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Faith In Politics: Balancing beliefs in modern political parties

Faith In Politics: Balancing beliefs in modern political parties

Doug Gay writes on religion, morals and shaping values in Scottish politics. Can differing worldviews be reconciled within political parties? 07/06/2024

This blog post reworks an X thread I published mid May in the days after Humza Yousaf resigned as Leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland. It doesn’t mention Kate Forbes by name, but it addresses the fierce debates provoked by the prospect of her candidacy as an evangelical Christian for those roles in party and government. I write as a Kirk Minister and academic theologian who is open about my membership of the SNP and support for independence.

As someone who teaches ethics/political theology in a Scottish university, I have some thoughts about recent exchanges on faith in public life. If it’s depressing how quickly people on social media resort to the kneejerk ‘keep politics and religion separate’, I’m encouraged by how people respond if I engage positively with them. I usually find that faced with the examples of Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu, people begin to row back. I also emphasise that all the mainstream Christian churches encourage their members to apply their faith thoughtfully to all dimensions of life. If folk are still listening, then I take the following tack. 

Religious people are not much different from anyone else. We all have basic beliefs which shape how we view the world. Some people call theirs ‘religious’ and identify with a faith tradition, but we all have them, and we don’t keep them separate from how we think about the world. If I believe all people are equal in dignity and rights because we are made in the imago dei [image of God] and you believe in dignity and rights because you think that’s how to name the surprising outcome of an impersonal, materialist chain of chemical reactions, then a) we are likely to share a lot of common ground; and b) why can’t we both explain how we come to this basic belief about life?  

Does it matter to me what your basic beliefs are if you are asking me to vote for you? Yes, it does – and many less basic ones matter as well. I want to know that you are not a fascist, but I also care what you think about freeports. Some of these will be deal–breakers. Others may mean I will vote for you, but disagree with you on x and y. 

The political party I support is the one which, on balance, I most identify with, but it is still also likely to be a coalition of views and positions. In the UK, it was probably founded by Christians, or its founders included Christians, but in 2024 it includes people of all faiths, pagans and humanists. The questions flying around are about what kind of ethical/moral/belief coalition a party can be? 

How does a party on the Left cope with various combinations of views on weapons of mass destruction, on sex/gender, on abortion, on assisted dying and on sex work? Which ones go to free votes, and which don’t? Even without bringing faith into it, ethical judgments in politics can quickly get messy. If A and B both identify as democratic socialists, but A is a pro–life pacifist who affirms trans–rights but opposes assisted dying and B is a pro–choice, pro–Trident, gender–critical feminist who supports assisted dying and opposes sex work, which issues win? Which divergences mean cancellation and which don’t? Who decides? Which values have to be embodied by a party leader and which don’t? 

It’s also worth asking questions about people shifting their positions, assuming that most of us are keen for others to move towards what we think is true, good and right. Quaker thinker Alastair McIntosh recalls his grandfather’s saying “I don’t like that man. I shall need to get to know him better.” People, including young people from religious communities, evolve their moral and political positions in stages, in ways which may be uneven. If a political party is (in Harold Wilson’s phrase) ‘a moral crusade’, (not a phrase I would choose but it’s part of the Labour story) how do we sign people up for our version and how fully formed do they have to be? Think about the rise on the Left of ‘a new puritanism’…

If I am raised in a conservative Muslim, Jewish or Christian family and absorb its norms of personal morality am I already a phobic and hateful ‘other’ who needs be called out and told at 16? 18? 21? to shape up immediately or head off to join the Scottish Family Party? Or does ‘a moral project’ (ditching Wilson’s word) need to be resourced by a hospitable moral community to which people bring their differences and in which they journey and reason together?  

It’s appropriate that the most commonly used metaphor for this in politics is still to talk about being “a broad church”. We have wisdom to share about holding together the Kirk or the C of E across passionately held divides. All parties need to have a moral core and an ideological centre and with that come lines in the sand. But it’s possible to have all that and be a broad church, not a purity cult.

The hardest tensions to hold on the (centre) Left, for the SNP, Plaid, Lib Dems, Labour, SDLP, Alliance are those around equality, diversity and inclusion. While insisting on dignity, respect and civility, can our parties be places where traditionalists who respect civil freedoms stay in dialogue and relationship with progressives who respect religious traditions; if both are willing to stay in the same party and abide by democratic decisions on policy stances? Theologian Iain Torrance in a General Assembly debate on sexuality once reminded the Kirk this was a debate between “scripture loving people”. Perhaps we need to be more willing to accept others as “justice loving people” while carrying on a spirited conversation about what justice looks like in different contexts. 


On Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series

This blog is part of a larger body of work including briefing papers and articles exploring the impact of religion on voting patterns in the UK.

The first briefing paper: Do the religious vote? which examines whether voters from different religions backgrounds are more or less likely to vote.

The second briefing paper: Who do the religious vote for? looks at data on party preference – which parties are people from various religious backgrounds likely to vote for?

The third briefing paper: Do the religious feel like they can make a differencewhich explores political efficacy, social trust, and political trust amongst religious participants.

The fourth briefing paper: Economic and Social Values which maps the economic and social attitudes of religious groups in Britain.  

Learn more about our Religion Counts work here.

Could you help uncover the impact faith can make in this election year by giving to our Religion Counts election appeal? 

 Image by Craig McKay on Unsplash

Doug Gay

Doug Gay

Doug Gay is a Church of Scotland Minister and Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Honey From The Lion – Christianity and the ethics of nationalism, SCM, 2014.

Watch, listen to or read more from Doug Gay

Posted 7 June 2024

Politics, Religion Counts


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