'The Caleb Foundation could do much worse than have Wallace Thompson at the helm'
In 2012, the Belfast Telegraph's late political editor Liam Clarke described the controversial Christian lobby group as 'the rock on which the DUP was built'. Here, California postgraduate student Michael Avila brings the story up to date
It has been six years since the late Liam Clarke published his article on the Caleb Foundation in the Belfast Telegraph, revealing the Christian lobbyist group's "web of influence" within the DUP. Considering that the foundation's website has officially gone offline, it is fitting that a re-evaluation of this organisation is necessary in the modern landscape of Northern Ireland's politics.
The Caleb Foundation was formed in 1998 to give the smaller evangelical Churches a voice in local politics. Caleb has traditionally lobbied against abortion and same-sex marriage. The foundation's chairman, Wallace Thompson, prefers to classify the lobby group predominantly as an ethical foundation, rather than an overtly religious one.
The organisation has included two DUP political advisers and two DUP MLAs, who served on Caleb's council of reference. Thompson himself is a former NIO civil servant.
The council also consists of 14 evangelical ministers who are united by a literal interpretation of the Bible and that those who do not believe in this way are headed for eternal damnation.
Encroaching on the 11th anniversary of devolution - and considering that devolved powers have, quite possibly, ran their course - it is necessary to evaluate some of the changes within Northern Ireland's political culture that have occurred since.
Caleb - the organisation which Clarke described as "the rock on which the DUP was built" - has failed to keep up with the province's increasingly secularising tide.
Whatever ties Caleb has had traditionally to the DUP have decreased recently, mostly due to what many evangelical Christians see as the DUP's catering to a more centrist stance in order to appeal to a wider audience. However, Caleb has also fallen victim to unfortunate circumstances and poor choices.
In 2007 Caleb lost one of its finest lobbyists, George Dawson MLA, to cancer. More recently, the lobby group lost a key member, ex-DUP adviser David McConaghie, to a voyeurism scandal in 2015. This further weakened the foundation's reputation.
Despite the frequent characterisation of evangelicals as unwavering bigots, it must be said that Thompson does not fit the mould. He is often self-critical of his organisation and embarrassed by some of the behaviour he has witnessed evangelicals partake in, especially of some of the inflammatory language he has heard cast at the LGBT community.
Thompson actually displayed an unbelievable amount of self-awareness. He is accepting of a pluralistic society and that he is in a "minority view".
"I have to accept that I can't always have what I want to have in terms of ethical standards in society. You would now find a more pragmatic approach, compared to 10 years ago."
Thompson also relayed to me that he has built some relationships with Catholics. It is fair to assume that Caleb has not had many interactions with the nationalist community throughout the years. But, if you were to ask Thompson about this subject, you would find, in fact, that you were wrong.
Past studies have shown that it was the most religious sections of society that were the least likely to interact socially. Thompson - reiterating that the Caleb Foundation is predominantly an ethical group - stated that he would be delighted to work with Catholics on social issues, a concept that would truly be transformative to Northern Ireland's peace process. Thompson still takes a stance against abortion and same-sex marriage. These two issues were mentioned more often throughout our talks than any other issue.
Although Thompson said that Christians should be reaching out to the LGBT community with a message of "gospel love and understanding", he also took this line, as also pointed out by Clarke in 2012: "Ideally, all legislation should reflect biblical morality. If we apply principles of society to moral and ethical things, society will improve exponentially."
The question should then be asked: is this actually what evangelicals are doing? Is concentrating on two social issues exemplary of implementing morals into society? Is this an example of attempting to build more respect and reconciliation into society? I would argue not.
Condemnation is rarely associated with morality. There was not a strong recognition that possibly the general focus of evangelicals was not that representative of all of the many virtues the Bible advocates. I am not arguing that Caleb members need to change their beliefs. However, I do believe the foundation is in need of transformation of its public persona. It is true that many young people are not as interested in religion as past generations, but it is necessary to be reflective of why this might be.
A large part of this has to do with the condemnation certain religious individuals have been guilty of, something that youth growing up in a more pluralistic society are rightfully sceptical of.
Transforming the concentration of organisations such as Caleb to more positive public messages may help evangelical organisations to stay relevant.
Certainly, these are things the Bible can support. And, if it is truly relevancy that evangelicals are attempting to preserve, then self-reflection must at some point give way to action. Otherwise, in the words of Thompson himself, you become "a group of well-meaning individuals that won't achieve much but talking".
A trend that I found within much of the conservative evangelical community was that, without an opposition, evangelicals struggle for relevance. I would highly doubt that this is the message that they truly want to convey.
It is certainly not a biblical message and this does not seem to be a view that a modernising youth in Northern Ireland much wants to listen to. Perhaps it is collaboration that ought to be fostered throughout the province.
This separation of oneself as "saved" v "damned" can be quite pervasive in society, especially in a post-conflict society, where many people are seeking reconciliation (something that Churches should be readily able to provide).
This separatism is, quite literally, a roadblock to a Christian's own agenda and prevents one from recognising the many avenues of actually being able to spread love to people in a pragmatic and impactful way.
It was refreshing to speak with a man willing to "journey" away from the more entrenched views of his peers and it seems obvious that the Caleb Foundation could do much worse than having Thompson at the helm.
Within a rapidly evolving society, the evangelical community's historical roots in Ulster are seemingly beginning to unravel.
It is up to men like Thompson to be able to adapt their messages to the needs of the public today - messages they so fervently believe society needs.
Michael Avila was a postgraduate student at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast, where he wrote his master's dissertation on the Caleb Foundation