Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast has gone and done it. He declared in a sermon that: “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”. Golly. Not since the Rev Ian Paisley got the boot into the pope as Old Redsocks and indeed as the Scarlet Woman herself have we heard anything quite so robust in the way of religious rhetoric. (Oddly enough, there was something almost lyrical about it; he had lovely cadences.) But the anti-popery tradition is precisely the context these remarks should be seen in. Evangelical Protestantism has a thing about false prophets; it also has a thing about telling it like it is. For most of its history it self-defined against Catholicism; Islam is just being judged by the same austere criteria of whether it accepts Jesus as a personal Lord and saviour…and I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t.
Goes without saying, doesn’t it, that the natural response of the police is to investigate the Rev McConnell’s remarks as a hate crime. The remarkable thing about the episode however is that the pastor has been defended by the First Minister Peter Robinson, who says he doesn’t have “an ounce of hate in his body”. Moreover, he robustly declared that he himself had a problem with Muslims in terms of terrorism and sharia law, though obviously he’d trust them to go down to the shops for him…ie and bring back the change. This is so hair-raisingly un-PC, so riotously non-conformist, you have to salute Mr Robinson. It takes an Ulster Protestant to state the obvious from an evangelical point of view; that pastors have a duty to identify false prophets. If he’d been given the chance to elaborate, he’d probably point out that the Koran repeatedly denounces the very idea of the Incarnation and gives the Resurrection short shrift. So, in the strict sense of false prophesy, you can’t fault his logic.
Now I need hardly say – need I? – that I come from a different end of the pitch, being a left-footer, a Taig. But I’m right with Mr Robinson when he tells the Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness where to get off on all this. Mr McGuinness has expressed his shock, his distaste, his outrage, at Pastor McConnell’s sentiments; Mr Robinson says he’s not going to take lessons on anything from someone so mired in terrorism as Martin McG. And he’s right. While you weren’t looking, Sinn Fein has morphed from a republican party with a close association with the IRA and a natural grounding in the Catholic community, into the most irritatingly politically correct body – north and south of the border – you will encounter. It’s Harriet Harman with a thing about the Easter Rising. But there is the taint of terrorism there. And this being so, I would, if I were Mr McGuinness, go easy on clambering onto the moral high ground; I would let evangelical Protestants be evangelical Protestants.
As for the hate crime thing, I think it should be fought tooth and nail on the simple grounds of religious freedom. Pastor McConnell is, from the biblical and evangelical perspective, entirely within his rights to condemn Islam on the basis of its own tenets. Indeed he may consider he has a duty to do so. I wouldn’t have dreamt of preventing him sounding off about popery in the old days – and I am simply assuming that, like Ian Paisley, he would have given it short shrift; he shouldn’t be gagged now when he turns his Protestant fire elsewhere.