In the coverage of the Scottish independence referendum news agencies have taken just about every imaginable angle, from whiskey to sport to pop culture icons such as James Bond and Harry Potter.
Yet, in the midst of all the economic, cultural, and political discussions, precious view pundits have addressed the question of religion.
On Thursday September 18, 2014 the Scottish people will vote on the question, "Should Scotland be an independent country? -- voters can answer 'Yes' or 'No.' Amidst the political wrangling and fits of nationalism, what is the role of religion in the vote for Scottish independence? Is there one to speak of?
After all, religion has featured prominently in shaping, and dividing, the United Kingdom throughout the years. From the Druid queen Boudica who led a Celtic rebellion against the Roman Empire to the War of the Three Kingdoms and the Protestant-Catholic bloodshed in Northern Ireland, religion has always produced great conflict in the British Isles.
Specifically in Scotland, religion has played a significant role in fashioning "the greatest country on Earth." Although precious little is known about religious practices before the arrival of Christianity, the Picts (traditional Scottish tribes) most likely observed a form of "Celtic polytheism" with Druid elements. Christianity seeped into the country even before the momentous events at Hadrian's Wall in 367 C.E., but its official arrival in Scotland took place thirty years later when St. Ninian founded the first Christian Church in Scotland. Despite massive efforts to convert the native Scots, there were still some in need of conversion when St. Columba arrived shortly after 563. It seems likely that Celtic Christianity was firmly planted across Scotland by the end of the 600s.
Scottish Christianity had an independent flare throughout the Early Middle Ages. Celtic Christianity in Scotland was distinct from Roman common Catholicism, with the monastic movement playing an outsized role and abbots being more authoritative than Archbishops in the land. The wee Scottish church also firmly entrenched its independence from England, even constructing a clear division between its diocesan bureaucracy and that of England. However, by the Later Middle Ages, England was firmly in control of the church in Scotland and would continue to exert its influence over Scots through ecclesiastical channels.
Religion did not play a key role in the famous "Braveheart Battles" of the 13th and 14th centuries led by William Wallace. However, Wallace's Catholic faith is often overlooked. Wallace received a Catholic education and according to Vatican sources, his career was originally church oriented being schooled by Augustinians and Benedictine monks. A series of violent events led him away from the Benedictine cloister and into the bloody battlefield. His faith continued to shape him however, as he recited the Psalter as he disemboweled and quartered for his sedition.
During the 16th-century, the Scottish Reformation took a decidedly Calvinist turn thanks to the influence of James VI's preference for Calvinism. Presbyterianism was birthed through the reformational bloodshed and battles of the Scots (see the Bishops' Wars and the Scottish Civil War of 1644-1645) and Scottish Presbyterianism remains the most potent religious force in Scotland today with "the Kirk" -- the Church of Scotland -- claiming a third of the Scottish population's allegiance.
However, Scots are by and large very secular these days. The largest "religious" category, according to the 2011 census data, is "no religion" with 36.7% of the population and 200,000 more adherents than The Church of Scotland. Still, when Catholics (16%) and Other Christians (5.5%) are combined with Presbyterians, Christianity is still the "majority religion" (54%) even if it is largely cultural devotion rather than religious fidelity. Other religions are on the rise in the country, with sizable minority populations of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs on the rise over the last decade due to immigration and second/third generation faithfulness. Despite its roots in the country, Paganism (and its antecedent, Neo-Paganism) is relatively hard to find in Scotland, with Shetland being the only destination where it is common.
With such a sundry religious landscape, what role could religion play in the Scottish independence referendum? How could religion, in any significant way, unite Scots behind self-government?
Some backers of the Better Together campaign (the supporters of the "no" vote on the referendum) spread rumors on the blogosphere that an independent Scotland would see a decidedly Protestant leaning nation that might very well turn on its Catholic constituents. There were even talks of renewed persecution of Catholics and perhaps bloodshed on the streets akin to that which was seen in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
However, the data seem to say that Catholics are not that worried about Scottish independence and Church of Scotland faithful are not even that keen on the entire project. In a 2012 poll, 30% of Catholics supported independence with just 16% "worried" about the prospect of a separate Scotland. Compare this to the 26% of the "nones" who support independence and the 17% of Church of Scotland members and it seems that Catholics are by and large the biggest supporters of Scottish sovereignty.
Even so, to guard against any potential persecution or state church scenario in an independent Scotland, churches and faith groups held an interfaith conference in Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire in July calling for the role of religion to be recognized in any written constitution for Scotland. The Scottish government has promised that it does not plan to change the legal status of any religion -- Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Jewish -- if the referendum were to pass.
Nonetheless, the reality is that religion plays a decidedly minor role in the debate concerning Scottish autonomy, even if it has shaped the democratic ideals and autonomous spirit of the nation's subconscious. Whereas religion played an outsized role in the historical battles between Scotland and England, it has faded into the background in an overtly secular Scotland and generally areligious United Kingdom.
Markedly more important than faith and religious ritual are discussions of oil reserves, currency, and yes -- Scotch whiskey.