Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Why Good Book could be bad news for DUP

The Culture Minister’s promotion of a literal biblical agenda risks narrowing his party’s base as it reaches out to the wider unionist family, writes Liam Clarke

Nelson McCausland’s leaked missive to the Ulster Museum, in which he asks that creationism be given equal billing with evolution, isn’t just an isolated case.

It is the latest round in an agenda-driven campaign to hold the DUP to its Free Presbyterian roots, and use it to promote fundamentalist religious views across a wide area of civil society.

Anyone in doubt of this need only look up the website of the Caleb Foundation, which announces that “Caleb Spearheads Campaign for Equality in Ulster Museum” and details contacts it had with McCausland, the Culture Minister, shortly before he |intervened with the museum. The site spells out a wider agenda centred around belief in the literal truth of the Bible.

Caleb’s ruling Council of Reference is dominated by Free Presbyterian clergy, including the moderator Ron Johnston, and DUP activists. Other members identify themselves as belonging to smaller Protestant denominations or the Evangelical Protestant Society.

The mainstream Methodist, Presbyterian, and Church of Ireland denominations are absent. Caleb’s aims and beliefs are very similar to religious Right pressure groups in the US.

There is nothing wrong with like-minded people joining |together like this, and Caleb deserves credit for being so open about its aims and membership.

They tend to be bright, able people, not dim-witted or |humourless bigots. One member told me that they often refer to themselves as ‘the Caleban’ — a reference to the Taliban who imposed a fundamentalist form of Islam on Afghanistan.

It is just an in-joke, but there is no doubt that Caleb is a highly politicised group of religious fundamentalists. It has considerable clout within the province’s largest party, which it used to promote the teaching of creationism, not just in schools, but in public institutions like the museum and the Giants Causeway visitors’ centre, as well as lobbying on such issues as abortion, the extension of gay rights, and Sunday sport.

Describing its role within the DUP, one member of Caleb, the Free Presbyterian Church, and the DUP told me in January that “the [Free Presbyterian] Church needs to be able to castigate the DUP when it believes it is doing something that is not consistent with Biblical views. Big issues are coming up in terms of transgender rights, abortion, the whole equality agenda, and the issue of creationism in schools”.

Caleb is also plugged into the loyal Orders. For instance, the late George Dawson, a DUP politician and the Grand Master of the Independent Orange Order, was a member of Caleb, and Rev Ron Johnston is an Orange chaplain.

It should be no surprise because they are basically like-minded organisations, and it’s natural that they should make common cause. For instance, Nelson |McCausland, an Orangeman with long-standing links to the religious Right, was lobbied by both the Order and Caleb before writing to the museum to promote measures favoured by both.

In some areas, he had a point. The Montgomery Hamilton settlement, a huge influx of Scots planters, could have featured in the museum’s Plantation to Power Sharing display. It is also arguable that the Orange Order’s role could have featured more prominently. In a sense, though, that is not the point. McCausland is a Stormont minister charged with administering taxpayers’ money impartially. It would be wise to maintain a line between his private beliefs, in this case as a biblical fundamentalist and an Orangeman, and his dealings with public bodies which his department funds.

An Oxford graduate, McCausland has spent so long in partisan pressure groups that it may be hard to make the adjustment to government.

He cut his political teeth highlighting the growth of the Catholic population in north Belfast, has promoted the doctrine that the Ulster Scots are amongst the Lost Tribes of Israel, and worked for years promoting Sabbatarianism for a living in the Lord’s Day Observance Society.

Caleb plays a role within the DUP analogous to the old Militant Tendency within the Labour party. Its narrow agenda has a similar capacity to limit the DUP’s |potential in elections as well as embarrassing senior politicians.

Wallace Thompson, a leader of Caleb, had the good sense to leave his job as a special adviser to Nigel Dodds after publicly denouncing the Pope as the anti-Christ.

Thompson is now chair of Caleb, and works part-time for the Evangelical Protestant Society.

Caleb has friends in high places. Mervyn Storey, chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee, is a member, as is David |McConaghie, a minister in the Free Presbyterian Church and |an adviser to David Simpson, |the DUP MP for Upper Bann.

Simpson is currently promoting a DUP consultation exercise aimed at increasing ‘collaboration between the Stormont administration and the faith sector’. It aims to involve religiously-motivated groups in the delivery of public services and steering public funds towards ‘churches and |related organisations [who] do not on conscience grounds seek funding from lottery sources’.

This is a gesture towards fundamentalist groups, and a clear bid to push a puritanical agenda.

Pushing a narrow biblical agenda may seem like the best use of political power for groups like Caleb.

But doing so has the capacity to narrow the DUP’s base, painting it as the cranky party just as it attempts to build support and unite unionism before next year’s Assembly elections.

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