the whole range of questions that came her way. For example, when she was asked by Sky News: “Is it correct for people to have children before marriage?”, Forbes responded: “My faith would say that sex is for marriage and that’s the approach that I would practice”, but she also repeatedly reiterated: “It is something that I would seek to avoid personally, but it doesn’t fuss me the choices other people make…”. Similarly when asked by the Daily Record for her views on abortion, Forbes responded “I wouldn’t have an abortion myself, but I would uphold the laws which allow for women to access abortion services”.
Forbes’ approach was very different to that of former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron during the 2017 General Election, who responded to questioning about his views on homosexual sex by repeatedly stating his belief that all people are sinful and it was not his place to judge the sins of others. This led to persistent questioning in nearly every recorded interview Farron did, and he ended up resigning at party leader after the election (despite the Liberal Democrats making electoral gains).
I think Forbes’ approach of being pretty clear and straight with her views from the offset worked in her favour. It meant that she could argue that her positions on these various ethical issues had been addressed in the early days of the campaign, and she could then move on to talk about political policies. It also allowed her to present herself as a trust-worthy person who was not going to dodge questions and hide her true motives (as we have gotten used to politicians doing), but was willing to openly lay out her views and put them to her electorate. As Forbes herself said to BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg near the end of the campaign: “The approach I took was that voters deserve to know who they are voting for and I took the approach that honesty and candour is better than anything else”.
In a political climate where we are used to politicians lying, spinning and dodging difficult questions, honesty and candour are rare and valuable, and can help to win the public’s trust including from those who hold different views.
2. We Need Clarity on the Separation of Church and State
Secondly, Forbes highlighted the need for Christians to have a clearly articulated view on the separation of Church and State. We often hear from pulpits that Christians should be in favour of ethical position “A” but opposed to ethical position “B”. However, we cannot just stop there. For Christians in the public square, we need to also be clear on if and how our personal views should impact public policies.
In the main, I would argue for a clear separation of Church and State on most ethical issues. The bible sets forth clear moral and ethical guidance on a wide variety of issues, that followers of Jesus should endeavour to life by. However, this does not mean we have the duty or right to try to impose these values on unbelievers. I agree with Tim Farron when he says: “I firmly believe that I have no right to legislate to make people who aren’t Christians live as though they were”.
So for example, I think the bible has clear teaching on the definition of marriage and the place of sex within marriage. However, I do not think we should impose these rules on the general public, and so I personally do not think Christians should oppose the legalisation of gay marriage (irrespective of ones theological views).
However, I also believe there is a strong call in the bible for Christians in places of political power to use the tools at their disposal to “love their neighbours”. This will be in the form, both of resource provision for the poor, unemployed and sick, and also through legislation that protects vulnerable people from harm. For example, I think Christians in politics should be fighting against the legalisation of euthanasia, as we are called to protect and upload the precious lives of the elderly, dependent and dying.
Clearly, there are many topics in which the distinction between not imposing biblical commands on non-Christians, and using political resources to love our neighbours, can get complicated- for example on the issue of “gender affirming” therapies (more about this in my book “Christ and the Culture Wars”, out on 16th May). But nonetheless I think Christians in the public square need to have a well-reasoned and clearly articulated theology of the separation of Church and State that can be convincingly presented to the public.
3. Competence is Credible
Third and finally, I think Kate Forbes’ campaign shows us that competence gains credibility. Forbes became Scottish Finance Minster at very short notice following the resignation of her predecessor, and has since gained reasonably wide respect for her handling of Scotland’s finances. To be clear, there are many criticisms that can be levelled at the SNP’s economic policies, and Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is going through a cost-of-living crisis. However, Forbes’ record as Finances Minister is fairly broadly praised, and certainly more than the record of Humza Yousef as Health Minster.
We live in a culture where dominant authority figures (especially white, male, Christian authority figures) are often automatically viewed with suspicion and scepticism. Therefore, demonstrable competence is of great value when public figures are trying to win trust and gain credibility. I think this applies to Christian evangelists and Christians contending for Christian values in the public square. Having a theological degree or a job at a Christian organisation is usually not enough to gain the ear of sceptics. Whatever our background, to be taking seriously, we need real world competence and credibility in some form.
Of course, Kate Forbes did not with the SNP leadership election. However, the close-fought race and her popularity amongst the Scottish electorate show that there is a lot we can learn from Forbes.
However, it is worth ending by saying my overriding feeling towards Forbes is that of gratitude. I disagree with many of Forbes’ policies, not least on Scottish independence. However, I am hugely grateful for her willingness, not only to advocate for and defend Christianity and the place of Christians in public life, but also to run for high office as a servant of Jesus. We should pray for Forbes, and all Christians in politics, as they serve Jesus in national leadership and have their values publicly scrutinised. And maybe one day, our country may become tolerant and diverse enough to accept an evangelical Christian leader for who they are.