This is the text of Kevin McKenna’s article on his interview with me. As always Kevin was fair in his summary of our conversation. He is a journalist whom I absolutely trust to give a fair picture and whose analysis is always something I listen to. The original is here
‘Kate Forbes shows Christians are expected to hide their beliefs’
He had just stepped away from his role as Moderator of the Free Kirk, a tenure characterised by his frequent forays into the secular marketplace. I took to him immediately and not the least because he was prepared to overlook my persistent and insidious papishness.
Here though was a very human Free Churchman taking on the leading voices of secular humanism in public debate and refusing to apologise for the bumps and callouses of this gnarly old church.
He once challenged Richard Dawkins to a public debate. The UK’s best-known atheist and author of The God Delusion had perhaps seen his would-be nemesis in action though, and dodged the invitation. The Rev Robertson’s robust debating style – often delivered at ramming speed – is somewhat more potent than that to which he might previously have been accustomed.
After serving in Dundee, where he’d overseen an astonishing growth in numbers (especially among young people) he moved to Australia to participate in a new mission on the streets of Sydney. “Part of the reason I’m going,” he said then, “is that I need a breather. I’ve become fed up with the aggro and the insinuation that now accompanies you if you try to witness to Christ in modern-day Scotland.”
He remains transfixed by politics in his beloved homeland. Until now though, beyond some blogs and tweets, he’s stood back from the identity wars that have swaddled civic Scotland. But what he describes as a caricature of his Church, based on “ignorance and prejudice” has brought him back to the fray.
This has been most evident in the treatment of Kate Forbes, following her confessions of faith at the start of the SNP leadership contest. “They think we are a bunch of ignorant Highlanders dressed in black, stuck in the past, who lock up swings on a Sunday,” he said. “But this is so dated and prejudiced. The most common reaction I got from people when they visited us in St Peters, Dundee, was ‘wow, we didn’t think the Free Church was like this’.
“I was horrified at the ignorance and prejudice inherent in the reaction to Kate Forbes’ religious beliefs. There was no nuance; no attempt at understanding. Just the simplistic dismissal of a young woman for belonging to a Church which doesn’t go along with all their dogmas.
“The level of abuse – in the name of love and tolerance – was sickening. It wasn’t just the usual Twitter mob; it was evident in the dog whistles given by politicians and media commentators who should have known better. Having said that, there has also been a surprising push-back from some who are not Christians, but who were appalled at the intolerance on display.”
Does he think, in a country where there is a necessary divide between Church and state that it’s possible for authentic Christians to serve in public office without compromising their beliefs? Is it possible to remain true to these while serving a secular state and having to abide by group decisions that your church might oppose?
“In a liberal pluralistic democracy it should not be a problem. However my concern is that, as we reject the Christian roots of our democracy – we will also lose the fruits. Inclusivity becomes exclusivity. Tolerance becomes intolerance and diversity becomes uniformity. When the State replaces God then the doctrines and dogmas of the State become the absolute authority and standard.
“Kate Forbes is a good example of how real pluralism should work. She does not agree with same sex marriage for example, but will abide by the decision of the parliament. The problem is not with the Church – it is with the fundamentalists of the secular State – who think that if you do not agree with every one of their doctrines you are not fit to be in public office. If you do not ‘celebrate’ their dogmas you are out.”
He’s observed a marked increase in intolerance of people of faith, not just in civic Scotland but throughout the whole world. “I’d say that in Western liberal democracies which are rejecting their Christian foundations, there has been a change from apathy to hostility.
“Our own elites in academia, the corporations, civil service, politics and too often the media generally just buy into this narrative. I think it’s particularly toxic because our civic elites are such a small group – maybe just a few thousand acolytes – who all live in the same bubble; attend the same parties and promote each other. Civic Scotland has become hostile to anything that does not fit its doctrines, and especially hostile to what they consider to be the old oppressive Christianity.
“The treatment of Kate Forbes has been an eye-opener for many people. But I have seen this coming for many years – and have experienced many personal examples of it. I was a chaplain at the University of Dundee and lost count of the number of times groups from England and elsewhere urged the university to get rid of me.
“I recall a BBC employee telling me he would have loved to have had me on a show he was working on, but he could not persuade his colleagues. Or the friend who was due to speak at a Scottish university to the Christian Union but was told by the students association that he would have to submit a script for approval because he had posted a link to an article I had written.”
IN HIS excellent book A Banner in the West: A Spiritual History of Lewis and Harris the journalist and author John Macleod (himself a son of a Free Kirk manse) discusses how the influence and culture of traditional Presbyterianism has nourished and reinforced the economy, culture and education of the Highlands and Islands.
Yet, this complex and dynamic faith community has been smeared in the fall-out that occurred following Kate Forbes’ remarks. David Robertson believes that this has been the natural and predictable outcome of attitudes that have become hardened in the Nicola Sturgeon era.
“After the 2014 referendum, there was a massive influx of a Green/progressive cult into the SNP membership. They’ve effectively hollowed it out. Nicola Sturgeon’s acceptance of the transgender dogmas to the extent that she can’t even say what a woman is, is an indicator of how deep this goes. The only reason that Kate Forbes – by far the most capable leadership candidate – could lose the contest is because of this takeover.
“If you listen to most of the media; the politicians on the gravy train and the Twitter mob then you would think that they are the dominant force – but we will see what the membership actually think. I suspect the viciousness against Kate Forbes has been made worse by the SNP establishment being horrified that she might actually win.”
He feels that Christians in Scottish public life are now expected to park their beliefs or conceal them when they run for election or pursue senior jobs in the public sector. “I saw a message posted in public from one of the civic elites who argued that ‘moderate’ religion was fine, but actually believing the bible should exclude you from office because that’s clearly a mental illness.
“Another told me he regarded Christians as just above paedophiles in terms of suitability. The degree of hostility is such, and Scotland is such a small place, that I have known Christians in public life request that when their church service is broadcast, their faces aren’t shown.”
He says many of the responses to the ongoing SNP leadership election are indicative of an illiberal, middle-class, professional elite which has come to dominate public discourse. It’s a convenient cultural fig-leaf to cover up their failures to address real-life challenges like poverty, health inequality and unfettered capitalism.
David Robertson predicted this when we last spoke four years ago. Naively, I accused him of exaggerating the threat.
My earlier interactions with Kevin McKenna include the following: