In 2017, I penned an article for The Times in which I suggested that Christians of all denomination may become so disillusioned with the liberal and secular drift of existing political parties, that evangelicals and fundamentalists may consider forming their own cross-border Christian Party in Ireland to represent what is steadily becoming a theological minority across this island:
Obviously, mention the words Church and State, and Politics and Religion in the same context, especially in Ireland, north and south, it is bound to spark one heck of a heated debate between those who want the Christian faith to have an even bigger say in democratic politics, versus those who think the island has suffered too much from the Christian Churches having a say in political life.
Perhaps in this debate on the role of Christianity in politics, we Christians - especially from the born again theological perspective - have been our own worst enemies.
Ironically, it was the famous Indian Hindu nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi who best summed up the political dilemma we Christians have now found ourselves in: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Whilst the Christians Churches have helped many people over the centuries, how many people have abandoned their Christian faith because of their experiences in the Christian Churches?
God Willing, I will see my 64th birthday this year. I became a born again Christian at the age of 12. But I also recall how so-called Christians made an example out of me in my teenage years, simply because I was a Presbyterian minister’s son.
When I reflect on my years as a teenage born again Christian, there may have been a handful of incidents when the so-called ‘unsaved’ would have mocked me for being a believer, but the overwhelming majority of verbal and physical abuse I suffered for being a minister’s son came from Christians!
Indeed, reflecting on what I now consider to be the ‘silly incidents’ over which Christians got their ‘knickers in a twist’ over my behaviour as a minister’s son in that north east Ulster Bible Belt in the Sixties and Seventies, I fully understand what Karl Marx was hinting at when he noted that religion is “the opiate of the masses”.
After being once punched in the face by a Presbyterian elder as an example to other lads in my Sunday school class, and a thug kicking me from behind in my lower back in a church hall one Sunday morning simply because I was the minister’s son, leaving me on lifelong medication and a life of back pain, I used to sarcastically smile when visiting Christian missionaries would encourage us to pray for the Persecuted Church. I often wondered; how about praying for those who are being persecuted By the Church!
I didn’t need to travel thousands of miles to communist China or Soviet Russia to get persecuted; all I had to do was walk a few yards into a local Presbyterian church hall and I could have all the persecution I could endure.
The clerical abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and the Puritan interpretations of Scripture by fundamentalist Protestant denominations and halls have inevitably contributed to the decline in the attraction and influence of the Christian Churches.
Sunday attendances have been dwindling over the decades and even some denominations themselves are having difficulty recruiting clerics.
Ironically, one of the best political manifestos for any party was Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as outlined in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, also known as the Beatitudes.
Indeed, I remember the storm of criticism which befell me for suggesting when I was Ireland columnist for Tribune magazine that Jesus Christ was the first communist and the link was carried on a former loyalist prisoners’ website.
My assertion was that Karl Marx, the founder of communism, merely took the ethos of the Beatitudes, removed God, and ‘hey presto’, there was Marxism in a nutshell!
Naturally, among hardline fundamentalism, to suggest a link between Christianity and socialism is tantamount to theological heresy. Indeed, it was not uncommon for some fundamentalists within the DUP to refer to the Left-leaning Progressive Unionist Party as the ‘Shankill Soviet’!
Just as the influence of the Holy Orders within the Catholic Church, such as Opus Dei, the Jesuits, Passionists or Redemptorists, has declined since the turn of the new millennium, so there is equal weight to the suggestion that pressure groups within Protestantism, such as the Evangelical Protestant Society, Caleb Foundation, or Evangelical Alliance, and even the Loyal Orders, such the mainstream Orange and Black institutions, as well as the Independent Orange Order, have also witnessed a decline in their sphere of influence.
Perhaps what is needed is not another political party, nor realignment of Christian thinking, nor even a new pressure group, but a mobilisation of the Christian voter base within Northern Ireland.
At one time, the Free Presbyterian Church - founded by the late Rev Ian Paisley in 1951 - was dubbed ‘the DUP at prayer’. Its influence on the party cannot be underestimated during the Paisley senior era. For example, in the 1984 European elections, Rev Paisley amassed 230,251 first preference votes across Northern Ireland.
In 2001, when the Free Presbyterian Church commemorated its half century, it was estimated its membership and church attendance was somewhere between 11,000 and 16,000.
Indeed, given the 66,000 first preference votes which North Antrim MLA Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party gained in the May 2022 Stormont election, there have been allegations that some fundamentalist churches may have become ‘the TUV at prayer’.
In the republican community, the pro-life party - Aontu- which evolved from Sinn Fein has made very little inroads into the nationalist vote on an anti-abortion ticket. Likewise, within the pro-Union community, there is little political appetite for a Protestant Reformation Party as existed in mainland England several decades ago.
So how realistically can the Christian Churches have a voice in modern day politics? The answer is to copy the example of the civil rights movement, especially in southern American states, in the 1960s - mobilise, get registered and ensure you vote on polling day!
Realistically, too, Christians are so theologically divided on issues, such as the role of women, baptism, definitions of marriage, musical tastes, fashion, how to get to heaven, what is hell, and Bible translations, to name a few that probably the first item on the agenda of the inaugural meeting of the Christian Mobilisation Front would be - the split!
However, if there is one issue which Christians of all theological shades could agree on, it is the importance of Christ’s teachings in the Beatitudes. A Christian Mobilisation Front (CMF) could campaign to challenge candidates where they stood on the Beatitudes and only those candidates who supported the content of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount would get the CMF’s vote, and what a difference that could create in the make-up of our political chambers.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.