I was unsurprised but nevertheless appalled by the “Gotcha” questions fired at Kate Forbes in her SNP leadership campaign. Her views (especially on marriage) were “outed” and the consensus after the first couple of days was that anyone with those sorts of values was excluded from high office. The backlash was fierce, but there was also a “backlash against the backlash” evidenced by the 48% of SNP members’ votes she gained in the final poll. Perhaps her views were not quite so marginal in the wider population as they are in the media?
But what about the “Gotcha” questions? Should we take them at face value? On the contrary, they reveal a set of underlying assumptions that are taken for granted in the public square. Bringing those assumptions to light could actually lead to intelligent dialogue and debate instead of our public life being characterised by polarised tribes shouting their slogans at each other, but never listening.
So what are the assumptions revealed by these attempts to catch out and exclude a Christian politician?
First, “Gotcha” questions are designed to expose “unacceptable” beliefs (in contrast to good journalism designed to reveal a candidate’s competence or character). They assume that some views are incompatible with Scottish public life. This, in turn, assumes a set of views (and values) that is acceptable. There is, in other words, an approved set of orthodox beliefs that is assumed.
Going a little deeper, “Gotcha” questions tell us a lot about how our society deals with disagreement on moral issues. Is it possible to think someone’s views are wrong, but not hate them? Contemporary discourse, especially concerning “feeling safe” or “hurt”, or in the area of “hate-speech”, assumes moral disagreement must go hand-in-hand with hatred, bigotry and use of the law to disadvantage someone. But this cuts both ways; people assume that a Christian in public office will be prejudiced against anyone they disagree with morally and legislate against them. However, this could be a form of projection. Isn’t this exactly what the secular political establishment does to those with “unacceptable views”? Recent history of law-making in Scotland suggests that the impulse to use law to silence or marginalise those we morally disagree with is very much a feature of our political leaders.
The issue with all this for Christians is that such an approach to moral disagreement is exactly the opposite of what Jesus commands. Far from condemning, hating or marginalising, Christians are commanded to be merciful and kind “to the ungrateful and wicked” because that’s what God is like (Luke 6:35-36). They break Jesus’ direct command when they put themselves in God’s place as judge, condemning those who disagree with them. Of course, exercising kindness and mercy does not mean suspending moral categories, but it does mean refusing to hate or condemn.
This all raises an even deeper question about knowledge and truth. How do we as a society know what’s right and wrong, and what views are acceptable or not? Who decides? And on what authority? What body of evidence, for example, led to the conclusion that anyone holding high office in our country has to have certain approved views on gay marriage or trans issues? What criteria would we have for saying anything is wrong in the future? If, for example, it’s just a matter of taste or preference, then we know that’s easily manipulated by those who pull the propaganda levers.
Barely hidden beneath the surface of Kate Forbes’ interviewers’ questions was a set of counter beliefs about moral issues. These beliefs about the nature of human persons and what constitutes flourishing human life and community are not derived from scientific research – they are a faith position. The genius move of the secular establishment in Scotland is to conceal that this is a belief system and pass it off instead as just what any reasonable, intelligent and well-educated person believes.
This “myth of secular neutrality” then allows various gatekeepers (like journalists) to exclude those who diverge from the “consensus” on the basis of faith; faith is biased and subjective, whereas the secular position is neutral, objective – scientific, even. This is nonsense, of course, and Christians have played along with it by retreating with their faith into the private realm.
There is no neutral, objective and unbiased position. Everyone believes something and their ethical positions are based on a set of beliefs. Until the discussion can shift so that underlying beliefs are acknowledged and debated by all parties, the playing field will remain very much tilted against Christians (and those of other faiths) and they will continue to feel guilty for “imposing their faith” on others, whilst all the time allowing a different secular faith to be imposed on society at large – ironically! If all law-making is an imposition of morality, the question is whose morality and who decides, and can we discuss it?
The idea that there is no belief-system behind Nicola Sturgeon’s gender recognition reform bill, and that politics is a neutral space is a fiction. Every politician brings their faith to their politics. The only question is which faith, in what, and on whose authority. Should faith therefore be kept out of politics? No, never! In the same way that MPs and MSPs are required to declare competing interests – organisational memberships or financial interests – perhaps they should also be required to declare their sets of beliefs about human personhood, the nature of society, the conditions for human flourishing – the “good life” they are in politics to promote. Kate Forbes’ “religious” beliefs were scrutinised in the public arena this year as though they were a strange or alien thing. But those who would promote the gender recognition reform bill, or hate crime legislation that could criminalise legitimate difference of opinion, or gay marriage or anti-conversion therapy legislation are not doing so from a neutral position. They are living out their faith in public and in fairness that faith should be equally rigorously scrutinised. It’s not a choice, therefore, between faith and no faith. It’s a choice between different faiths. What might public life look like if we could just be honest about this and start having some civilised dialogue and debate?
Dr Mark Stirling is director of The Chalmers Institute