Every country’s history is daubed with the blood of religious minorities. Few, if any, nations have succeeded in consistently manifesting what could, and perhaps should, be the sine qua non of any religious group – toleration. Britain is no exception. In 1190, when England was in its infancy, one of the worst antisemitic atrocities in the nation’s history took place in York. A mob trapped the city’s entire Jewish population in Clifford’s Tower, taunting, beating, and eventually massacring them. After Henry VIII broke with Rome, English monarchs vacillated between burning Protestants and burning Catholics. Thousands of Christians were burnt, hanged, or beheaded for their faith, while Catholic clergy were forced to bend the knee to the defender of the faith. While atrocities may have diminished, prejudice continue to rage into the modern era, with Jews prohibited from voting and from holding public office until the second half of the 19th century
Religious conflict may still simmer in some western states, and the cancer of religious prejudice still bubbles up more often than it should, but western societies are now marked by their religious tolerance. The right to freedom of belief is formally preserved in the European Convention of Human Rights, and states are expected to ensure that everyone is able to peacefully practise their faith. Even Charles III’s forthcoming coronation will recognise the diverse beliefs held by Britons today. Unlike his mother’s coronation, which was inspired almost solely by the Christian tradition, Charles’ is expected to nod towards other faiths. Canon law may prevent him being crowned as ‘defender of faith’ as he wished (rather than of the faith), but the coronation music has been drawn from different religious creeds, and senior figures from other religions in the UK, not just the Archbishops, will be in attendance.
What also marks the current moment out is how the faithful may be free to believe what they wish, but may not be free to act on these beliefs. For some Christians, this has proven a particularly difficult dichotomy. After centuries of cultural dominance, the influence of Christian teachings and values on society is waning, and on some issues, has fallen away altogether. On questions like homosexuality, gay marriage, and abortion, modern secular society takes a perspective that is anathema to conservative Christians
The scandal that has erupted over Kate Forbes is the latest manifestation of this challenge. Had she been running for First Minister of Scotland fifteen, or perhaps even ten, years ago, her views would have attracted some attention, but no scandal. Belief that marriage was between a man and a woman was the mainstream view. No longer is this the case. In telling Channel 4 News that she still believes that marriage should just be between a man and wife, and that she would have voted against Scotland’s gay marriage reforms in 2018, Forbes has perhaps fatally derailed her campaign. Following this interview, four SNP ministers withdrew their support, and Forbes has gone on to make further blunders, saying that she believes children should be raised in wedlock and that she is opposed to abortion.
It is one thing for a politician to have religious beliefs, and another to cling to them dogmatically. This is what Forbes has done in refusing to accept that it is possible for same-sex couples to be married in the eyes of the state. Scotland’s Same-Sex Marriage Act did nothing to alter church teaching. The Free Church of Scotland still bans gay marriage, as does Roman Catholicism and the Church of England, and there is no secular political pressure for change. Had Forbes said this, acknowledging that while she believed that marriage in the eyes of God and her faith was between a man and a woman, that gay people also had a right to have their relationships recognised and protected by the state, there may have been concerned rumblings, but no real crisis. The media circus would have quickly moved on
Forbes therefore deserves little sympathy. It is one thing for a politician to have religious beliefs, and another to say that they would impose them on others – particularly when the consequences would be devastating for a minority group that has only just gained mainstream acceptance. But Forbes’ position is complicated by the fact that she both wants to hold public office and maintain a dogmatic religious belief in a secular society. Straddling the two contorts her position. For other Christians, the issue is simpler, in that they are free to believe and campaign for whatever they wish. There should be no limits on what causes a constituent can lobby their MP on behalf of, and nor does the state have any real business in policing the content of most protest movements.
What people don’t have, however, is an unfettered right to express their beliefs wherever, whenever. This was the conclusion of the Supreme Court in a recent decision on abortion ‘safe access zones’ in Northern Ireland. In the judgment, the justices acknowledged the importance of freedom of belief and of protest. They also recognised the right of people to undertake lawful activities without being intimidated or coerced, particularly if they are vulnerable, as some women seeking abortions may be. In this context, restricting protest in the vicinity of abortion centres balanced the right to freedom of speech with right of women to live their lives with dignity
This balancing of rights is hardly unusual, but some Christians, unfamiliar with their beliefs not being synonymous with that of the state’s, have reacted with outrage. One Catholic priest and anti-abortion activist, Father Sean Gough, flagrantly defied the judgment by standing and praying in an exclusion zone, dressed in his cassock and holding a sign supporting freedom of thought. While the charges were dropped, his actions look more like entitlement than Christian fidelity. Nothing is stopping him praying for the souls of the aborted, or for believing abortion to be a sin, or even from protesting across the rest of the country. Nor does anything in the Bible or in Catholic teachings suggest that prayer is strengthened by being openly said in close proximity to purported sin – although there is much that suggests the opposite.
A more expansive, liberal conception of rights is now in the ascendancy in many secular western states. Despite what many conservative Christians argue, this is not a conception that inhibits the fundamental tenets of religious belief, and nor is it a conception that inhibits their personal practice. What it does do is help restore dignity to all, leaving personal moral questions up to each individual, not to the Church or the State. As Kate Forbes is discovering, we do not live in a theocracy, but a democracy – at least in this life.