Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Creationist Bible group and its web of influence at Stormont

The links between the highest levels of Government in Northern Ireland and a small Biblical fundamentalist pressure group can today be revealed by The Belfast Telegraph.

The Caleb Foundation’s agenda includes creationism being offered in science classes and all new laws based on a literal reading of the Bible.

Caleb has been called Peter Robinson’s ‘Militant Tendency’, a lobby group with the ability to push policy away from his liberal agenda.

Instead, Wallace Thompson, its chairman, believes Caleb is championing God’s agenda on such issues as the inclusion of creationism in schools and museums.

He envisages a puritanical society which would rule out abortion for rape victims, ban gay marriage as well as closing shops and restricting sport on Sundays.

For a small lobby group representing a fundamentalist minority of the population, Caleb has had a strong record of recent policy successes, particularly with DUP ministers.

There is no suggestion that there is anything improper in Caleb’s lobbying. Issues it has successfully lobbied on include reform on prostitution laws, the inclusion of a creationism exhibit in the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre, raising the price of alcohol and limiting opening hours, tightening up the abortion laws to exclude rape and foetal abnormality and banning of gay adoption.

Mr Thompson said that they did not specifically lobby for a gay blood ban, but “approved of the position of the minister” Edwin Poots.

Mr Poots, the Health Minister, is one of several politicians who have joined the Caleb Facebook group and who Mr Wallace describes as “the sort of people who would identify with our agenda on a raft of things”.

Besides Mr Poots, a number of other top unionist politicians are listed as Facebook friends. Mr Thompson confirmed that they sympathised with the issues the group supports.

They include another minister (Nelson McCausland), a junior minister (Jonathan Bell), an MEP (Diane Dodds), an MP (Gregory Campbell) and two other DUP MLAs (Paul Givan and Stephen Moutray, who is also mayor of Craigavon), as well as Jim Allister, the TUV leader, and Sammy Morrison, his Press officer.

Mr Thompson added that Mervyn Storey, the DUP education spokesman, is a Free Presbyterian representative on the organisation’s ruling council of reference (CR).

David Simpson, the DUP MP, is also a leading young Earth creationist who is close to Caleb and has employed David McConaghie, a former CR chairman, in his office. Mr Thompson himself is a former adviser to Nigel Dodds and his daughter Sharon is married to Mr Dodds’ son.

He believes the list “reflects the fact that the DUP has been the main voice on the issues that we have been pursuing and on the abortion issue”. He stressed that the politicians “are not in our pockets, but are simply evangelical Christians who share our concerns”. Even at that, this represents the sort of high-level political access and influence that most lobbyists would envy.

“Those politicians are getting elected and I suppose people know what they are voting for,” he said.

Mr Thompson sees Caleb using its influence with them to push in a clear direction. “Ideally all legislation should reflect biblical morality,” he said, conceding that “politics is the art of the possible and we recognise that we are where we are and the law will not always reflect the morality we want to reflect”.

He believes every word of the Bible is literally and historically true, and that all who are not born- again Christians will go to hell. That sense of mission lends urgency to his work.

“We want to see our nation and our province built upon biblical foundations that will bring blessings to people. We would prefer, for example, to see shops closed on a Sunday to give the workers the right to have some time with their family,” he said.

On the issue of abortion, Mr Thompson endorses Jim Wells' recent statement that it should not be allowed in the case of either rape or foetal abnormality.

“I don’t think the mother should be given the right to murder someone. Where do you draw the line? It is a living soul from conception. Whether I am the mother of the child or not, I have no right to decide what will happen to another living human being,” he said.

‘It’s more of a rallying point... you can’t be a card-carrying member’

By Liam clarke

The Caleb Foundation was established in 1998 by a group of biblical evangelical Christians who believed their views were being shut out of the media.

In the early years it promoted itself as non-political group whose main mission was to ensure that biblical fundamentalist perspectives were not shut out of newspaper and radio debates. Wallace Thompson — the chairman of Caleb — represents the Evangelical Protestant Society.

He lobbied BBC’s religious affairs department for inclusion in programmes like Sunday Sequence and Thought For the Day, which he felt were dominated by more liberal and ecumenical religious groups. It showed him the power of lobbying and putting forward a reasoned case.

Caleb was founded by members of smaller churches. “Those who had an interest in the work met in Ballymoney in February 1998 and then it was launched in October. Nobody comes with an official mandate from their church. We are very aware of that, but they would usually come with a degree of blessing. We try to get a balance across the various churches and if you see a gap you try to fill it.”

So Caleb is more of a network or a rallying point than a structured organisation? “You can’t be card-carrying member,” said Mr Thompson.

Many of the politicians who have chosen to associate themselves with Caleb won’t feel themselves bound by its line on every issue, but they are part of its informal network.

By far the largest group on Caleb’s council of reference (CR) is the Free Presbyterian Church which holds seven of its 22 places. This alone cements its links with the DUP. Rev Ron Johnston (right), the Free Presbyterian Moderator, is on the CR along with six other Church representatives. These include the Press officer David Mc Conaghie as well as Mervyn Storey, the DUP education spokesman.

Other denominations represented on the CR include Congregational, Independent Methodist, Baptists, Congregational Reformed, Elim, Church of the Nazarene and Evangelical Presbyterian.

They are united by a literal reading of the Bible. Mr Thompson feels that the narrative unravels if you treat the creation story “as an allegory or a poem” as some clergy do nowadays. “The Bible makes it very clear that death entered into the world by sin and sin came about by the fall of man. If you have a long number of years before Adam you have difficulty in explaining how death was there before he sinned in Eden,” he said.

He suspects that fossils — carbon dated as evidence of an older Earth — are really debris left by Noah’s flood and believes children in science and geography classes should receive this teaching alongside the normal evidence-based curriculum so that they can make up their own minds.

The rock the DUP was built on, but now ‘the Caliban’ may cost votes

By Liam Clarke

Fundamentalism is an ugly word. “It has been tainted with the Islamic thing,” Wallace Thompson believes.

Still, privately, supporters of the Caleb Foundation call the organisation ‘the Caliban’, a reference to the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban organisation.

They are joking, but the analogy has a point.

Where the Taliban is pushing for an ultra hardline version of Sharia law based on its own reading of the Koran, Caleb wants to see a Bible-based society with every law measured against scripture.

It isn’t a liberal interpretation of the Bible, but a literal one.

“The Bible is the inspired, infallible and inerrant word of God. It is final in its authority. None may add thereto or take away therefrom except at their own peril,” reads Caleb’s statement of faith.

Caleb’s God is a God of vengeance who will visit “eternal conscious punishment of the unregenerate in hell”, according to the statement.

It is the message upheld by the handful of smaller Protestant denominations who are represented on Caleb’s 22-strong council Of reference.

Its views deserve to be debated and they are quite open about them. It is only one lobby group; the Evangelical Alliance is another Christian organisation which espouses some of the same causes as Caleb.

Equally, there are many liberal and secular groups who have lobbyists to push their own partisan agendas at Stormont.

Caleb is worth focusing on because it is more influential than people realise and because, as Mr Thompson concedes, many of the views it espouses are losing ground in the wider society, and even among evangelical Christians.

Mr Wallace said: “While some of the evangelical churches are growing, I am not sure that there is the same enthusiasm for some of the moral issues. I get the feeling that there are people in the evangelical churches who are quite happy to be evangelicals but don’t want to get into any controversy at all.”

This is an organisation fighting a fairly successful rearguard action against the liberalising and secularising tide of history.

It can’t take us back to the days when the swings were chained up on Sunday and Belfast was described as a “city of religious nightclubs”.

It is pragmatic enough to know that, but it can hope to restrict Sunday opening of shops, change the licensing laws, raise the price of drink, hold back homosexual law reform, push the cause of creationism in public buildings and clamp down on abortion.

“We are sensitive to realise that what we would really like we probably won’t get,” Mr Thompson said.

“But it doesn’t stop us campaigning for the upholding of those standards. We are very much a minority, we are probably more on the fringes than when we started out but we can present our case in terms of what benefits will flow from these things; we are not just rabid fundamentalists who are out to make everyone unhappy.”

There is no doubt that Caleb’s political programme is all about religion. Mr Thompson has said: “I am unionist primarily because I see it as the best way to preserve my evangelical Protestant heritage and principles”, and that he would withdraw his allegiance to the crown if the monarch was a Catholic.

These are legitimate views but they are not the modern centre party, attractive to Catholics for its positive pro-business principles, which Peter Robinson promised.

Caleb and its supporters have votes too and they are entitled to the political influence which that brings. In many ways Caleb and its principles represents the rock on which the DUP was built, defining its identity and providing many of its hardest workers in the early years.

The question is whether Mr Robinson can satisfy this traditional constituency and still retain the more liberal votes he needs to keep him ahead of Sinn Fein.

What the politicians say about Caleb

Nelson McCausland

“The Caleb Foundation is representative of many Evangelical Christian churches in Northern Ireland, and as an Evangelical Christian I appreciate the work they do in representing that broad inter-denominational community.”

Mervyn Storey

“I have been a member of the (Caleb) Foundation since it was formed. I was vice-chairman for a few years. They are an organisation that represents the views of the small evangelical churches in Northern Ireland.”

Jim Allister

“I'm generally supportive of their issues. Yes, I would not mind being described as that (a supporter of the Caleb Foundation).

“I would have met with them from time to time... to discuss political issues with a religious tinge.

“I'm also not uncritical of them. I have had issue where they take a very commendable stand on a number of moral issues, but they shy away... from the moral issue of whether it is right to have convicted terrorists in the government.”

Gregory Campbell

“There are a number of evangelical Protestant groups who I would support, and Caleb is among them.

“I have never been asked to join the group or subscribe. I am not a member. I see their newsletter and I follow their campaigns.”

Edwin Poots

“I’m not a member (of the Caleb Foundation). I have my own views. Some of my views coincide with the Caleb Foundation.

“Some of my views also coincide with the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church.

“I’m a public representative. I stand on issues.

“What my personal views are on these matters are that — and I get on with the work I have in an impartial way.”

Sammy Morrison

“There are no TUV members in the Caleb Foundation. But I would say that I would invariably find myself in support of what they are saying.

“As a public representative and as an individual I have no problem with that. Yes, it’s appropriate.

“I think our (the party’s) position on issues like gay marriage is clear.

“When I ran to be an elected representative, I spoke about abortion in my election material.”

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