Stephen Noon: Equal marriage was transformational for Scotland and for the acceptance it offered me
Should politicians ever do religion? After the week we have just experienced in Scottish politics it might seem as though there is only one possible response – no. But the answer, as with most things, is a bit more complicated.
Beliefs are by their nature deeply personal, which can add powerful and unpredictable emotional layers to their expression, and to how they are received. We can feel threatened to our very core when the ideas we hold most dear, in particular those connected to our sense of self or identity, are challenged. With beliefs, we tread on difficult and dangerous ground.
Of course, beliefs are not always just religious in the traditional sense. ‘Secular religion’ is a term used to describe modern ideologies, and that can include worshipping at the altar of capitalism or living by the gospel according to Marx. Indeed, it is often remarked that religion is just another ideology, and that observation cuts both ways.
The terrain we are talking about, therefore, is not only a potential minefield, but one that stretches far in every direction. Doing difference differently, in this light, becomes a task of supreme importance.
Belief is not in itself a bad thing. It can be held generously, curiously, and humbly or in an absolute fashion. To put it another way, I can hold my belief in the knowledge that it will always be imperfect in its expression and incomplete in its scope, or I can simply assert that I am right, and you are wrong.
I can see the potential for learning and growing, changing even, when I bring my beliefs into conversation with the experience and perspective that you hold or I can wield them like a big stick, with the hope of vanquishing you in debate and asserting the dominance of my position.
I think that if we are honest, too much of political debate in Scotland is of the type where beliefs are brandished like weapons. That is not what Kate Forbes was trying to do. Indeed, I think she was trying to do the opposite, holding her beliefs firmly but also gently, even generously.
However, unfortunately, that is not how it always came across.
Why is that the case? One of the first lessons I was taught when training for the priesthood was that those of us who have the audacity to claim in some way to ‘speak for God’ or to ‘know the mind of God’ need to be aware of what that means and how it impacts on people.
I say that on the back of my own experience of growing up gay in a religious family and being told that my sexuality meant I would go to hell. It was hugely destructive, something only added to by the vitriol of the Save the Clause campaign.
Our nation’s passing of equal marriage legislation not only changed Scotland, but the acceptance it offered to me, and other gay men and women, was transformational. We were not second best, but equal in the eyes of our peers. So, when I heard Kate Forbes words about equal marriage, spoken once again in the name of God, they touched a very deep wound.
Religion is not primarily a set of rules or propositions; it is, for me, a relationship with the source of love. That means the starting point is not ‘the law’ but always the person in front of me and the reality they are facing. We are missing the sheer humanity of it all in so many of our debates – black or white is simpler but it is also hugely destructive.
Moral laws are best as a yardstick against which we judge ourselves, rather than weapons we wield against another. Again, I think that is what Kate Forbes was trying to do, even if she expressed it poorly. She was seeking to tell us about the moral framework around which her own personal choices are built.
If we each spent time cleaning out our own stable, according to the values we hold, then the world would be a much better place. And if our values inform our policy choices, that then becomes where the critique and the debate can take place. Saying my beliefs would have led me to vote against equal marriage can be treated in the same way as saying they would have caused me to vote against the founding of the NHS.
I show the worth of my belief system not by pointing fingers but by living it with integrity, I draw others towards it by my actions, by the joy apparent in a life that is being well lived. That is the best and perhaps only way politicians can ‘do God’.
Is it too late for Kate Forbes? On many levels I hope not, because she is a woman of many talents and, I am told, one of the nicest, most generous and most thoughtful politicians at Holyrood.
Has she got off on the wrong foot? Absolutely. Can she recover? That depends. Is it the rules that truly make and define her Christianity? If so, probably not. But is her faith rooted in something deeper? If love is what drives her then she needs to show it, and maybe then she will find a way to start again.
Stephen Noon is an ex-SNP advisor and former trainee priest