General Assembly 2023 Supplement

General Assembly 2023 - Special Supplement

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Kate Forbes. Picture: Scottish Government
Kate Forbes. Picture: Scottish Government

Standing for Something

Tuesday May 9

How do the public feel about politicians with religious beliefs? Adam McPherson looks at the evidence.

The dust may only just have settled on the SNP leadership contest but the questions it raised continue to reverberate.

One of the defining moments of the campaign occurred very early on. When asked in an interview whether her personal opinions regarding same-sex marriage would have influenced her voting intentions, Kate Forbes asserted that it would have (although she wasn't an elected representative at the time). The blowback that followed received UK-wide media attention and scrutiny.

Though we now know the outcome of the contest, pollsters and political pundits are keen to know more about voters’ perceptions on how our elected representatives reach policy decisions. As Clive Field of British Religion in Numbers (BRIN) notes: “Forbes’ conservative Christian standpoint, notably on same-sex marriage, has left the public wondering whether politicians should let their religious views influence their political decisions.”

So how do the public feel about politicians and their religious beliefs? There are many ways to slice an elected representative: Keynesian or Monetarist; Socialist or Neo-Liberal; Capitalist or Communist. These 'tribes' tend to dominate the electoral cycles and all act as beliefs of one sort or another. We may not find people praying at the altar of John Maynard Keynes but proponents of his economic principles venerate them as almost spiritual; offering the much-sought answers to challenging questions. The ideological differences between these socio-political 'tribes' carry much the same resentment and angst as those between faith denominations.

Perhaps this method of framing political differences is inaccurate. Religious belief does not easily transpose itself upon any one political ideology. As noted in the profiles of four of our most prominent former Prime Ministers, faith can be 'spun' to suit particular party political necessities. Clement Attlee viewed Christianity as a Socialist construct, writing that it exposed the ‘inhuman conditions’ of capitalism. For Margaret Thatcher, the most fundamental value of Christianity was freedom.

The question which the discussion around Forbes raised is straightforward: How should politicians vote on policies which affect the wider electorate?

Voters expect their elected representatives to stand for something. Though some sections of the media criticised Forbes for expressing her personal beliefs, polling suggests her honesty was greeted with curious appreciation by the public. An Ipsos MORI poll for Channel 4 News found that 53% of those polled had either a great deal or fair amount of trust in Forbes, compared with 47% for Humza Yousaf and 34% for Ash Regan. Might this be a reflection of the public's appetite for conviction politicians, even if they disagree with that particular viewpoint?

Further data suggest the electorate are comfortable with politicians holding strong religious convictions. Across the UK, and on behalf of The Express newspaper, Techne UK interviewed a sample of 1,633 adults and asked: ‘Do you think religious belief should be a bar for high political office such as Prime Minister of the UK or First Minister of Scotland and Wales?’ A plurality (45%) of those asked said 'No' while 37% answered 'Yes'. The dataset were subdivided into age and socio-economic categories and across almost every subsection, those polled did not believe religious belief should prevent individuals from attaining high office. Only Labour voters thought personal faith should be a bar to national leadership, polling 43% in the affirmative and 40% in the negative.

Perhaps the question is not whether those seeking election have a particular faith, but how willing they are to discuss the impact it has on their voting intentions. In the same Ipsos MORI poll for Channel 4, 57% of those asked said they would be fairly or very uncomfortable with politicians voting according to their personal beliefs. Amongst SNP voters polled, that share increased to 61%.

Clinging to commitments made in party manifestos may absolve those seeking election from espousing personal beliefs too freely. But these manifestos have to be founded on something, be it an ideology or a faith. As a nation, we want our politicians to have convictions that mean something to them. How fervently they espouse these beliefs, on the other hand, is open to further scrutiny.

Life and Work is the magazine of the Church of Scotland. Subscribe here.