By Jack Holland
During the Senate hearings on John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general, no one raised the connection between the nominee, President George W. Bush, and the Ulster loyalist firebrand, the Rev. Ian Paisley. All have (or had) links to Bob Jones University in South Carolina.
Paisley received an honorary degree in divinity from there in 1966. Ashcroft received an honorary degree from the same establishment in 1999, and Bush spoke there last year during the primaries.
An association, however distant, between the new administration and the man who many hold responsible for helping to bring about the Northern Ireland crisis, and whose name among Irish Catholics is synonymous with sectarianism, deserves to be examined, especially since, according to U.S. News And World Report, 46 percent of all registered Republicans are Catholics.
In some ways, it is not such a surprising association. After all, the "Bible belt" begins in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, and runs all the way through South Carolina and beyond, into Texas. Fundamentalist Protestantism is as much a fact of life in the U.S. as it is in Northern Ireland. In the form of Paisley, it has exercised a malign and at times deadly influence on events, one that has been well documented over the last 30 or more years. But more than anything, Paisleyism is an example of the dangers of mixing religion and politics, an issue that comes up often in the U.S., most recently at the Senate hearings to confirm Ashcroft.
Protestant fundamentalism, in most of its varieties, is a political and social crusade, as well as a religious one. Paisley’s evolution illustrates this. He is both the founder of a church, the Free Presbyterian, in 1951, and a political party, the Democratic Unionist Party, created 20 years later. He stands at the head of both. Both church and party have the same enemy: Roman Catholicism. Before the party existed, Paisley preached sermons attacking the civil rights movement as a manifestation of the IRA, and the IRA, according to him, was the armed wing of the Vatican.
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Fundamentalists (in Ulster and the U.S.) like all their enemies rolled into one big one. Just as they see no difference between communists, liberals, IRA gunmen, feminists, Catholic priests, environmentalists, homosexuals and the National Endowment for the Arts, they see no separation between church and state: the state should be doing God’s will, as revealed in the bible.
Ashcroft gave what could be interpreted as an example of this when he spoke at Bob Jones University commencement on May 8, 1999.
"Unique among the nations," he said, according to the report by the Associated Press, "America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus."
He drew a distinction between those "cultures" whose standard is the civil authority and those whose standard is God. The first leads to "criminality, destruction, thievery, the lowest and the least." But from the culture that "has no King but Jesus . . . you release the eternal, you release the highest and best, you release virtue, you release potential."
This seems to mean that America derives its uniqueness from a divine power, not from the fact that it was the first republican constitution in modern times.
Paisley derives his mission from the divine authority of the bible that teaches him to oppose the Great Whore of Babylon (i.e. the Pope) and all its manifestations, including, in 1968, the civil rights movement.
Bob Jones University teaches the same thing. Its attitude to Catholicism, like Paisley’s, is derived from the Bible, the word of God.
"We stand upon the Bible, we love Jesus Christ, and we train graduates to be men and women of biblically governed character with high moral ideals and loyal to the flag," wrote Bob Jones III in a letter to Rep. Peter King in March 2000 after King had protested an invitation to Paisley to speak at a university conference. The letter accuses King of being a fascist for having the "audacity" to protest against a man "in the line of the Protestant reformers."
Paisley sees no conflict between his role as head of a political party and head of the church. Northern Ireland has been viewed by loyalists as "a Protestant state for a Protestant people," so the overlap between the political and the religious was always there.
During the Senate hearings, Ashcroft was asked about his "King Jesus" remark and said he was quoting "what the colonists were saying at the time of the American Revolution" to taunt the emissaries of King George III. He went on to argue that the "ultimate authority, the ultimate idea of freedom, in America is not governmentally derived."
The freedoms that Americans enjoy are surely derived from the constitution, a secular document, wrought by men in the face of those who were asserting divine right embodied in one form of government: Monarchy. In fact, the United States was borne out of a struggle against a power (Britain) in which divine and temporal authority was united, in the shape of the king. The struggle was part of the 18th century Enlightenment, when the liberal revolution challenged the absolute monarchs of Europe to create the civic, consensus-based societies that became the Western democracies. As Thomas Paine asserted in "Common Sense," the pamphlet that inspired the American revolutionaries, in absolute monarchies the King was law, but in a civic society the law was King.
There is no problem with believing that an idea, such as freedom, is of divine inspiration. The problem comes when you assert that there is an actual, legal document that embodies that divinely inspired idea. The ultimate authority becomes religious, not secular, in what is a very secular matter. Then you have, once more, the danger of a sort of absolutism, where the secular and the divine are united.
Ashcroft, when asked by the Senate about Bob Jones University, refused to say he would not go back there again to speak if asked, even though he now knew about its reputation. Bush took a different line last year and affirmed he would not return. Given the links between the university and Paisley, who has visited it 50 times, might not Irish Americans — regardless of what they think of Protestant fundamentalism — be offended at the thought of a high-ranking official in the administration associating with an institution that welcomes a man who many hold responsible for sparking off the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland?
(A spokesman for Bob Jones University refused to give answer questions about the link between the university and Paisley.)