February 21, 2023 - 5:32pm

Until last week I had not heard of Kate Forbes, one of the candidates to be leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland. She has shot to the top of the news agenda over the last couple of days because of her commitment to the orthodox Christian position that abortion and same-sex marriage are wrong. Forbes is a member of the Free Church of Scotland, a relatively small denomination holding to the kind of austere Calvinist Protestantism that would be recognisable to a Parliamentarian trooper in Cromwell’s New Model Army.

Her beliefs have predictably drawn a good deal of hostility. One journalist tweeted that “you just can’t have these views and lead a modern party, faith isn’t an excuse for intolerance”, and he was not alone on Twitter in expressing such thoughts. Even the conservative-leaning columnist Alex Massie suggested that anyone in a leadership position in British politics should accept that abortion was “settled”. 

Obviously in a democracy politicians must make their appeal to the public and to their party electorates, and politicians with unpopular opinions run the risk of failing those tests. But there seems to be a different idea lurking in some of the commentary on the Forbes kerfuffle, in that certain perspectives are inherently disqualifying from public life. To this way of thinking, belief in the code that helped to define our civilisation for centuries, and has only been discarded in the last few decades, is now a serious moral failing which must not be tolerated in our leaders.

This raises an interesting problem with one particular aspect of secularism: its alleged neutrality on religious, philosophical and ethical matters. Secularists argue that strict government neutrality on such questions is both desirable and achievable.

The problem is that politics cannot avoid adjudicating metaphysical or ethical claims, even if it doesn’t want to and even if it does so implicitly rather than explicitly. Take Sunday trading laws, which restrict the number of hours for which most shops can open on Sundays. Many secular liberals would say that it is not for the State to tell businesses when they can and can’t open, to tell people what days they can and can’t work, and therefore that the proper government position should be one of total neutrality on the issue. 

However, this is a kind of sophistry. To refuse to take a position on whether Sunday should be treated as a special day is, inevitably, to take a position on whether Sunday should be a special day. Even by refusing to take a position on this, there is still an implicit judgement being cast. The same applies to abortion; the secular liberal will say that it is not for the State to say exactly when life begins, or to interfere in individual decision-making, and that therefore the proper neutral position is the permissive one. But again, permissiveness is not neutrality. If there is no rule against abortion, then the State is objectively in favour of it.

Substantive arguments — that is to say, arguments about the core of moral questions, as distinct from procedural ones about how we should organise our deliberation — are ultimately inescapable. The “view from nowhere” is a myth. That is the reality that secularism seeks to obfuscate.

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.