On today’s BBC Radio Ulster programme, Sunday Sequence, I discussed with Free Presbyterian minister Rev. David McIlveen, and former editor of the News Letter Austin Hunter, how the Robinson scandal may change Northern Irish social, political and religious culture.
Rev McIlveen, a senior Free Presbyterian cleric who is a close confidant of former DUP party leader the Rev. Ian Paisley, said that Iris Robinson’s conduct had damaged the public witness of conservative evangelicalism.
Rev McIlveen expressed sympathy for the Robinsons’ personal situation. But he acknowledged that the charges of hypocrisy stemming from Mrs Robinson’s sexual behaviour won’t do much to improve the way conservative evangelicals are perceived by others.
Rev McIlveen’s concern may be shared by many conservative evangelicals, who believe that their mission of spreading the gospel – getting people ‘saved’ or converted to Christianity – is paramount. In the interview with presenter William Crawley, Rev McIlveen also implied that the scandal could detract from conservative evangelicals’ mission to promote one of the causes to which he has personally devoted much attention, opposition to homosexuality.
If conservative evangelicals’ reputations are indeed tarnished by association with Mrs Robinson, I think that this could reinforce the pietist strand within Northern Irish evangelicalism.
Pietist evangelicals are those who have basically decided that the rough and tumble of secular political life is not suitable for Christians. In order to remain pure and untarnished by the world, they organise their lives around church activities and have little meaningful social contact with people outside that immediate circle.
In our research, Dr Claire Mitchell and I interviewed pietist evangelicals who see a government with Sinn Fein in power as morally impure. They interpret this as a ‘sign of the times’ and the ‘last days’ before Jesus returns. If Jesus is coming back so soon, it means that social and political activism is not important to them. They are waiting for God to sort things out.
We met pietists who had recently abandoned politically active roles because they had become so disillusioned with the politics of the peace process. The Robinson scandal has the potential to prompt more conservative evangelicals to take that route. They may have voted for the DUP because they believed they were a trustworthy party, guided by men and women who lived by Christian principles. Now, perhaps they think they cannot trust even the DUP.
On the other hand, conservative evangelicals may throw their support behind Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Doing so, however, would mean that the evangelical influence within the DUP is reduced even further. This could signal a further fracturing of unionism, and a decline in the influence of evangelicalism within the wider unionist political culture.
(In the full Sunday Sequence interview, Mr Crawley asks Rev McIlveen if his statement that Peter Robinson’s position as First Minister is untenable is a reflection of Rev Paisley’s views; and Mr Hunter argues that the Robinson scandal has changed irrevocably the way the media covers Northern Irish politics).