A few years ago, I got an awful lot of political flak for daring to suggest that if Irish society became more secular and pluralist, Christians may need to band together and form an Irish Christian Party to protect their values and beliefs.
Since then, we have seen successful referenda in the Republic supporting same-sex marriage, as well as more liberal legislation on abortion and divorce.
In Northern Ireland, many of the mainstream Protestant denominations have become embroiled in bitter theological debates over same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church throughout Ireland continues to feel the knock-out punches from the clerical abuse scandals.
Put bluntly, Irish Christianity would appear to be on the back foot across the island. So how should Christians respond if they want to truly influence society? Northern Ireland politics is still itself reeling from the shock after effects of the Alliance surge in the recent local government and European elections.
There’s much talk about the battle for secular nationalism, liberal unionism, moderate loyalism, centrist republicanism, and that that battle will take place purely in the centre ground of Irish politics.
So how should Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists react to these developments given that, for them, liberalism is a spiritual red line they should not cross?
For me personally, the real debate kicked off a couple of years ago following my participation in a discussion on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence about the need for an Irish Christian Party, and even the possibility of the Protestant Loyal Orders fielding their own pro-Union candidates.
At that time, my academic analysis concerning the need for an Irish Christian Party because of the secular drift in Irish society on both sides of the Irish border certainly had social media in hyper drive and resulted in a very positive live debate with myself, fellow commentator Jude Collins, and North Belfast Ulster Unionist Party Assembly candidate Rev Lesley Carroll.
So where do these ideas go from that Sunday Sequence debate? Christians and church goers need to follow the constructive example set by Jesus Himself in the New Testament when he entered the Temple and found it dominated by the so-called money changers.
Did Jesus moan and complain, but do nothing? No. Did Jesus bury his head in the sand and pretend nothing was happening? No. The Biblical account clearly states that he took positive action and physically threw the money changers out of the Temple.
Christians and church goes need to follow Christ’s example – get off your bottoms, get out of your pews and get into the polling booths! Indeed, they need to go a step further and get involved in active politics.
Christians and church goes need to stop complaining about the perceived forward march of the secular society and get out and vote! They can no longer adopt the fundamentalist tactic – which is very common among the ‘born again’ Salvationist faction of the Christian faith – of ‘come ye out from amongst them’.
This, unfortunately, has been interpreted by many Christians as a signal both not to become involved with political parties, or indeed, even to come out to vote.
The big challenge to Christians and church goes in general is how they are going to positively combat the perception that society is drifting steadily towards a secular abyss?
Has the Christian Church become so fixated with arguing about theology that the secular society has crept up behind Irish Christianity and yelled ‘Boo’?
Given the voter turnouts at the recent council and European elections, Christians and church goers need to watch they do not succumb to the apathy bug.
Take the pro-Union community as a hypothetical example. How can members of the fundamentalist Loyal Orders be expected to vote for candidates who are atheists, agnostics, humanists or ecumenists given the clear Salvationist stance of the Qualifications of an Orangeman, which people joining the Order must swear allegiance to?
Already there are perceptions among some sections of the Loyal Orders – especially the Orange Order and Royal Black Institution – that pro-Union parties are trying to distance themselves from the Orders.
Could this be why the traditionally Right wing-leaning Unionist parties are having to move towards the centre of Ulster politics because it is now the centre people who are coming out to vote?
Academically speaking, was the supposed liberal-leaning policy of past UUP leaderships a bid to outflank the DUP in the pro-Union middle ground?
Could this mean that the UUP should be keen to rebrand itself as a soft unionist version of the moderate and middle ground – but totally defunct – NI21 party, formed by two former UUP MLAs – Basil McCrea and John McCallister?
However, the challenge which liberal-leaning tacticians within the pro-Union community must face is to ensure that this liberal agenda can be sold to the Unionism’s heartland voters – centre Right Protestants with strong Loyal Order sympathies.
If the ‘Let’s All Be Trendy Liberals’ agenda does not deliver significant increases in elected representatives for the pro-Union parties, the perception will be further created that political Unionism has become nothing more than a Right wing Alliance Party dominated by liberal Protestants and Presbyterians.
There is even talk among Unionism’s Right wing that if the ‘liberal trend’ does not result in an increase in seats for the pro-Union family, would the Loyal Orders – the Orange, Black and Apprentice Boys – consider fielding Independent Unionist candidates in future elections.
As a starting point for an Irish Christian political movement, when candidates and representatives begin their election visits – ask them point blank: do you believe in God? If they say they don’t, or have no time for religion – then don’t vote for them!
However, in the event of future polls returning a majority of elected representatives who do not adhere to Biblical principles, then Christians and church goers will have no other path but to launch formally the Irish Christian Party.
Unfortunately, over the centuries, especially in Ireland, mention Christianity and politics in the same breath and the stereotype image of the street corner, hell-fire preacher, bellowing out extreme Protestant fundamentalism springs to mind.
The Crusades of the Middle Ages did nothing to advance the Christian socialist cause, and the weird ideological concoction of Identity Christianity spewed out by the Ku Klux Klan in America does equal damage to the notion of Christians and political activity.
But now is the chance for Christians and church goers under the banner of an Irish Christian Party to strike.
Such a grassroots movement is seeking a return of biblical Christianity as a central core of political thinking by getting Christians to focus politically on the New Testament account of the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Christ, as told in St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter Five.
It has been this Sermon by Jesus which has become the foundation stone of the political thinking of the Irish Christian Party.
In this aspect, Christ outlines a series of attributes, commonly known as The Beatitudes. There is a school of ideological thinking – to which I personally belong – which maintains that Marx based Das Capital on The Beatitudes, and his overt criticism of religion was merely a ploy to disguise the fact that he had pinched his ideas from the Bible, and the words of Jesus.
In reality, Jesus Christ was the first real communist – not Karl Marx. The Irish Christian Party’s Christ and state ideology is, therefore, based on St Matthew’s Gospel Chapter Five, verses one to 12. Many of the Beatitudes begin (using the Authorised King James translation): “Blessed are …”
However, when the words of Jesus are taken in a modern context, they make the basis for a realistic political agenda for the Irish Christian Party.
Here are the key points which the Beatitudes highlight. The poor in spirit (verse three) – the need to restore national pride in society; those who mourn (verse four) – the need to remember and help the victims of the conflict in Ireland; the meek (verse five) – the need to help the working class, and for the rich to invest their wealth in helping those less well off in society; they which do hunger (verse six) – the need to combat growing poverty in society, and also provide a sound educational and health system for all; the merciful (verse seven) – the need for a fair and accountable justice system; the pure in heart (verse eight) – the need to restore the moral fabric of society, to encourage family values and implement the concept of society’s conscience; peacemakers (verse nine) – the need for compromise and respect of people’s views based on the concept of accommodation, not capitulation; the persecuted (verse 10) – the need for members, activists and voters of the Irish Christian Party to have the courage to stand up for their beliefs; when men shall revile you (verse 11) – the need for a free press with responsible regulation.
Taken as an overall Beatitudes-based manifesto, the Irish Christian Party is about the creation of the concept of Christian citizenship. Under this concept, compulsory voting – as exists in Australia – would be introduced to Ireland.
Tragically, Christianity in Ireland has become bogged down in recent years over theological debates about women clerics, translations of the Bible, abortion, gay marriage, relations with Islam, and even petty issues such as should women wear hats to church, and how “loud’ in colour should men’s ties be before they can enter a church building.
Christians have even “gone to theological war” with each other over the type of worship coming from the pews, with traditionalists favouring the old fashioned hymns and psalms from the 19th century, with modernisers (especially the Pentecostalist factions) opting for the 21st century lively tunes, often referred to as Hill Songs.
Ironically, extreme Christian fundamentalists – particularly from the militant pro-life lobby – have coined the perfect rallying call which can see the birth of an Irish Christian Party.
It is based on the abbreviation WWJD? –What Would Jesus Do? Where Marxism can be accused of trying to remove religion from politics, the Irish Christian Party seeks to put the teachings of Jesus back into political thinking.
The big problem that many evangelicals and fundamentalists have long-faced as Christian socialists, trying to implement the teachings of Jesus Christ, is to find a political vehicle to expound those views.
Being a Christian socialist in Ireland is a tough challenge, given that the island of Ireland has been at war with itself for the past eight centuries, as two of the largest Christian denominations, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, battle for supremacy.
Hopefully, the Irish Christian Party can be a way forward. But practically, how would such a party function? Should Christians even be getting involved in politics, or should they concentrate more on spreading the Gospel message through traditional means, such as evangelical and beach missions? Here’s the fundamental issues to address:
➤The role of a Christian in politics should be an extension of their Christian faith where constituency work is about caring for the needs of people.
➤The key approach is not one of condemnation, but asking the question – what would Jesus do?
➤The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel is one of the best agendas for social action which both politicians and churches can follow.
➤Are Christians having to go into politics because the churches are not being given the chance to fulfil their pastoral and caring roles in society?
➤Note the role of Christophobia in society – persecution against Christians. Key issues which may come up – gay marriage, blood donations from gay men, gay adoption, divorce, assisted suicide, abortion, LGBT in churches, the churches and the EU, Christian assembly in schools, faith schools, going to war, relations with other faiths, eg Islam.
➤Biblically, John 3 verse 16 is about freedom of choice – we chose or reject salvation; the same Christian principle should be applied in politics.
➤People make choices – if they chose a gay lifestyle, then they must accept the challenges that go with it – just as those who accept a heterosexual lifestyle live with the challenges which that brings.
➤Why single out the LGBT community? are we saying the heterosexual community does not face the same challenges? Christian politicians have to see the concept of the ‘person’ – what are their needs and challenges? For example, cancer can hit all sections of society irrespective of gender or sexuality.
➤What about people who feel the need to self-harm or take their own lives? Again, what would Jesus do?
➤Many in the heterosexual community feel this is the only solution too? We have a responsibility as Christians in politics to see the people behind these issues; our role is to help, not hinder.
➤Equally, there is a responsibility of sections of society not to force their views on others – freedom of choice.
➤Abortion – pro-life, but recognise the medical dangers in pregnancy. People must first ask themselves – does life begin at conception or birth?
➤Each person must address that issue according to their own conscience. The 1967 Abortion Act should not be used as an alternative form of contraception.
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com