A recent poll for Holyrood magazine quizzed around a third of MSPs on their religious affiliation, and thoughts about faith within the political sphere. This snapshot of politicians’ views is fascinating. Just over half of the parliamentarians who responded cited a religious affiliation – 25 identified as Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian, or simply as Christian. One MSP identified as Muslim, and another as Hindu. This breakdown is no surprise in a historically Christian but now multi-faith, and multi-cultural Scotland.
Further questions demonstrated that most MSPs who self-describe as “religious” do so in a nominal sense. Just 35% said they felt “directed” by the teachings of their religion, and only a fifth (21%) said their religion “influences how they make decisions” in parliament. Despite this, a large number of MSPs (78%) acknowledged the meaningful contribution of religion to society, saying “religion has a place in the public square”. And more than 6 in 10 (65%) recognised the need for conscience votes. In a wider context that can be stifling, and censorious this is welcome.
A number of MSPs hinted at intolerance towards people of faith, with 18 per cent agreeing that belonging to a religious group is a “barrier to progression in politics”. This idea was further demonstrated in comments left anonymously by MSP respondents. One individual alluded to the treatment Kate Forbes received during her bid to become SNP leader and Scottish First Minister. They stated: “Recent events where a young woman living her faith was wrongly branded unfit for office by those who had previously relied on her skills and talents were upsetting.
“As someone who does not attend church the hypocrisy of her treatment…gave me huge cause for concern and felt reflective of a creeping intolerance that has entered our politics. There must be space for those of all faiths and none to exercise their conscience on political matters. Scottish society is diverse; tolerance and acceptance must work all ways. It is ironic that some of those in elected office who loudly profess to rail against bigotry and discrimination behave in just that way to colleagues of differing views, religions, or philosophies.”
As if to prove this member’s point, illiberal voices also commented. One anonymous MSP blasted: “I am strongly against religion and faith having any place in politics…If you do hold religious views, I believe you should be able to look beyond these for the benefit of your constituents”. Another said: “One’s personal religious views are in my view private [and] should not be forced upon others. Too much bigotry and intolerance is masked by ‘religious beliefs’ as if those rights trump all others. Religion ought to stay in the home or one’s place of worship. It should keep out of politics”.
These comments betray a deep intolerance. The authors clearly believe only their own belief system should be permissible in the political sphere. I’d argue that in a free, democratic, and pluralistic society, different worldviews must be allowed in politics. Every worldview should be open to criticism, including the beliefs de jour of The West: atheism, paganism, secularism and the various other ‘isms’ we find. The remark that: “Religion ought to stay in the home” is shocking. How can the MSP who wrote it properly represent constituents who have and practice a religious faith?
Let’s be honest, the “faith” that most-animated responses to this poll by Holyrood magazine is Christianity, and in particular evangelical Christianity. It’s what produces anger in individuals whose views are opposed to the historic teaching of the Christian faith. It’s what prompted one MSP to defend Kate Forbes, and others to complain that faith can be a “barrier to progression in politics”. I’m not aware of any person of faith who has faced a modern-day secular inquisition, and sharp hostility, other than born again Christians. Our faith sets us apart, as targets.
Given this, you might say a more pertinent question facing Scottish politics is: should genuine, Bible-believing Christians should be allowed to articulate and abide by their faith in the political realm? For the wider public, I think the answer is still “yes”. Kate Forbes alluded to this in an interview with The Herald recently. Noting the thousands of people who supported her in the wake of political attacks, she said Scots “think for themselves”. “There are enough people in Scotland who won’t tolerate infringement on freedom of speech; infringement on religious conscience”.
For a significant cohort in the media and political class, however, the answer is “no”. During the SNP leadership contest, people asked – quite seriously – if a Christian can really be First Minister. Swap the word Christian for any other faith, and this statement would cause opprobrium. In recent years, a Christian politician has been disciplined for speaking out for unborn babies. Others in and around politics have been bullied, intimidated, and forced out of their jobs, simply for their beliefs. There is no attempt to understand where such people are coming from. ‘Tolerance’ is in short supply.
This subject is worth exploring in depth – far more depth than this blog post allows for. It’s a trend that is playing out across the West, as nations drift further and further from a more distinctly Christian past. I’ll limit my own comments here to two observations. Firstly, I’d echo the view of my friend James Eglinton, a lecturer in Reformed Theology, that religious illiteracy is a problem. Many in politics simply, and innocently, fail to understand how a person is motivated by a deep faith. To them, religion is as an ‘optional extra’, and serious believers are eyed with suspicion.
This is regrettable, and it would be great to see more attempts by those who do not profess a religious faith to understand what, exactly, it means. Those who do seek answers in a serious way will discover that Christians are not the intolerant dinosaurs they’re made out to be. Honest, patient conversations can aid mutual understanding of competing belief systems. The best societies enable people of all walks to participate in the public square, and disagree well – united behind fundamental, democratic values.
I’d also underline that those maligning Christianity do so with some degree of irony, given how significantly the faith has shaped the world we live in today. Western democracies are built upon Christian foundations. As the writer Glen Scrivener notes, the things we have come to cherish in the modern world – equality, compassion, consent, enlightenment, science, freedom, progress – did not come from a vacuum, but arose directly out of the Christian story. Any keen student of history knows this, and we neglect, and chip away at society’s foundations at our peril.
Christianity remains highly relevant in a cultural sense but also on a much deeper, spiritual level. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most radical and hope-filled message ever proclaimed. It teaches that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to pay the price for human sin so that we can be forgiven and accepted by God. Jesus described himself as the “way, the truth, and the life” – the only way to God. This message is for every person alive today, and each person must each decide what to do with it. Jesus promises to answer all those who earnestly seek him.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” – Revelation 3:20.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” – Matthew 11:28-29.