Belfast preacher’s views of Islam
When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote back in the 1500s that “We suppose that Antichrist, the head of all these evil men, is the pope of Rome” he could probably be said to have launched that most vigorous tradition of evangelical, hellfire-and-brimstone Protestant invective that has found its latest controversial representative in Belfast’s Pastor James McConnell.
The truth is that when McConnell, in the vast Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road in Belfast , described Islam as the “spawn of hell”, and prompted the mother of all rows, he was actually only echoing the language of his forerunners since Cranmer, Calvin, and even the manifesto of the reform faith, the Westminster Confession of Faith, in describing what they believe to be a profound truth about either the papacy or Islam. Not an insult, however hurtful, they will insist, but a sad truth, no matter how much others might see in it an expression of deep prejudice and a licence for hatred and even violence.
In 1988 the Rev Ian Paisley even disrupted a speech by Pope John Paul II in the European Parliament to denounce him as the Antichrist. And many Catholics in the North will have been all too familiar with this kind of language, though may well have felt it largely a thing of the past.
The deeply vulnerable Muslim community, however, many of whose members in the North have faced racist attacks on themselves and their homes, deserves to be protected. In Europe the rise of the Islamophobe right has also fed on similar deeply ignorant misreadings of their faith whose bizarre articulation on TV by Pastor McConnell was almost as shocking as his language.
The longevity of that evangelical tradition of invective – or blunt expression of theological “truths”, if you will – does not, of course, mean that such speech, or those politicians inclined to excuse it, should get a pass on public opprobrium or hate speech law. Times have changed, moved on. Society now recognises that an aspiration to freedom of speech should be qualified by a prohibition on pouring petrol on a fire.
Political leaders in particular, no less than First Minister Peter Robinson, whose half-hearted apology must be acknowledged, have a responsibility to give expression to values such as parity of esteem that underpin the construction of a peaceful society in the North. That does not have to mean suppressing real differences, but expressing them in a language that does not invite or incite hatred. Pastor McConnell must also try to recognise the hurt he has caused, perhaps unintentionally, and with his fellow evangelicals explore new ways of expressing the biblical truths he holds so dear that do not mean fanning the flames of religious sectarianism.