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How do you talk about faith in public life?

The majority of people in the UK said they were religious on the most recent Census (although the number reporting as non-religious is increasing). Christians make up 46% of the UK’s population. Being a leader - whether in politics or business - who has faith isn’t unusual.

Yet this week, Kate Forbes’ bid to become leader of the SNP is imploding because she talked about her beliefs. Forbes’ views are at the more traditional end of the spectrum - she opposes gay marriage, having children outside marriage and is pro-life - but these are views that are mainstream in the global Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths. She’s also not the first political leader to fall foul of criticism for the way she talked about her belief.

There are particular issues that made it so bad for Forbes. She is trying to lead a party that positions itself as socially liberal. She also committed what for many is the cardinal sin - saying how she’d vote about settled matters (i.e. gay marriage).

But you can walk a tightrope here. Look at the beliefs of UK Prime Minister’s in the last thirty years and you’ll notice that they are all religious. Well, not quite. The exception is Liz Truss who said she shared the values of the Christian faith but wasn’t a regular churchgoer (which is the definition of a politically workshopped line on this issue). It’s not just Prime Ministers who are religious either. Sadiq Khan has won consecutive elections - even though he faced direct and oblique criticism as a result of his Islamic faith.

These leaders didn’t keep their faith a secret. Alastair Cambell infamously said “We don’t do God” when Tony Blair wanted to talk about his faith. But Blair did. And plenty of other leaders - in politics and business - do too. So how can you do it well?

First, you’ve got to understand your audience. The majority of the population in the UK may be religious but is your audience? Even if they are, there’s a big difference in religious literacy between someone who ticks a box on a census and someone who attends church every week.

This is all the more complicated if you’re a leader working across different countries. In the US or plenty of Eastern European countries, putting your faith front and centre can be a boon for your leadership. If you’re an aspiring US leader, you can’t get much better messaging advice than: repeat ad nauseam “God bless America”.

Second, you’ve got to make sure you’re using language that believers and non-believers understand. Too many leaders fall into the trap of using religious language which means the opposite of what they intend. Words like “sin” and “wrong” are often used by the religious about actions ranging from jealousy to murder equally without applying the hierarchy of wickedness which societies judge the acts on. Similarly, the concept of prayer is alien to many non-believers (even if the non-believers may practice mindfulness, deep breathing, or meditation every day).

Third, you’ve got to think about how whatever you say about religion is going to be delivered. If you’ve got control of the method - through a speech or social channels - this is easier. If it’s in the media, you’re at their mercy. A Cambridge University report in 2019 found “There was a perceived lack of religion and belief literacy among media professionals.” Last year, a poll found that 57 per cent of those in the UK thought that the media perpetuated faith-based stereotypes and in 2019, a Muslim Council of Britain study found that the majority of coverage of muslims in Britain was negative. All this is to say - you’re not going to get an easy ride.

Fourth, what are you going to say? You could lie. But better to keep your comments short and measured. You need to communicate a couple of things. First, you respect the values of the country / constituency / company you are leading. Second, that you aren’t going to change the law / rules / company policy based on your faith. You can accept that faith is one factor that influences your decisions. But make it clear that it is only one factor. And whatever you do, in the UK don’t push your faith down people’s throats.


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