This is what it says on the tin….a response to Fraser MacDonald’s article in the London Review of Books. It is long – as long as the original 4,000 word article. I was going to split it into parts but it makes more sense as a whole. But I have numbered the responses. I think Fraser’s article is really damaging – all the more dangerous because he is a nice guy and a good writer. His article has been read by tens of thousands of people and is being regarded as authoritative. I hope this helps set the record straight.
(Note – since writing this article Fraser has responded by saying that he will not engage with me because he does not engage with the Far Right and repeating his assertion that the Free Church is racist as well as making other unsubstantiated accusations – enough said!).
Et Tu Fraser? A Response to Fraser MacDonald’s LRB Article.
This weekend I was somewhat surprised to find my name mentioned in that esteemed publication- The London Review of Books. After all I doubt whether Magnificent Obsession, Awakening, the Dawkins Letters or Seek would be deemed worthy of review. I was even more surprised to find myself outed as a spokesperson for the ‘radical right’ – and a key influence on the Free Church and apparently thus Kate Forbes!
Fraser MacDonald’s article ‘In Time of Schism, Kate Forbes and the Free Church of Scotland’ is a well written, almost 4,000-word, article, purporting to show the deeper historical roots behind Kate Forbes and her church. It is erudite, interesting, humorous and at times insightful. But it is also deeply flawed.
Fraser is the son of Dr Ian Macdonald, a legendary elder in the Free Church, whose recent death deprived the Church of one of its greatest talents. Fraser is not just Free Church born and bred – he is in with the peats. A Free Kirker of the Free Kirkers. In comparison yours truly is an outsider (as I am often reminded) and not part of the incestuous connections that Fraser talks about. The difference is that I believe what the Free Church teaches (generally), because I believe what the Bible teaches; Fraser has now turned his back on that and has a ‘different politics and theology’. (I was not aware that there was a Free Church politics – in 30 years as a minister I seemed to have missed all that).
Fraser has decided to have his say in the ongoing First Minister election and whether out of a sense of horror that a Free Church member might actually be elected as First Minister of Scotland, or a need for personal therapy as he escapes the demons of his past; he has managed to write as well constructed a hatchet piece as I have seen in a long time. The fact that the knife is stuck in gently, doesn’t make it any the less painful.
Of course, the piece has been welcomed by all kinds of anti-Forbes supporters. Here is a man ‘on the inside’ who knows where the bodies are. This is his ‘omerta’ (breaking the silence about criminal activity – implying that the Free Church is like some kind of Mafia – at least it beats being called the Tartan Taleban!). Here is someone who writes well, and like every good conspiracy theorist, can make a convincing case to those who know nothing about the subject. Fraser’s article has been well received by those whose bias has been well and truly confirmed. The Scottish government will be pleased.
“Really enjoyed this and came away with a much better understanding of who Kate Forbes really is. Much appreciated.”
“Thank you – a very useful insight which has confirmed my gut feeling – despite the good qualities and reasonable words there was something in the set of the mouth that wasn’t sitting right with me”.
“Immensely interesting read and has really given me a far better understanding of the Free Church of Scotland and the near impossible challenges this would face of any political leader”.
This latter comment was from Chris Law, Dundee West MP. If Chris was really interested in the hundreds of his constituents who attend the Free Church in his ‘parish’, he could just have come and asked us. But in all my time in Dundee the only time he was in the Church was when he was at a hustings – where somewhat inconveniently for the SNP he advocated polygamy (in some cultural circumstances). When the Daily Mail picked up on this, SNP HQ flatly denied he had ever said such a thing. They lied. You see in Scotland’s Brave New Progressive Nirvana, only what The Party says is true, IS true. But now Chris’ understands’ – and what he understands is that if you belong to the Free Church, it is nearly impossible for you to be a political leader. Thanks Fraser….!
Any ignorant (and I mean ignorant of the Free Church, not stupid or ignorant of anything else) person reading Fraser’s article would come away with the impression that the Free Church is a predominantly Highland church, inbred, reactionary, right wing, following American evangelicalism, threatening a theocracy, unstable, hypocritical, repressed, racist, slavery defending, exclusive, wild, weird, disputatious, schismatic, anti LGBTQ, Sabbatarian group of hypocrites. We have a certain ‘Brigadoon’ type of quaintness but with Kate Forbes we are in the position of turning Scotland upside down. Watch out Theocracy is coming!
So, for Chris Law – and any who really want to try and understand the modern Free Church let me suggest you go to the Free Church website. Better still why not visit your local Free Church and see for yourself. And let me help you see just why Fraser’s article does not present a true picture of the Church and instead is a thinly disguised attack on Forbes.
The following are the major errors that Fraser makes –
1.Divisive Kate –
It seems somewhat bizarre to suggest that because Forbes belongs to a church which split from the Church of Scotland in 1843, she cannot call herself a great unifier! Is Fraser suggesting that Highland Presbyterians have a particular cultural/ethnic/genetic make-up which indicates they will invariably be dividers? That seems sailing dangerously close to the kind of ethnic prejudice we would call racism? Maybe division and splitting is not just something that is inherent in Scottish Presbyterians – but rather a human trait? I recall during my time in student politics in the University of Edinburgh, the Socialist Workers Party splitting – I think it was four of the seven members who fired the others for being ‘doctrinally impure’! “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1).
2) The Free Church consists of urban Highlanders where everyone knows everyone else.
But the Free Church is (or was) predominantly non-urban. Fraser is talking about a limited grouping in Aberdeen, Glasgow and to a lesser extent in Edinburgh. The majority of Free Church people, until recently, were rural. The growth in the Free Church in urban areas in recent years has largely been with non-Highlanders. In my own congregation in Dundee for example we had over 20 nationalities – and those from a Highland origin were less than 10%. Fraser is out of touch and out of date. But the attack on Forbes would not work without the stereotype. So, it has to remain.
I was amused at the ‘where everyone knows everyone else’ part. Whilst somewhat exaggerated- it was generally true – after all in a small church of some 8,000 people that should not be too surprising. As the Free Church has been growing and diversifying, it is now much harder to say that. On the other hand, the group that Fraser now belongs to – the civic and academic elites are positively incestuous compared with the Free Church. Everyone does know everyone else! Dare to depart from the approved doctrines and see how long your status lasts!
3) The Free Church is becoming Americanised and Right Wing.
Fraser is seeing the world through the eyes of the academic ivory tower he now inhabits. Anything bad must be right wing – and if it is Christian – American. He gives the impression that in our fantasy past we would have been for LGBT and abortion! The attempt to smear Kate Forbes with George Bush/Donald Trump is crass and cheap. Dare I say it – almost Trumpesque in its audacity!
I was particularly amused to learn that, according to Fraser, the Free Church views on gender have come from the ‘biblical manhood’ movement in the US, rather than Free Church tradition. I doubt if more than a handful of Free Church ministers or elders would even know what that is. Fraser may not like it, but we don’t take our views from his somewhat Brigadoon version of Highland traditionalism, or his Handmaid’s Tale dystopian view of the US church. We try to go by the Bible. It has nothing to do with being American or right wing.
5) The Public Disquiet Isn’t about Kate’s Faith.
That is a straightforward ‘untruth’. Of course it is about her faith. It is because she is a Christian who belongs to the Free Church, that she has been forced to undergo this interrogation and smear campaign. Of course, if she had done a ‘Blackford’, or ‘Humza’ and renounced her faith whenever it came up against the fundamentalist dogmas of the New Progressive religion then she would be fine. But then in what meaningful sense could that be called faith.
Let’s turn to Blackford. The newly enlightened Chris Law writes “Didn’t realise until now that Ian Blackford was a Free Church member, which seems to put this problem at the door of Kate Forbes rather than that of her church.” I don’t blame Chris, or indeed Fraser, for this. The Free Church in refusing to discipline Ian Blackford has opened the door to this charge of hypocrisy – and has provided Kate Forbes’ enemies with yet another stone to throw at her.
But what surprised me was that Fraser, with such a Free Church heritage, could even pen the words “A former moderator of the Free Church, David Robertson, wanted to see him in a church court because he had failed to let his faith influence his politics”. That is not even remotely true. The Free Church has never accepted the view that you could divorce faith from politics but we wouldn’t discipline a politician because of that. We have never taught party politics, but the fact is that our faith influences everything. As does everyone else’s. A faith that doesn’t isn’t worthy of the name. And everyone has faith.
Everyone has a philosophy of life. Everyone has fundamental beliefs which guide their lives. For example, the Free Church follows the biblical teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God – that life is sacred – that government has been ordained by God – that it is the responsibility of government to restrain evil and to help the poor. These and many other beliefs have a profound impact upon politics. Anyone who says their faith does not impact their politics is either lying or hasn’t a clue what their faith is.
The reason I wanted Ian Blackford to be disciplined as a Free Church member was that he was publicly specifically going against the teachings of the Church (more importantly of Christ) whilst still claiming to be a Christian – in other words I was questioning whether he even had faith at all. Dear Ian – An Open Letter to Ian Blackford
Fraser seems to have bought into the somewhat bizarre notion that Kate Forbes should be dealt with differently because she belongs to the Free Church – yet he does not acknowledge that everyone else, including himself, has beliefs and ideologies that should equally be up for question. My concern is that the SNP has been taken over by the religion of the Green/Progressive cult – which is far more harmful to the good of Scottish society than a female Highland Presbyterian who actually believes the Bible. As Professor Kathleen Stock rather beautifully put it: “As I say, what we have here is a clash of two religions. One of them is full of sanctimonious, swivel-eyed moral scolds, rooting out heresy and trying to indoctrinate everybody into their fantastic way of thinking. The other is a branch of Calvinism. One of them asks “what would Jesus do?” and the other “what would Owen Jones think?”. Faced with a choice between their representatives on earth, I know which kind I would prefer to see in high office.”( https://unherd.com/2023/02/the-crucifixion-of-kate-forbes/)
6) The Free Church is hypocritical in its defence of stable biblical truths.
Perhaps because Fraser was only ever an adherent of the Free Church, he doesn’t quite grasp the difference between primary and secondary doctrines. Which is why he confuses wearing hats with the teaching about marriage. He also doesn’t understand that the Free Church is a Reformed church, not an American fundamentalist church. We don’t do ‘chapter and verse’ proof text theology. We look at the teachings in the light of the whole Scripture – it’s why our ministers study systematic as well as biblical theology. What the Bible says is not a ‘malleable contested thing’. The fact is that the Free Church stands in the tradition of the Apostles, the Church Fathers, the Reformation, and many others in upholding to a consistent biblical understanding. There are disagreements on secondary matters – but to go against the main teachings of Christ is what we call heresy.
Fraser’s take on this becomes almost laughable when he suggests that the Free Church used to have softer views on gender and offers as proof the fact that Highland guisers would cross dress at Halloween! (Although I’m not sure quite how many were Free Church elders!). Unlike Fraser I was a minister in the Highlands and yes, we were compassionate. I had one woman in my congregation who liked to wear men’s clothes and that was no problem. I had a transgender woman who attended our church over 30 years ago. Again, there was no problem. But our doctrine and teaching were the same – as it is now. Fraser is creating a false narrative where the nice tolerant Highlanders (who none the less burned fiddles, banned dancing and drowned their bagpipes) were comfortable with Trans but have now been taken over by American fundamentalists. It’s a neat narrative and also completely false.
7) The Free Church is filled with the Repressed.
“The modern self-image of Scotland as a left-leaning liberal democracy has been disturbed by the return of the repressed.” “Many Scots are embarrassed by the very existence of the Free Church.” Many Scots? Most Scots don’t know about the Free Church and couldn’t care less. But perhaps Fraser is speaking of his circles? I remember being at a restaurant just outside St Andrews when a group of academics and businesspeople started talking with certainty about the Free Church. They had a jolly time laughing at the ignorant bagpipe drowning, fiddle burning, stereotype that Fraser reinforces in his paper. Was it snobbery? Racism? Classism? I don’t know. But I do know ignorance and prejudice when I see it. And I know when people dog whistle to that ignorance and prejudice.
The return of the repressed? What a nasty, petty and vicious comment! Given that Fraser’s article is a hatchet piece on Kate Forbes, to describe her as ‘repressed’ is misogynistic and cheap.
I would also have to say that Fraser’s view of Scotland as a ‘left-leaning liberal democracy’ is indeed an image. Scotland under the SNP has become more authoritarian and less liberal. It is also questionable whether we are left-leaning at all – given that the terms ‘left and right’ have themselves become meaningless.
8)Free Church History shows that the Church was concerned with an inward looking exclusive personal salvation rather than social justice.
For those who are ignorant of Free Church history, especially in the Highlands, this may have the ring of truth. Like all caricatures it contains an element of truth – but Fraser’s history is appalling. Having read and studied Highland Free Church history for decades I find it astonishing that someone can seriously read our history through the eyes of American fundamentalism. No one who has read Hugh Miller, or the early Free Church Newspaper, The Witness, could say that it was just about being inward looking! The Free Church holds to the traditional Christian theology that the way to deal with evil is to deal with the evil in every human heart. But we also adopted the view that society matters, and structural injustice in society matters. It’s one of the reasons I joined the Free Church – I suspect it was the same for Kate Forbes, with her passion for the poor.
Fraser’s history is at times as confused as his new theology. Take this on inclusiveness. “It was anything but inclusive. In the early days most Highland evangelicals did not even consider themselves worthy of taking communion.” Whilst the issue of assurance is an important one (and one I personally think the practice in the Highlands sometimes got wrong) it has nothing to do with the contemporary notion of inclusivity (I suspect that, not for the first time, Fraser is deliberately muddying the waters). The Free Church includes everyone – we are all sinners in need of redemption. No one is excluded from that. And salvation is offered to all. No one is excluded from that. On the other hand Fraser lets us know that if we don’t accept the current ‘progressive’ teaching on LGBT then we are to be excluded!
Or take his view that the evangelical movement was a ‘violent intrusion’. This is at best a careless use of words, at worst a needless exaggeration. It conjures up images of violent ‘Christians’ beating up people in villages or homes. There is zero historical evidence for that. I also question how much ‘bodily shaking’ there was, and just how much violence there was in my home area of Easter Ross against moderates. Fraser doesn’t bother to offer any evidence of this – safe in the knowledge that his readers will just accept it.
9) The GRR –
the case for not taking the UK government to court has nothing to do with not defending Scotland’s self-determination. It has everything to do with not wasting money on a court case that will be lost in order to virtue signal to activists you are sound.
10) Lord Mackay –
The use of Lord Mackay as an example is bizarre as well as disingenuous. Lord Mackay has the same views as Kate Forbes on social issues. Yet Fraser praises him and condemns her. Does he think that she would not attend the funeral of a Roman Catholic colleague? Even more irrationally he implies that Lord Mackay would have supported no government restrictions on abortion!
Incidentally, the argument that the government should not ‘assume sovereignty over the body of another’ is an extreme libertarian viewpoint which Progressives selectively apply. They don’t really suggest such liberty for alcohol, or vaccines, or eating bad foods – subjects about which they are quite happy for government to legislate. Fraser also conveniently forgets the main flaw in his pro-abortion argument – it’s not just one body that is involved. There are at least two others. Frasier may choose to adopt the unscientific ideology that the baby in the womb is not a human body, but he should not impose that ideology on everyone else. And yes, if the baby in the womb is human then the destruction of those millions of human lives is a holocaust, and I suspect one day will be regarded with as much horror as we now regard slavery. To cite such statements as evidence of being ‘far right’ indicates just how much the progressive Kool aid has been drunk!
11) Racism –
Fraser states that the Free Church is tolerant about racism (even talking about its present racial prejudice – without giving any evidence), but not about LGBTQ people who are beyond the pale. That’s a slanderous lie. We don’t think anyone is beyond the pale. And we would never defend racism. But Fraser again is not interested in nuance. His article is a polemical piece with a machine gun approach to truth – shoot out as many accusations as possible, in the knowledge that all this will appeal to those who want to hate.
12) The desire to be liked –
“The post-1900 Free Church was smaller in every sense: narrower in theology, less ecumenical, much less integrated into Scotland’s political and intellectual life, and, as a consequence, more sensitive to not being noticed or liked.” The first part of this sentence is true. The latter is not. The trouble with the post 1900 Free Church was that it did not want to be noticed or liked. The Church withdrew into itself. It is only in the 21st Century that the Free Church has begun to break out of that insular attitude. Fraser wants us to get back into our box.
13) Gay Free Church ministers deposed or who resigned before they could be charged with contumacy.
Again, this is a confused and somewhat disingenuous statement. I know of no Free Church minister who was deposed for being gay. As for contumacy – that would be a strange thing to use to depose someone for being gay. Contumacy is the refusal to obey or comply with a court summons or order. I know of ministers who have been disciplined for adultery, backsliding, drunkenness etc. I also know of ministers who were gay but celibate and have continued as ministers.
Not so Red Robbo
A considerable amount of time is spent on attacking yours truly – Fraser tries to set me up as some kind of right-wing bogey man – I guess it beats being called the left-wing liberal sent by the Jesuits to destroy the church. But it is the same level of conspiracy theorist. Let’s deal with each distortion of the truth.
“Robertson, has for years been a serial reply-guy to Yousaf,” . Out of hundreds of articles I have written three or four articles (I write 4-5 per week) on Yousaf- primarily because of his introduction of a new blasphemy law – https://theweeflea.com/2020/05/05/the-new-scottish-blasphemy-law/
Fraser goes on to give a series of quotes or tweets out of context – I assume in some attempt to smear me as a racist. He seems to have been upset that I dared to critique Humza’s famous racist speech –
It’s true that I have tweeted a lot in the past couple of weeks about Humza and Kate Forbes because I am interested in the First Minister election and care about who runs my country. I assume that is also the reason why Fraser wrote his 4,000-word article.
“He finds a ready audience for his gospel of clickbait and culture wars,
Firstly, I don’t do ‘clickbait’. I really don’t want people to come on my blog or YouTube or podcast for any other reason than they want to listen to the subjects discussed. Clickbait is a waste of time. I hate the hassle and trouble I get when a post goes ‘viral’. Secondly have you noticed how those on the progressive side who push culture wars all the time, immediately complain, when there is any push back – ‘oh you are engaging in culture wars. When they do it is principled commentary. When anyone dares challenge them its culture wars.
“Often amplifying the views of those on the radical right, from Jordan Peterson to Laurence Fox, Tommy Robinson to Rod Liddle.” This is a really cheap card for an academic to play. In today’s world every time a sensitive progressive is challenged, they just simply cry ‘Far Right’. Even this week I saw well known cultural commentators calling The Spectator ‘Far Right’! One struggles to think what they would make of Mein Kampf! Speaking of which I have quoted Mein Kampf – does that make me a Nazi? For the record Jordan Peterson, Laurence Fox and Rod Liddle are not on the radical right. I don’t ‘often’ cite Fox (a couple of times on this blog). I think the only time I mentioned Robinson was this article back in 2019 – https://theweeflea.com/2019/03/04/tom-watson-or-tommy-robinson-who-is-the-greatest-threat/
I have mentioned Rod Liddle a lot more – mainly because he is a brilliant and witty writer. I reviewed a couple of his books. And I do regularly cite and use Jordan Peterson, in praise and criticism. Dr McDonald seems to have forgotten that citing someone is not the same as agreeing with them! I have also cited Stalin, Lenin, Tony Benn, Corbyn, Putin, the Pope, Obama, Trump and hundreds of others from a wide variety of perspectives. Peterson is a major figure in Western culture at the moment and I am more than happy to engage with his writings.
To be honest for a lecturer at my old alma mater, the University of Edinburgh., to use these guilt by secondary association tactics is somewhat embarrassing. It’s equivalent to the people who tried to get me banned from a conference I was speaking at because I cited Pope Benedict in Magnificent Obsession. Fraser is a modern-day heresy hunter. In order to smear Kate Forbes, he has to smear the Free Church and for some reason thinks he can do that by attacking me and accusing me of being right wing for citing people who are mostly not even right wing. It’s somewhat Stalinist in its methodology!
But it is effective. One tweeter On McDonald’s thread wrote: ““hard to say whether people like Robertson are RW extremists because of their religion or vice versa. However, they are a tiny constituency within Scottish Christianity. anyway, good article, enjoyed it.” Mud sticks.
And prejudice stirs up hatred. Another tweeter responded. ““Churches are far too obsessed with sex & sexuality – often to the point I wonder if they’ve never heard of the New Testament. Anyone starting a sentence with ‘The bible says,’ should be punched in the face, because invariably it’s a get-out clause to justify a personal bigotry.”
Strange how that kind of ‘hate speech’ is acceptable in modern Scotland? Incidentally the Tweeter seems to forget that it is not the Church or Christians which have brought up sex and sexuality in the Kate Forbes case. It is the secularists…. who seem obsessed by it. As I have already pointed out – they are far more interested in pronouns, than they are in poverty.
In conclusion –
despite the appearances of being a somewhat academic detached piece about the historical influences on Kate Forbes, this is an article which, for whatever reason, is an attempt to attack Forbes because of the Church she has chosen to belong to. It is already being used to aid the witch-hunt against Forbes and is being widely distributed as the testimony of an ‘insider’. Whatever the motive; whether revenge, self-therapy, political or other; it is a shameful attack on a young woman who is seeking to serve her country and her Lord. The Lord will be her shield and reward.
“May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue – those who say, ‘By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us – who is lord over us? Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. I will protect them from those who malign them.” (Psalm 12:3-5).
“Thy giant wit o’erthrows me, I am gone; And rather than read all, I would read none.” (John Donne – Upon Mr Thomas Coryat’s Crudities)