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Press: For Kate Forbes, faith is not a dirty secret

10 May 2024


WHEN I lived in Sweden, I learned that everyone who had only read about the country knew more than anyone who had ever lived there could. The Sweden that foreigners knew so well had every perfection except existence. For the Left, it was a country of magnificent, blonde, and ever-willing women, where everyone worked harmoniously towards socialism and world peace; for the Right, it was a humourless dystopia, ruled by Big Brother’s more terrifying sister, Big Nanny.

Neither of these visions had anything much to do with the complex and contradictory country in which I lived, but nothing that I wrote could rob them of their power.

The English coverage of Kate Forbes last week suggest that Scotland must be very close to Sweden, somewhere up there amid the fog and icebergs. No one who got their news from The Guardian could have suspected that a serious Calvinist could win 48 per cent of the vote in the SNP’s last leadership contest, running against a progressive Muslim, nor that the wider electorate would clearly have preferred her policies to his.

In The Times, the columnist Sarah Ditum picked up on an astonishing YouGov poll of British opinion which shows how naturally The Guardian came by its contempt: “Eleven per cent said Catholics should be barred from public office; 13 per cent said Orthodox Jews should be; 16 per cent held that Muslims ought to be disqualified. But the most outcast of all were the evangelical Christians: 19 per cent said people like Forbes had no right to positions of power because of what she believes.”

Ditum went on to argue that this was the result of snobbery: “Evangelicals don’t worship in grand cathedrals, but in stumpy Victorian chapels and repurposed warehouses. There are no candlesticks worth stealing, no fancy robes. And the people in the congregation are likely to be lower middle or working class.

“I can tell you this from personal experience because my family belonged to the Salvation Army, an evangelical branch of Christianity born out of the 19th-century temperance movement.”

I don’t think this describes the social position of Calvinists up there among the fog and icebergs; nor does it really cover HTB down here in England. But she is quite right about the broadsheet attitudes to working-class Christianity here. And the raw figures are remarkable: in both England and Scotland, 20 per cent of those polled thought that Evangelical Christians should not be allowed in positions of political power.

Admittedly, there were larger proportions in both countries who were “Don’t know” — presumably because they don’t know what an Evangelical Christian is.

It was the Scot Fraser Nelson, writing in The Daily Telegraph, who put the most positive spin on the story: “[Ms Forbes] first followed the normal pattern of dodging questions about her faith.

“Three years ago, she changed tack. ‘To be straight, I believe in the person of Jesus Christ,’ she told an astonished Nick Robinson. ‘I believe that he died for me, he saved me. And that my calling is to serve and to love him and to serve and love my neighbours with all my heart and soul and mind and strength.’

“Many politicians think this, but none would dream of saying so in public — not in such language. Talking about religion can only alienate and damage your prospects, it’s argued: faith needs to be kept as a dirty secret. Not just in politics but the workplace or any public space. You’ll be accused of bigotry and it’s best just to keep quiet.

“Forbes may well never end up as first minister and, if she does, the SNP may still be doomed. But she has proven an important point: it’s OK, now, to do God.”

THIS news has not reached Richard Dawkins. UnHerd carried a report of a debate between him and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Muslim and former New Atheist, who last year announced her conversion to Christianity (Press, 17 November 2023).

“During the debate, Dawkins changed his mind about Ali’s faith and the central claim of his open letter in response to her conversion. ‘I came here prepared to persuade you, Ayaan, that you’re not a Christian. I think you are a Christian and I think Christianity is nonsense.’”

ON A more serious subject, Kaya Burgess, of The Times, did excellent work on the question of hymns, getting some great quotes out of Rowan Williams. “He said that too many hymns just ‘tell God how I’m feeling’, noting that many modern worship songs ‘do boil down to telling God that I’m really, really, really keen on him’.

“When he attended a non-church school, they had assemblies ‘with a substantial hymn book in Welsh and English where we were taken through the repertory’, he said, noting: ‘That’s all changed. . . Even in Wales, hymn singing at international rugby isn’t what it used to be.’”

I’d never imagined the former Archbishop as a rugby fan, but now I can’t unsee him rising to sing majestic hymns at Cardiff Arms Park as the Welsh pack grinds the faces of the English — free, at last, to express his feelings about England in theologically impeccable clothing.

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