S&U interviews
6 min read

"Nobody is neutral": Kate Forbes on her Christian faith and political future

Politician Kate Forbes knows how it feels when public life misunderstands a faith-led life. Robert Wright interviews her as she reflects on that experience and what next.

Robert is a journalist at the Financial Times.


A women stands beside in a corridor beside a large window through which a wing of a building and a distant hillside can be see,
Kate Forbes at Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament.

When Scotland’s then first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, unexpectedly announced her resignation in February, Kate Forbes was on maternity leave from her job as Scotland’s finance secretary. As such, Forbes, a committed Christian, had not made any public statements about politics in six months. 

Yet, reflecting on the campaign earlier this month, Forbes recalled how social and mainstream media were immediately “awash” with comments about why her religious convictions made her unfit to succeed Sturgeon. The controversy, much of it centred on Forbes’ membership of the small, theologically conservative Free Church of Scotland, continued throughout the subsequent election campaign. Most involved her stance on gay marriage and Scotland’s gender recognition legislation. 

Forbes discussed the campaign in an interview in her small office in the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh – one of her first since the often fractious campaign. Forbes secured an unexpectedly strong 47.9 per cent of the vote after the elimination of the third-placed candidate, Ash Regan, and the redistribution of her second-preference votes. She now sits as a backbench Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. Forbes rejected an offer from Humza Yousaf, the victor, the clear choice of the party establishment, of a cabinet job far more junior than her previous role. 

She started the discussion by challenging the idea – which she thought motivated some criticisms she faced - that atheists, agnostics and other non-believers were neutrals on questions of religious conviction. It was one of many points where Forbes used her experience to paint a picture of a public life where issues of faith and faithful people were increasingly marginalised and misunderstood. 

“Nobody is neutral. There’s this perception, which is flawed, that there are some people who are neutral and some people who have faith.” 

Everyone viewed the world through a philosophical framework, Forbes went on. It was critical to ensure people were not shut out of public debate on the basis of their philosophies, she said – just as it was important to avoid excluding people for their race, sex, sexual orientation or any of the other characteristics protected in law. 

Her comments explain the unusually frank approach that she took to matters of faith when asked during the campaign about her convictions – which she insists represent a “mainstream” Christian perspective on issues of personal morality. 

“I think that people of faith are under immense pressure to compromise or to change their views in the public spotlight. I think we have to logically and rationally walk through how we can both believe in a personal faith which calls us to be public witnesses to that faith and at the same time serve those with other faiths or no faith.” 

Forbes, now 33 and first elected in 2016, has said that she would have voted against gay marriage if she had been a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) in 2014 when the Scottish parliament voted to introduce the measure. However, she has insisted that, with the provision now on the statute books, she will defend it. 

“By and large, I absolutely believe in… freedom of choice, freedom of belief and of expression. I don’t believe my views should be imposed on other people.” 

Forbes nevertheless argued that there were issues of conscience where politicians should be allowed to make choices free from the normal party-political considerations. Forbes was on maternity leave in December when the gender recognition legislation came before parliament. The SNP denied its MSPs a free vote on the measure – a decision with which Forbes disagreed. The vote split all the main parties in the parliament. 

Little of the commentary during the leadership election captured the nuances of her positions. 

“The vote on marriage in 2014 was deemed to be a vote of conscience. My party has always held that issues around abortion should be votes of conscience. So, I think it’s possible to both believe that you legislate on behalf of everyone and treat everyone equally and make space for some votes of conscience, which are a consequence of strongly held views and convictions.” 

Forbes added that “without a shadow of a doubt” MSPs should be given a free vote on one forthcoming piece of legislation - the Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill. The bill, likely to come before parliament in the next few months, would allow terminally ill people over the age of 16 to ask for help in dying. 

“Matters of life and death are hugely important, hugely personal but have big public implications. You might think that’s a tension. But I have always been able to accommodate that tension.” 

There had never been any suggestion that Forbes’ faith led her to exclude any group from receiving funds when she was finance secretary, she added. 

“Of course, it did inform my care and concern for those in poverty, for those who are under-represented in society, for those who need more help than others,” she said. 

As her office filled with the noise of children enjoying their lunch break at the neighbouring Royal Mile Primary School, Forbes mostly sounded relaxed when talking about the leadership campaign. But she insisted she had felt subject to disproportionate scrutiny, particularly pointing to a leadership debate staged by Channel 4 which included a segment on “faith in politics”. 

“If you watch that clip, it’s basically the interrogation of Kate Forbes. There are very few questions put to the other candidates.” 

The imbalance, she said, rested on the false assumption that Yousaf, a practising Muslim, and Regan, who has no religion, took essentially neutral positions on faith questions. She said, however, that she had won support from many people of faith because of her willingness to speak openly. 

“I can remember one imam saying to me, ‘It’s given us hope to see you being true and authentic to your faith even when it’s difficult’,” Forbes recalled. 

Forbes, who grew up partly in India where her parents were missionaries, recalled how living through the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, when she was 10, helped to bring her to her own faith. The earthquake is estimated to have killed between around 14,000 and 20,000 people. 

“It was coming face to face with the realities of life and the realities of death that I started my own faith journey,”

Forbes became noticeably more animated when talking about the nature of her personal faith than at other times, when she sounded far more guarded. 

Her faith was not “a hobby like knitting or playing the guitar”, she added. 

“It’s a truth that compels me to be loving and caring and be willing to sacrifice my own life.”

For the moment, however, the questions facing Forbes are more humdrum. Forbes gave her interview before Yousaf warned MSPs to back Sturgeon, the former first minister, following her arrest in June on suspicion of fraud in an inquiry over the SNP’s finances. Sturgeon, who was released without charge, has vigorously denied any wrongdoing. 

Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband, the former SNP chief executive, the first person arrested, and Colin Beattie, the party’s former treasurer, have also been released without charge. Both also deny any wrongdoing. 

Forbes accepted the arrests had been a “huge shock”. 

“I said after the second arrest… that integrity should characterise everything we do – and not just the substance of integrity but the perception.”

She also accepted there were limits to the areas where faith could guide her thinking. 

She declined to say whether Jesus would prefer Scotland to be independent or remain part of the union. 

“There’s no 11th commandment that decrees whether or not Scotland should in the union. I think what [God] cares about really is the values by which we live. So, you’re going to get no answer from me on that.” 

She sounded still less certain, meanwhile, about where her future career path would lead. 

She would continue as an MSP “for the foreseeable future”, she said. 

But she went on: “The honest answer is that I don’t know what to do next.” 

She had previously said it was “highly, highly unlikely” she would ever stand to be leader again, she added. 

“I still hold to that position,” she said, adding that she had family and constituency commitments. 

She added, nevertheless, that a sense of sacrificial calling was “ingrained” in her by her parents’ decision to leave Scotland in their 20s to serve a marginalised, impoverished community in India. 

“I wait to see, really, what I can and should do next.”

7 min read

What’s the point of purpose?

We need a wider understanding of our purpose – grand or small.

Emerson writes on geopolitics. He is also a business executive and holds a doctorate in theology.

A white arrow on tarmac points towards a setting sun and people walking by a silhouetted lamp post.
Chris Loh on Unsplash.

In his 2009 book Start With Why, the leadership speaker and consultant Simon Sinek encourages leaders and businesses to think about their purpose. He encourages them to answer the question ‘Why?’ before moving to ‘How?’ Sinek’s book is part of an industry, with no shortage of self-help books, executive coaches and university programmes assisting individuals in finding purpose. Surely Sinek is right that a sense of mission (the ‘Why?’) needs to come before the development of a strategy (the ‘How?’ as well as ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’). Yet working out our purpose is not easy. It takes time, effort, listening and crucially, an open mind.  

In a ‘purpose economy’ (to use the term coined by writer Aaron Hurst), we risk arriving at fast, superficial, or inflated purposes disconnected from the unique vocations to which we are actually called. Several years ago, I undertook a project, of which elements were shared in the Harvard Business Review. One interviewee stated ‘We are a generation that is ruthlessly comparing ourselves with those around us and our role models at the same time. And if we are not doing something exceptional or don’t feel important and fulfilled for what we are doing, we have a hard time.’ In an age dominated by social media and its emphasis on presentation of superficial images inviting us to compare ourselves with others, these are words worth dwelling on. 

This reflection struck me at the time, implying that many people believe that their purposes must be significant. Without grand purposes, we tend to struggle. That interviewee was right. Many of us value purposes involving high levels of excellence if not notoriety, whether pursuing elected political office, climbing the ranks in prestigious industries such as finance or consulting, or entering professions that are well-known and whose value can be readily explained to others (such as medicine, law or accounting).  

The problem with an idea of purpose focused on excellence is that only some people will be seen to have worthy purposes. The consequence is more ‘ruthless comparison, in which we all look over our shoulders to what our peers are doing, wondering whether their respective purposes measure up or not. Of course, this issue could be dismissed as little more than a case of early-career angst, in which ambitious self-starters seek to outdo their peers in climbing the career ladder, but I doubt this is a good explanation.  

Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. 

After all, modern workplaces are full of people, across all generations, searching for purpose. More generally, rapid industrial transition over recent decades – whether the loss of the shipbuilding or coal mines (not to mention important parts of the steel industry in recent months) in the UK, or the recent loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States – and waves of technological change leave countless thousands of people feeling lost at sea. A sense of aimlessness is amplified when personal dignity is connected to work rooted in local communities. When this industrial work vanishes seemingly overnight amid shifts in government policy and technological change.  

These examples suggest the need for a wider understanding of purpose, which makes room for many kinds of excellence, whether grand or small. Consider the example of a single mother. In comparison to the high-flying politician, business executive or university administrator, her purpose is anonymous. A paid job in the workplace is unlikely to be the source of the single mum’s purpose. Rather, the raising of a family is almost certainly the driving purpose in her life, a purpose which is nevertheless no less significant than those occupying more esteemed, high-status roles.  

In the eyes of God, the single parent is called to the vocation of parent (I don’t think there is a difference here between a vocation or purpose), possibly through an unexpected event such as a divorce or passing of a spouse. Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, the lone parent fulfills a vital role of service in raising children who can help to approximate the Kingdom of God on Earth. Martin Luther pointed it out well: every person has a divine calling providing them with purpose, whether they are aware of this or not.  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

How then can we define our purpose when elements of culture, technology and other forces tempt us to identify clear purposes as rapidly as possible? To start, it helps to resist the urge to form large and lengthy purposes. Our purposes are often revealed gradually. Even the most profound events altering the landscape of a person’s life must be digested slowly. Tom Wright, in his biography of Saint Paul, writes that after Paul’s encounter with Jesus while on the Road to Damascus, he returned to Tarsus for ten years to meditate on what he had learned. In all likelihood, Paul spent this time working as a tentmaker, working within a ‘small, cramped workshop,’ in which ‘he prayed, he studied, and he figured out all sorts of things.’  

It is only ‘by the end of the Tarsus decade [that] Saul had worked out in considerable detail what it meant that the One God had revealed himself in and as the crucified and risen Jesus.’ Paul’s purpose was formed over many years, ‘hammering away’ at what he learned on the Road to Damascus. Had Paul wanted to make sense of his encounter with Jesus in a single go, then his purpose would surely have been truncated, thereby limiting the fulfilment of his unique calling that transformed the world we live in today.  

Our circumstances may also limit the scope of our purposes. Our family, geography, gender, and socioeconomic situation all shape the people we become – at least in the short-term. The philosopher Robert Adams writes in Finite and Infinite Goods that ‘One’s actual circumstances condition and in various ways influence and limit one’s vocation. The vocation, however, is not the circumstances, but what one is called to do in them.’  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. The question of who we wish to become is a crucial one, involving personal vision, and Adams sees this question as outweighing extensive consideration given to existing circumstances. Another idea of vocation, proposed by the theologian Oliver O’Donovan, is more gradual. He says that we come to be a certain person over time, without too much planning. Our purposes develop one day at a time. Specific events give us chances to put our purposes into action, but we do not know when these events will occur.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. 

How then can we find our purposes when they are often ambiguous, intertwined with our personal circumstances, and without too much recourse to self-help books, life coaches or university programmes recommending quick answers?  

Our purposes need to be worked out through consistent, small-scale practice of the things we enjoy. For some, this is the playing of a musical instrument, for instance the piano or guitar, two hours per day. For others, this is the constant practice of a given sport in the early hours of the morning. And for others, this is working away on a tricky mathematical problem that simply grips them.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. It is then unexpected events – as Harold MacMillan said ‘Events, dear boy, events’ – which shape us. These events may change us, setting us in entirely new directions much like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road, or the lone parent following a divorce or death of a spouse. But it is not only the events that create purpose. The seeds of purpose are planted well ahead of time, through practice in relation to the things that bring us joy.  

Our purposes, then, should be less a cause of anxiety requiring self-help industries – needing to figure everything out at once – than a reason for play, practice, and prayer, listening to the still small voice – perhaps the voice of God, gently leading us to a settled sense of purpose. This allows purposes we never imagined to reveal themselves to us over time, sometimes merging with – and sometimes out of – our circumstances and personal attributes that are more easily visible.  

Rather than search for fast answers to our purposes, we can take comfort knowing that we do not need to do all the work ourselves. We may begin to work out our purpose through action, but trust that our purposes will come to fruition when the time is right.