- What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice - Albert Einstein
A right old brouhaha has mushroomed in the wake of a sermon by Belfast pastor James McConnell. The pastor’s comments on Muslims might sound shocking but they can hardly have surprised many, given the North’s history of keeping church pulpits well supplied with hellfire bible thumpers. Not too long ago the North allowed a man, who spewed more hatred than James McConnell stands accused of purveying, to serve as First Minister.
Ranting is what theocrats do and it is a bad taste society tends to put up with in order that more palatable ideas can circulate. Anybody familiar with the Christian pastors of the US evangelical circuit knows religious bile is standard fare hurled the way of all who refuse to defer to the theology of domination. The more bonkers of them picket the funerals of US soldiers because the US army permits gays into its ranks.
During the controversial sermon that has spawned the latest row McConnell said “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.” There being neither hell nor Satan, the comments are the figment of a deranged religious imagination. His other barbs being directed at people rather than at beliefs are much more problematic: “Now people say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them.”This type of comment shows a need to deal with an element of the past that did not seem to figure in the Haass talks. That an entire group of people are not to be trusted because they are a ‘them’ rather than an ‘us’ was emblematic of the Northern state since its inception. Catholics were so untrusted that an early Prime Minister could boast of not having one about the place. It is hardly surprising that the North's current First Minister, Peter Robinson, imbibed on such cultural mores, would not be instantly repulsed by McConnell’s utterances. To the extent that he distanced himself from them his own comments oozed the same condescending attitude as the Terence O’Neill perspective: treat them alright and you can trust them to go to the shop for you.
On Nolan two evenings ago - which I caught by chance, being an inveterate avoider of Nolanism - the pastor, in no mood for recanting made his case in a debate with an exasperated (affectations taken into account) member of the British Islamic community. In terms of personal hatred we have heard worse from the devil hating types hurled the way of the gay community: labelled abominations in need of psychiatric treatment, unnatural deviants perched on the rung of the ladder towards bestiality.
On the night Pastor McConnell was actually less belligerent than his fellow pastor, Colin Houston, who seemed to go off on one in his bid to shout down George Galloway. Pastor McConnell was not a bigot at all, he roared, his voice increasing in decibels in direct proportion to his face changing colour. It looked more red than orange but we are attuned to the shading. Others might just have seen no difference. Pastor McConnell was a man of god, we learned. Which many bigots are so as a plausible defence strategy it didn’t work that well. Galloway’s dismissal of Houston as ‘Mr Bigot’ probably lodged in more sensible minds than anything Roaring Red Face had to say.
There have been calls to silence James McConnell and have the PSNI pursue him for hate crime. This would be self-defeating for freedom of expression, as well as self-serving for the censors, always on the lookout for a voice to smother. It is better that we all know the pastor’s jaundiced views, that they are drawn out into the open, where there is no secretive theological cover for them, and where they can be confronted with remorseless logic rather than cries of 'amen.' We are adult enough to listen to the views of the pastor without being persuaded of their merits, the opposite in fact: the more we hear them the more we resile from them. We don’t need some thought cop playing nanny, filtering what we hear.
The notion that the PSNI might go after him for having an obnoxious opinion is censorship by law enforcement. Recent history has shown that it does not take too much to set the PSNI off in pursuit of people expressing dissenting, weird or off the wall commentary. Never concede to law enforcement the right to tell society what to think or very soon it will find itself accused of blasphemy against the cops. McConnell expressed contempt for Muslims rather than stirred up hatred against them. As vile and racist as that is there is a distinction that has gone largely unnoticed in the clamour to silence him. He did not label Muslims 'legitimate targets' which would lend sufficient menace to his comments to take them over the line from obnoxious rants to hate crime.
Prosecuting James McConnell for his views would be as draconian as it would be disastrous. He should not be in the dock of some courtroom but, to borrow from Mencken, in his 'rightful spot in the dunce's chair.'